The Politics of Andrew Johnson

From: Eric Foner,
Reconstruction America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1988

As if to demonstrate the land question's complexities, only two days after this vote and with virtually unanimous Republican support, the House passed Julian’s Southern Homestead Act, opening public land in the South to settlement and giving blacks and loyal whites preferential access until 1867. Republicans were quite willing to offer freedmen the same opportunity to acquire land as whites already enjoyed under the Homestead Act of 1862, but not to interfere with planters' property rights. Despite extravagant hopes that it would "break down land monopoly" in the South, Julian’s bill proved a dismal failure. Plantations monopolized the best land in the South; public land-swampy, timbered, far from transportation-was markedly inferior. The freedmen, moreover, entirely lacked capital, and federal land offices were few and poorly managed. By 1869 only 4,000 black families had even attempted to take advantage of the act, three quarters of them in sparsely populated Florida, and many of these subsequently lost their land. By far the largest acreage claimed under the law went to whites, often acting as agents for lumber companies.

Thus, by February 1866, Republicans had united upon Trumbull's Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights bills as necessary amendments to Presidential Reconstruction. Radicals viewed them as first steps toward more fundamental change, moderates as a prelude to readmitting the South to Congressional representation. Meanwhile, the persistent complaints of persecution forwarded to Washington by Southern blacks and white loyalists altered the mood in Congress by eroding the plausibility of Johnson’s central assumption-that the Southern states could be trusted to manage their own affairs without federal oversight. Particularly alarming was the testimony being gathered by the joint Committee on Reconstruction. Although witnesses differed on many points (former Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens even reaffirmed the right of secession), army officers, Bureau agents, and Southern Unionists repeated tales of injustice against blacks, loyal whites, and Northerners. Speaker after speaker criticized Johnson’s amnesty policies for encouraging white intransigence. The few blacks called before the committee agreed. "If [Southern] representatives were received in Congress," one told the committee, "the condition of the freedmen would be very little better than that of the slaves." Early in February, North Carolina Senator-elect John Pool concluded that Southern members would not gain admission for some time, and that the South would have to submit to conditions that would never have been thought of, if a more prudent and wise course had been adopted" by the Johnson governments.

Virtually all Republicans assumed Johnson would sign the Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights bills. The first passed Congress in February with nearly unanimous Republican support, including the votes of such outspoken supporters of the President as Senators Doolittle and Dixon. After separate meetings with Johnson, influential moderate Senators Fessenden, Trumbull, and James W. Grimes of Iowa all emerged convinced of his approval. "A veto at that time," Illinois Congressman Shelby Cullom later recalled, "was almost unheard of." If Johnson signed these measures, a local Republican official wrote -Trumbull from Illinois, then no one will care except a few, how soon the Senators and members of the H. R. are admitted to seats," and "no one will ever hear of the old democratic party . . . again."

To the utter surprise of Congress, the President vetoed the Freedmen's Bureau Bill. Moreover, rejecting a conciliatory draft written by Seward, which criticized the bill's specifics while acknowledging a federal responsibility for the freedmen, his message repudiated the Bureau entirely, deriding it as an "immense patronage" unwarranted by the Constitution and unaffordable given "the condition of our fiscal affairs." Congress, he pointed out, had never felt called upon to provide economic relief, establish schools, or purchase land for "our own people"; such aid, moreover, would injure the "character" and "prospects" of the freedmen by implying that they did not have to work for a living. These matters, Johnson went on, should not be decided while eleven states remained unrepresented, and at any rate the President-"chosen by the people of all the States" -- had a broader view of the national interest than members of Congress, elected "from a single district."

  Detail, Thomas Nast cartoon, Harper's Weekly, September 1, 1866  

This was, to say the least, a remarkable document. In appealing to fiscal conservatism, raising the specter of an immense federal bureaucracy trampling upon citizen's rights, and insisting self-help, not dependence upon outside assistance, offered the surest road to economic advancement Johnson voiced themes that to this day have sustained opposition to federal intervention on behalf of blacks. At the same time, he misrepresented the aims of Congress-calling the Bureau "a permanent branch of the public administration," which it was not -- and avoided any expression of sympathy for the freedmen's plight. As for Johnson's exalting himself above Congress, this, one Republican remarked, "is modest for a man ... made President by an assassin." The veto virtually ensured a bitter political struggle between Congress and the President, for, as Fessenden accurately predicted, according to its logic, "he will and must ... veto every other bill we pass" concerning Reconstruction.

Why did Johnson choose this path? First, he sincerely believed the Bureau unauthorized by the Constitution and feared it would encourage blacks to lead a "life of indolence." He had already removed assistant commissioners he considered too sympathetic to the freedmen, and throughout 1866 would seek to discredit the agency and undermine its legal authority. The idea of political realignment, moreover, still hung in the air. Johnson had been remarkably successful in retaining support among Northerners and Southerners, Republicans and Democrats, but the Freedmen's Bureau Bill forced him to begin choosing among his diverse allies. An obscure North Carolina legislator summarized the situation: "If the President vetoes ... then the fuss commences between him and the radicals; if he signs ... all will go on well with them but will raise a muss in the south." Johnson knew of the Bureau's unpopularity among Southern whites, and of Northern Democrats' clamor for its destruction. He seems to have interpreted moderate Republican efforts to avoid a split as evidence that they feared an open breach in the party. And he had become convinced that the Radicals were conspiring against him, perhaps even planning to remove him from office. Advice from Gideon Welles reinforced his unwillingness to compromise, for the doctrinaire Secretary of the Navy insisted that the President must "meet this question squarely, and have a square and probably a fierce fight with these men."

Johnson, reported William H. Trescot, hoped to provoke the Radicals into opposing him, so that they could be isolated and destroyed, while the Republican mainstream would "form a new party with the President." Unfortunately for this strategy, Johnson's belief that concern for the freedmen’s rights was confined to the Radicals caused him to misconstrue the lines of division within Republican ranks. The Senate vote on overriding his veto ought to have given him pause, for while the bill fell two votes short of the necessary two thirds, thirty of thirty-eight Republicans voted for repassage. Trescot now recognized that Republicans might well unite against the President, inaugurating "a fight this fall such as has never been seen." But Johnson could not believe the majority of Republicans would contest him on the issue of federal protection for the freedmen. The day after the Senate vote, the President continued his assault upon the Radicals. In an impromptu Washington's Birthday speech, he equated Stevens, Sumner, and Wendell Phillips with Confederate leaders, since all were "opposed to the fundamental principles of this Government." He even implied that they were plotting his assassination.

The Washington’s Birthday speech displayed Johnson at his worst -- self-absorbed (in a speech one hour long he referred to himself over 200 times), intolerant of criticism, and out of touch with political reality. But, coming on the heels of the Freedmen’s Bureau veto, it thrilled those who hoped to benefit from division in Republican ranks. Parts of the speech, a Connecticut Democratic leader admitted, were in "questionable" taste, but "he says just what you, I and others have been saying for the last quarter of a century." Johnson also won support from conservative Northern business interests. A mass meeting at New York's Cooper Institute to endorse the veto attracted some of the city’s most prominent bankers and merchants, who disparaged the Bureau for interfering with the plantation discipline essential for a revival of cotton production. "There is great clamor to coerce black men to work," wrote one New Yorker of this gathering, "but I hear none to make those who have heretofore lived upon the black man’s labor do likewise."

Many Republicans considered the veto a declaration of war against the party and the freedmen. Johnson’s name, wrote a resident of Detroit, would soon be "as infamous as that of John Tyler’s or even Benedict Arnold's." Yet moderate party leaders warned against reading Johnson out of the party. Connecticut held its gubernatorial campaign during these weeks, and the party convention managed to side simultaneously with Congress and the President --"a very skillful piece of equestrianism, . . . where two horses are ridden at once," commented one official. The same circus trick was performed by state Republican Conventions in Indiana and California. Attention now turned to the Civil Rights Bill. which passed Congress with nearly unanimous Republican support. “We all feel, that the most important interests are at stake,...” a member of the Ohio Senate wrote Sherman. "If the President vetoes the Civil Rights bill, I believe we shall be obliged to draw our swords for a fight and throw away the scabbards." Republican opinion, Johnson's supporters within the party frankly informed him, insisted that the freedmen must have "the same rights of property and person" as whites. They urged him to sign the bill, even if, as Ohio Governor Cox wrote, it became necessary to “strain a point in order to meet the popular spirit." Every member of the Cabinet except Welles and Seward hoped Johnson would sign the bill, and the Secretary of State advised him to be as conciliatory as possible in his veto, and explicitly endorse the principle of black citizenship. But this principle Johnson was unwilling to accept.

Like his rejection of the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, Johnson’s veto message repudiated not merely the specific terms of the Civil Rights Bill, but the entire principle behind it. Federal protection of blacks' civil rights and the broad conception of national power that lay behind it, he insisted, violated "all our experience as a people" and constituted a "stride towards centralization, and the concentration of all legislative powers in the national Government." Yet what was most striking about the message was its blatant racism; what had been muted in the Freedmen's Bureau veto now became explicit. Somehow, the President had convinced himself that clothing blacks with the privileges of citizenship discriminated against whites -- "the distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race." He also presented the curious argument that immigrants from abroad were more deserving of citizenship than blacks, because they knew more about "the nature and character of our institutions." Johnson even invoked the specter of racial intermarriage as the logical consequence of Congressional policy.

For Republican moderates, the Civil Rights veto ended all hope of cooperation with the President. In a biting speech, Trumbull dissected Johnson’s logic, especially the notion that guaranteeing blacks civil equality impaired the rights of whites. Underscoring the intensity of Republican feeling, the Senate expelled Democratic Sen. John P. Stockton shortly, before the vote on repassage, on the questionable grounds that the New Jersey legislature in 1865 had illegally altered its rules in order to elect him. Early in April, for the first time in American history, Congress enacted a major piece of legislation over a President's veto. A headline in one Republican newspaper summed up the political situation: "The Separation Complete."

Johnson’s rejection of the Civil Rights Bill has always been viewed as a major blunder, the most disastrous miscalculation of his political career. If the President aimed to isolate the Radicals and build up a new political coalition around himself, he could not have failed more miserably. Moderates now concluded that Johnson’s policies "would wreck the Republican party.” They also believed the Civil Rights Bill, as Sherman put it, was "clearly right." Whatever their differences, virtually all Republicans by now endorsed the view expressed by the Springfield Republican after the veto: Protection of the freedmen's civil rights "follows from the suppression of the rebellion....” The party is nothing, if it does not do this -- the nation is dishonored if it hesitates in this."

Yet despite the veto's outcome, Johnson’s course cannot be explained simply in terms of insensitivity to Northern public opinion. Not only was racism deeply embedded in Northern as well as Southern public life, but, as Frederick Douglass observed around this time, no "political idea" was “more deeply rooted in the minds of men of all sections of the country [than] the right of each State to control its own local affairs." Given the Civil Rights Act's astonishing expansion of federal authority and blacks' rights, it is not surprising that Johnson considered it a Radical measure and believed he could mobilize voters against it. When, during one April speech, Johnson asked rhetorically, "What does the veto mean?" a voice from the crowd shouted: "It is keeping the nigger down.” Johnson chose the issue on which to fight -- federal protection for blacks' civil rights and it was an issue on which he did not expect to lose.

Impeachment 1868/1999

The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

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