This weekend marked the birthday of perhaps the most-maligned president in American history. But was Andrew Johnson really that bad, or just the target of some second-guessing historians?
Johnson was born in 1808 in North Carolina. He served in the Senate and the House and as governor, and then military governor, of Tennessee. It was when he was serving as military governor that Abraham Lincoln asked him to replace Hannibal Hamlin as vice president in the 1864 campaign. A Democrat, Johnson switched parties for the election.
Already an enigma because of his well-known independent streak and his earlier support of slavery, Johnson turned heads when he was apparently drunk at his own inauguration in 1865. (Another theory was that Johnson was ill and he hadn’t been known for drinking in public.)
Johnson suddenly found himself as president when Lincoln died just after starting his second term. His policies during Reconstruction were controversial and caused his newfound party to impeach him in 1868. Johnson kept his job by one vote in a Senate trial.
In his official biography on the White House website, Johnson’s term is summed up politely.
“Although an honest and honorable man, Andrew Johnson was one of the most unfortunate of presidents. Arrayed against him were the Radical Republicans in Congress, brilliantly led and ruthless in their tactics. Johnson was no match for them,” says a bio prepared by Michael Beschloss and Hugh Sidey.
Looking back at historians who have ranked Johnson (and other presidents) since 1948, he appears to be the one president who has suffered at the hands of revisionist history—either because more facts are available about his term, or because his place in the history of race relations has been re-evaluated.
In 1948, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. ranked Johnson as a middle-of-the-pack president: a respected 19th out of 29 presidents.
Since then, some presidents have risen in the eyes of historians, like James K. Polk and Andrew Jackson.
Andrew Johnson’s ratings have plummeted like a rock. In a recent 2010 Siena College survey, Johnson was called the worst president in history. A 2011 survey from a British academic institute ranked Johnson as 36th out of 40 presidents.
In general, two presidents who died early in their terms—William Henry Harrison and James Garfield—aren’t considered in presidential rankings.
Johnson has been tossed into the bottom rung of presidents, including James Buchanan (who served before Lincoln), Franklin Pierce (who preceded Buchanan), and Warren Harding.
Buchanan, Pierce, and Harding have always been considered really bad presidents by historians. Andrew Johnson has taken the place of Ulysses S. Grant, who has received an upgrade from “bad” to “mediocre” in recent years.
In Johnson’s case, Lincoln was a tough act to follow, and his failed role in obstructing much of the GOP’s Reconstruction plans was a tough pill for historians to swallow.
After becoming president, Johnson fought with his own Cabinet and party members over the scope of readmitting secessionist states and the voting rights of blacks.
Johnson favored a very lenient version of Reconstruction and state control over who could vote, according to their race. He also openly opposed the 14th Amendment.
Although Johnson had supported an end to slavery in the 1860s, he was a white supremacist. “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men,” he wrote in 1866.
In the end, the Radical Republicans won control over Reconstruction and Johnson became a pariah.
Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill, but Congress overrode the veto in an unprecedented move.
Somehow, Johnson survived the impeachment trial, possibly because there was no vice president to replace him, and moderates feared Benjamin Wade, the Senate president pro tempore who would have replaced Johnson.
The Radical Republicans also eventually failed, and Reconstruction had ended within a decade. Racial discrimination continued on into the middle of the following century.
And not everyone is convinced Johnson was a one-dimensional figure.
Dr. Robert Orr, a historian in North Carolina, told a local newspaper in 2008 that “the modern hostility to Andrew Johnson, I believe, mostly comes from comments he made that are racially insensitive.”
Among historians today, James Buchanan is the one president who is consistently ranked as low as Johnson. Buchanan's seeming indifference to the onset of the Civil War, and his own failings as a president, were monumental.
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