- Historic Sites
William Jefferson Clinton, Andrew Johnson, and the judgment of history
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
When the 105th Congress took a pre-election recess last October, the House of Representatives had already made itself a place in the record books by resolving, for the second time in a quarter of a century and only the third in the nation’s experience, to hold hearings on the possible impeachment and trial of a President.
I was reluctant to add to the millions of words already saturating the media. By now any reasonably conscious American should know plenty, even about such unintimate matters as the Constitution’s definition of impeachable crimes and the 1868 case of Andrew Johnson. Can any further and nonredundant historical framework be supplied?
I make the answer a tentative yes if we think in terms of aftermath. Let us start with a statement and a question. The statement is this: There are those who argue that Clinton’s own behavior brought on the crisis and raises constitutional issues worthy of examination; and there are those who see him as essentially the victim of a vendetta by partisan opponents. The question is: Which view is likely to be the judgment of history? On that the Johnson story is potentially instructive.
To get the core facts into as brief a compass as possible, Johnson was an accidental President in more ways than one. He was a rarity, a Southern Democrat—a senator from Tennessee in 1861—who opposed secession and refused to follow his state out of the Union. In 1864, in order to woo Northern and Western Democrats, the Republicans put him on the ticket as Lincoln’s running mate. But Johnson remained basically a Democrat, and Booth’s bullet put him in the White House in April 1865, confronting a Republican Congress—which, however, was not slated to meet until December.
In the interim Johnson took charge of Reconstruction. He followed a proposed Lincoln plan of allowing a state to re-enter the Union, provided that 10 percent of its 1860 voters sign an oath of loyalty; that it ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery; and that it repudiate its ordinance of secession and debts incurred under the Confederacy. By year’s end all the seceded states had done so. Not surprisingly, their voters then elected governors and congressmen who had been Confederate heroes and state lawmakers who enacted black codes, which regulated the behavior and opportunities of the emancipated blacks so stringently that while not precisely returned to slavery, they were left disenfranchised and far from free.
It was not surprising either that these developments did not sit well with a Northern public that had just lost more than 350,000 of its sons in a war against what was perceived as a Southern oligarchy bent on demeaning and destroying free labor and all the educational and industrial progress that went with it. Nor did they please a Congress unwilling to be shut out of the Reconstruction process. When that body reconvened, its Republican majority was fairly well united behind the idea of giving the freedmen more protection and some basic civil rights through a number of measures, including the Fourteenth Amendment. Some Radical Republicans, such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, hoped to go even further and reorganize Southern society by redistributing power downward to a new class of united blacks and whites whose votes would create a Republican South.
Rather than cultivate more moderate Republicans and soothe war-inflamed feelings, Johnson met the enemy head-on. Born in poverty, self-educated, hot-tempered, and used to backwoods stump oratory, he toured the country during the 1866 congressional election campaign, encouraging the South to reject the Fourteenth Amendment and denouncing Stevens and Sumner by name as traitors and comparing them to Judas Iscariot. A huge backlash swept vetoproof Republican majorities into office in the House and Senate, and in both chambers leadership fell to the Radicals.
The new Congress met in March of 1867 and tied Johnson hand and foot. It tore up his Reconstruction plan and imposed a far more exacting one on Sumner-and-Stevens-like terms. Until the South accepted it, the region would be under military control. But the President was Commander in chief, so in order to deprive Johnson of any voice in the occupation, Congress decreed that it would give orders directly to Army commanders through the Secretary of War, who happened to be Edwin M. Stanton, a Lincoln-cabinet holdover who thoroughly agreed with the Radicals. To prevent Johnson from replacing Stanton, the Tenure of Office Act was passed, requiring Senate approval to discharge presidential appointees it had previously confirmed. Johnson fired Stanton anyway, claiming that Congress was unconstitutionally violating the separation of powers, a position upheld by the Supreme Court in a case decided many years later. But Stanton’s removal in February of 1868 gave Radicals in the House the chance to impeach an already helpless Johnson, who, by the time of the Senate trial, would have less than a year left in office. His violation of the Tenure of Office Act became the key “high crime and misdemeanor” in eleven charges, including contempt of Congress. The trial lasted from March through May and ended with a 35–19 vote for conviction, one short of the two-thirds necessary, thanks to seven moderate Republicans who broke ranks and voted in Johnson’s favor.
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.