Johnson, Andrew (1808–1875)

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JOHNSON, ANDREW (1808–1875)

Born in 1808, Andrew Johnson became a Tennessee legislator in 1833, congressman in 1843, governor in 1853, United States senator in 1856, Tennessee's military governor in 1862, Vice-President of the United States in March 1865, and, on abraham lincoln's death in April 1865, President. Early in his career Johnson mixed strict construction and states ' rights views with an unusually warm nationalism, stern loyalty to the Democratic party (until the civil war : Johnson returned to the Democratic allegiance in late 1866), and a remarkable devotion to white supremacy. By 1860 Johnson's sponsorship of homestead legislation (see homestead act) and frontier-style campaign rhetoric had won him a reputation as a latter-day Jacksonian.

In the 1860–1861 winter, Johnson, the only slave-state senator who refused to follow his state into secession, openly counseled Tennesseans against seceding. For his temerity he had to flee to Washington. In the senate, Johnson, achieving at last his homestead goal, won Republicans' appreciation also for supporting Lincoln's and Congress's policies on test oaths, military arrests of civilians, confiscation, emancipation, and reconstruction. Johnson insisted that the Constitution's war powers and treason clauses authorized the nation, not to coerce a state, but to punish disloyal individuals directly. This believer in a fixed, state-on-top, race-ordered federalism in 1862 accepted from Lincoln assignment as Tennessee's military governor, a position unknown to the Constitution or statutes, supportable only from the most flexible contemporary ideas on national primacy under martial law.

As military governor, Johnson employed test oaths and troops against alleged pro-Confederates, sometimes purging unfriendly government officeholders and officials of private corporations, to rebuild local and state governments. Johnson's policies helped the Republican-War Democratic "Union" coalition win Tennessee in 1864. That party named Johnson its vice-presidential candidate in order to attract the support of other Unionists in the reconquered South and border states, who seemed to be educable on race. Then, just as the Confederacy's collapse made Reconstruction an immediate concern, Johnson became President.

Although no specific Reconstruction statute constrained him, the 1861–1862 confiscation acts, the 1862 test oath act, and the 1865 freedmen ' sbureau law limited and defined executive actions. Johnson arrogated to himself an unprecedented right to enforce them selectively or not at all in order to further his Reconstruction policy. (For a modern parallel, see impoundment of funds.)

That policy (announced May 29, 1865, for North Carolina and later for other states) he based on the war powers (but Johnson later insisted that the end of hostilities cut off this source of authority) and on the guarantee clause : the same authorities Lincoln and Congress employed in wartime Reconstructions (later Johnson insisted that the guarantee clause did not justify a national interest in state residents' civil rights). Without authority from statute, he appointed a provisional (that is, military) governor for every defeated state, who, with Army help, initiated elections for a constitutional convention among qualified voters, including ex-rebels Johnson amnestied and pardoned. The convention was to renounce secession and ratify the thirteenth amendment. Johnson secretly counseled his provisional governors to appoint officials who could swear to required test oaths and even, as Lincoln had advised publicly, to grant suffrage to token Negroes. But no states obeyed their creator; several only very reluctantly ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, balking at its enforcement clause.

In "reconstructing" thirteen states, Johnson had the largest federal patronage opportunity in American history, especially with respect to postal and tax officers, traditional nuclei of political parties. He filled these influential offices with pardoned ex-Confederates who could not subscribe to the required test oaths, exempting them from the stipulation, thus returning power to recent rebels. Johnson canceled prosecutions under the confiscation laws and inhibited the work of the Freedmen's Bureau, thereby blighting blacks' prospects for a secure economic base. "Johnson" state and local officers, including judges, state attorneys, and police encouraged lawsuits against the Bureau and Army officers for alleged assaults and trespasses and for violating the black codes. Johnson did not protect his harassed military personnel under the habeas corpus act of 1863. In April 1866, he proclaimed that peace existed everywhere in the South and that all federal Reconstruction authority ended.

His policies made the security of blacks, white Unionists, and federal officials woefully uncertain and seriously distorted the Constitution's checks and balances. Johnson insisted that Congress should admit delegates-elect from the Southern states, though conceding that Congress had independent authority (Article I, section 5, on congressional membership) to judge the qualifications of its members; he reiterated that the nation had no right to intervene in those states and assigned the Army to police them. Johnson unprecedentedly enlarged the veto power. His stunning vetoes of bills on civil rights, the Freedmen's Bureau, and military Reconstruction, among others, antagonized even congressmen sympathetic to his views. His vetoes invoked the decision in ex parte milligan (1866), paid tribute to the state police power, and decried the centralized military despotism he claimed to discern in these bills. But Johnson appealed also to the lowest race views of the time. And he never dealt with the question, with which congressmen at least tried to grapple, of individuals' remedies when the states failed to treat them equally in civil and criminal relationships. The President's decision to campaign in the fall 1866 elections against the party that had elected him, his opposition to the fourteenth amendment (public disapprobation by a President of a proposed amendment was itself unprecedented), and his intemperate attacks against leading congressmen further alienated many persons.

Johnson rejected the idea of an adaptable Constitution and of a federal duty to seek more decent race relations. There was no halfway house between the centralization he insisted was occurring and a total abandonment of any national interest in the rights of its citizens, who were also state citizens. Johnson's rigidity reflected his heightening racism and his yearning for an independent nomination for the presidency in 1868 from Democrats and the most conservative Republicans.

Johnson himself destroyed his presidential prospects. After obeying the tenure of office act by suspending (August 1867) Secretary of War edwin m. stanton, Johnson decided, upon the Senate's nonconcurrence (February 1868), to violate that law. He ousted Stanton and named ulysses s. grant as interim secretary. Republican congressmen in 1867 had shied away from impeachment but in February 1868 the house of representatives (128–74, 15 not voting) impeached Johnson for "high crimes and misdemeanors," an offense undefined in the few earlier American impeachments, especially as to whether the "high crimes" had to be criminally indictable (Article I, section 2; Article II, sections 2, 4; Article III, section 2). Contemporary legal scholar john norton pomeroy held that indictability was not a prerequisite for impeachability, conviction, and removal from office. The impeachment committee's charges (Articles I-X) nevertheless stressed largely indictable offenses, including Johnson's obstructions of the military Reconstruction Tenure of Office, and Army Appropriations Acts. Article XI was a catch-all to attract senators who did not hold with indictability as a minimum for impeachability. (See articles of impeachment of andrew johnson.)

From February through May 1868 the President's able counsel henry stanbery, by insisting on indictability as the test of impeachability, confused senators who formed the court in the impeachment trial. Johnson, at last restraining his intemperateness, now enforced the military reconstruction law and other statutes he had vetoed. He replaced Grant as secretary of war with John M. Schofield, who, though conservative on race, was trusted on Capitol Hill. The Republican majority, wedded to checks and balances, hesitated to subordinate the presidency by convicting and removing Johnson. The House "managers" of the trial harassed witnesses and journalists, outraging some Republican senators. And 1868 was an election year. Johnson, his hopes for a nomination destroyed, must leave office by March 1869. These factors combined to leave Johnson unconvicted by a single Senate vote, 35–19.

Johnson was not the victim of a Radical Republican conspiracy but was the architect of his own remarkably successful effort to thwart improvements in race equality. He won because he exploited men's lowest race fears, cloaking them in glorifications of states' rights. His return to Congress in 1875 as a Tennessee senator (he died later that year), when sentiment was rising even among Republicans to dump the Negro, symbolized his triumph.

Harold M. Hyman


Benedict, Michael L. 1973 The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson. New York: Norton.

Berger, Raoul 1973 Impeachment: Constitutional Problems. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Sefton, James 1980 Andrew Johnson and the Uses of Constitutional Power. Boston: Little, Brown.

Trefousse, Hans L. 1975 Impeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

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Johnson, Andrew (1808–1875)

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