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President Andrew Johnson: Bad News for Emancipation Era African-Americans-- Review of Annette Gordon-Reed's Andrew Johnson

"...The Southern secessionists were certainly unbalanced in mind--fit for medical treatment, like other victims of hallucination--haunted by suspicion, by idees fixes, by violent morbid excitement; but this was not all. They were stupendously ignorant of the world. As a class, the cotton-planters were mentally one-sided, ill-balanced, and provincial to a degree rarely known. . . ."(100)
---Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography By Henry Adams 1918 Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.]

If southern secessionists were unbalanced and ill-equipped for modern society, the pro-Union Andrew Johnson, also a southerner, shared many of their characteristics despite his social and emotional distance from them. Andrew Johnson was a rarity, a man born in a destitute poverty who, by dint of his own talent, effort, ambition, and, perhaps, good fortune, clawed his way to the top of the political mountain to become a governor, senator, and, finally, president during a time of national crisis.

His pro-Union stance at a critical time for a strategically important border state not only won him acclaim in the North, but also made him somewhat of a hero. His display of courage in defending his pro-Union stance against the violent opposition of the secessionists won him additional friends, supporters, and admirers. The frustration of the North, and of the Lincoln administration itself, with the pace of the war effort, and the key stakes in the 1864 presidential election, led to his selection as the Vice-presidential candidate to replace the incumbent Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin.

Andrew Johnson opens with a scene featuring black leader Frederick Douglass at Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration on March 4, 1865. Rain had made for a muddy mess that day in DC but record crowds still made it through ten-inch deep mud to witness the inaugural festivities. Douglas was in the crowd when President Andrew Johnson, who was to be sworn in as vice-president that same day, was sitting next to President Lincoln when he pointed Douglass out to Johnson. Douglass later wrote of this moment, "The first expression which came to his face, and which I think was the true index of his heart, was one of bitter contempt and aversion. Seeing that I had observed him, he tried to assume a more friendly appearance, but it was too late;. . . His first glance was the frown of the man; the second was the bland and sickly smile of the demagogue. I turned to Mrs. [Thomas J.] Dorsey and said, 'Whatever Andrew Johnson may be, he is no friend of our race.'"(2)

Gordon-Reed makes an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of presidential character. The personality and social-psychological history of Andrew Johnson proved significant to the fortunes of contemporary African-Americans. Gordon-Reed writes:

"...It is clear that Johnson's character--his basic personality if one prefers--made him spectacularly unsuited for the task handed to him on April 15, 1865 . . ." (6)

She maintained that, unlike Abraham Lincoln, Johnson's never overcame the impact of the grinding poverty and disrespect deriving from his status as a poor white in a racist slave society. His delicate social-psychological status could easily give rise to sudden outbursts of anger. "It was as though the give and take of talking things over with people, asking questions, might reveal doubt or uncertainty, weaknesses to be avoided at all costs for one so self-conscious about his origins. . . . "(9)

Andrew Johnson's origins as an impoverished white in a repressive slave society gave rise to his belief, not uncommon during the era, that "the planter aristocracy," in Gordon-Reed's words, "and their slaves" were engaged in some sort of "conspiracy to oppress poor white people" noting that he made this point to the black delegation led by Frederick Douglass that visited him at the White House. (11)

Gordon-Reed writes that the attitude expressed by Johnson toward "blacks, or 'niggers' as he termed them in private conversation, was resolutely negative. This fact must be counted as a crucial element of his character that mattered to his conduct as president. . . ." (12) This was not merely a problem of the lack of "racial enlightment" but, rather, one centered in emotional disposition of Johnson toward blacks. Like the rhetoric of Jefferson, Johnson viewed interracial sex and romance as a problem of national signficance. Indeed, he viewed sex between blacks and whites as perhaps the most horrible consequence of slavery.

Gordon-Reed's notion that the "idea of white supremacy gave people in the Johnson's social position a sense of identity that softened the reality of their downtrodden existence" is not a new one. It is one of the most enduring themes of black popular history. "Thinking one is superior to others, and acting that way, does not make it so," the author affirms. When this is combined with a dire material existence, the feeling of superiority is constantly under siege.(24) This must have seemed especially so after an ad was placed, very similar to the ads placed for runaway slaves during the era, for young Andrew and his brother William for being runaway apprentices. (27)

While hardly the monumental work that Annette Gordon-Reed achieved by writing The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, or Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, Andrew Johnson is nevertheless an important book as it provides more of a focus on the key factor of Johnson's personality in his presidential behavior. At the very end of the book she sums of those characteristics, so tragic for so many African-Americans coming out a brutal slavery.

" . . . We know the results of Johnson's failures--that his preternatural stubbornness, his mean and crude racism, his primitive and instrumental understanding of the Constitution stunted his capacity for enlightened and forward-thinking leadership when those qualities were so desperately needed. . . ." (144)

Selected Bibiography and Sources: Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography By Henry Adams 1918 Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.