- Historic Sites
William Jefferson Clinton, Andrew Johnson, and the judgment of history
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
Andrew Johnson’s example suggests that changing attitudes may encourage a reassessment of Clinton’s failings.
So much for narration. What about that verdict of history? After his stormy Presidency, Johnson caught a lucky wave. For a combination of reasons, Reconstruction ended within eight years of his departure from the White House, and a long period of anti-Reconstruction reaction then set in and generated a historical consensus far kinder to the South. The Confederates had fought honorably for their view of the Constitution, surrendered honorably, and honorably accepted the defeat of secession and slavery. Vindictive Radicals, however, with a moderate and conciliatory Lincoln out of the way, had insisted on crushing the defeated “rebels” and saddling them by force with corrupt and thieving state governments run by white “carpetbaggers” and ignorant, easily manipulated blacks. Andrew Johnson’s heroic efforts to turn the tide had earned him the venom that resulted in the trumped-up charges. His one-vote “victory” had saved the Constitution from being perverted and turned into a system of parliamentary supremacy. The brave seven Republicans who voted not to convict him thereafter had suffered the destruction of their political careers and reputations. The most vivid written expression of these legends, Claude G. Bowers’s The Tragic Era , a kind of Birth of a Nation in print, appeared in 1929. Two well-received Johnson biographies of the same era reflect the viewpoint in their titles: Lloyd Paul Stryker’s Andrew Johnson: A Study in Courage (1929) and George Fort Milton’s The Age of Hate: Andrew Johnson and the Radicals (1930). They were still recommended reading in graduate schools twenty years later, and one of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage , which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957, was of Kansas’s senator Edmund G. Ross, the defecting Republican whose vote finally tipped the scales Johnson’s way.
Then came the 1960s, since when historians, white and black, have taken a far more accurate, fair, and nuanced view of Reconstruction. Space does not allow me to recapitulate it, but basically it is less racist, less elitist, and more willing to weigh the accomplishments and failings of Reconstruction state governments in context and to acknowledge the hate and violence that were directed against them. The best summary is Eric Foner’s 1988 Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 .
And how has Johnson fared since then? Well, he has not been reconverted into the drunken brute of Radical propaganda; neither is he, for recent biographers, a valiant victim (as portrayed by Van Heflin in a 1942 film, Tennessee Johnson ). Eric L. McKitrick’s Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (1960) was groundbreaking, and Albert Castel’s The Presidency of Andrew Johnson synthesizes fresh studies up to 1979. By the light of most current scholarship, Johnson was a small man who could not rise to a great opportunity for leadership. Far from following Lincoln’s lead, he was entirely lacking in the vision, political sensitivity, and willingness to compromise that had guided and would have continued to shape Lincoln’s presidential course. Johnson built no bridges to Congress and made enemies at every step of his career. Except for supporting free homesteads and education, he had no notable pre-war track record. He had not opposed slavery so much as the power of rich slaveholders. As President he hated the idea of giving blacks the vote and publicly proclaimed that “left to their own devices,” they showed “a constant tendency to lapse into barbarism.” In defiance of the trend of his time, he was a States’ Rights Jacksonian Democrat on all issues save secession. That he was excessively hounded by the Radicals is clear. That he more or less invited the situation is equally the truth.
What does this tell you about what our grandchildren are likely to read about the Clinton case? It is hard to visualize a future cultural climate that could turn him into a persecuted hero. But it is possible that changed attitudes toward his generation and its moral perspectives may encourage an assessment of his failings, his successes, and his enemies that will result in a positive portrait. There is, after all, hardly any President repudiated in his own time—Harding comes to mind—who lacks some historical defender. Clinton could of course be a negative exception, but elapsed time generally tends to bring on kinder judgments, though the rule isn’t infallible.