Few presidents have been as eviscerated in history as Andrew Johnson, who suddenly on a rainy morning in April of 1865 became the nation’s new chief executive upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
A man who rose from dire poverty through a sheer primal force of will, Johnson was elected to every level of government—always taking his case to the people—in a remarkable, if often chaotic career that included service as a state legislator, member of Congress, Governor of Tennessee, U.S. Senator, vice-president, and finally the presidency itself.
During the Civil War, Johnson bravely stood up to Confederates, his life repeatedly threatened serving at Lincoln’s pleasure as the Military Governor of Tennessee and pushing for an end to slavery. Yet he is the same man who, upon succeeding Lincoln, could not see his way clear to securing the full Constitutional rights for ex-slaves.
Because of his endless fights and many confrontations, Johnson’s presidency has since been roundly condemned as one of the most disastrous in U.S. history. Johnson, notes Page Smith in his seminal People’s History series, put on full display “a reckless and demonic spirit that drove him to excess, to violence, harsh words and actions.”
“He was thrust into a role that required tact, flexibility, and sensitivity to the nuance of public opinion—qualities that Lincoln possessed in abundance, but that Johnson lacked,” asserts historian Eric Foner,
“He was an angry man,” notes David Stewart, a chronicler of Johnson’s impeachment trial, “and he was rigid, and these were qualities that served him terribly as president.”
Yet, for all of the scholarly indictments of the 17th President, indictments supported by a recent Siena College Research Institute historians’survey placing him at the bottom in overall performance, Andrew Johnson challenges us as a singularly American story of triumph, defeat, and renewal, a man who overcame the challenges of poverty, class, and alienation to reach the highest peaks of power in the country.
That drive was ironically most tellingly on display after Johnson left the White House, denied even the opportunity of a party nomination for another term in office. From the ashes of that loss, Johnson methodically rose again, winning election to the U.S. Senate and improbably returning to national prominence.
Andrew Johnson’s renaissance, coming 6 years after an unprecedented effort to impeach and remove him from the presidency, represents one of the greatest comebacks in American political history and serves as a testament to a man who could never be totally defeated.