Today we offer some travel advice: This weekend take a road trip to see some American history. Take a road trip to Greeneville, Tennessee. Why Greeneville? Because that’s the home and burial place of Andrew Johnson — the first president to be impeached, and there’s nothing like another presidential impeachment to bring Johnson back into the news.
Greeneville is a lot closer to us than, say, Mount Vernon – it’s about an hour beyond Bristol — but a lot further from our collective memory. Perhaps it shouldn’t be. The website for the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site calls his presidency “complex,” which is a nice way of calling it controversial, and perhaps still instructive to us a century and a half later.
Both liberals and conservatives can find something in the Johnson story to latch onto, particularly in light of the impeachment trial of President Trump. For the former, it’s a recent article in Mother Jones magazine that says “the best parallel to Trump isn’t Nixon; it’s Andrew Johnson, a belligerent and destructive faux-populist who escaped conviction in the Senate by the thinnest of margins.” For conservatives, it’s the veneration of the senator who is credited with casting the deciding vote against removing Johnson from office.
Johnson’s story is either a classic rags-to-riches story — or a tale of an opportunist who was promoted far above his qualifications. Either way, history professor Elizabeth Varon writes for the Miller Center at the University of Virginia — which studies the American presidency — that “Andrew Johnson gives truth to the saying that in America, anyone can grow up to become President.” Johnson was born into poverty in Raleigh, North Carolina. He never went to school. Varon writes: “Andrew Johnson did not master the basics of reading, grammar, or math until he met his wife at the age of seventeen. The only other man to attain the office of President with so little formal education was Abraham Lincoln. Whereas Lincoln is esteemed as perahps America’s greatest president, Johnson, his successor, is ranked as one of the worst.” But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Johnson was apprenticed as a tailor and eventually settled in Greeneville, Tennessee. His business thrived — he boasted that “my work never ripped or gave way.” He invested in real estate and slaves. Before long, he went into politics — first as a town alderman, then the state legislature, the House of Representatives, governor and eventually the U.S. Senate. So far, Johnson’s political career was meteoric but not all that different from other successful politicians. Then the Civil War happened, and Johnson did something truly remarkable: He was the only Southern senator who did not resign his seat when his state seceded. Johnson fit into a small niche of those who were both pro-slavery and pro-Union. It’s worth remembering that eastern Tennessee — like many other Southern communities along the Appalachians — was very much against secession. Let’s also give Johnson some credit for bravery: Despite death threats, Johnson campaigned vigorously against Tennessee’s referendum on secession. He often made a point to lay his gun on the lectern before he spoke.
Lincoln, in dire need of Southern supporters, appointed Johnson as military governor of Tennessee. Foreshadowing: When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Johnson persuaded him to exempt Tennessee. In 1864, Lincoln pushed aside his vice president — Maine’s Hannibal Hamlin — and had Johnson nominated as his running mate on a “national unity” ticket. That may have been politically astute in 1864, but had unfortunate ramifications in 1865 and beyond. Lincoln’s assassination effectively changed which party was in charge of the presidency. Johnson had very different views about how the South should be brought back into the Union and clashed at almost every turn with the Republicans in Congress. Johnson wanted the South re-admitted as if almost nothing had changed; Republicans wanted fundamental changes made to Southern society. In particular, Republicans wanted freed slaves enfranchised as voters and made full participants in civic life. Johnson was absolutely opposed.
When Congress passed Reconstruction bills over his veto, Johnson set out on a national speaking tour to make his case. “The plan was a complete disaster,” Varon writes for the Miller Center. “In speech after speech, Johnson personally attacked his Republican opponents in vile and abusive language. On several occasions, it appeared that the President had had too much to drink. One observer estimated that Johnson lost one million Northern votes in this debacle.” When a heckler in St. Louis shouted “hang Jeff Davis,” Johnson shouted back: “Why don’t you hang Thad Stevens and Wendell Phillips?” Can we agree that when the president openly suggests hanging two political opponents, that’s not a good thing for democracy? Johnson compared himself to Jesus; unruly crowds drowned him out with chants of “three cheers for Congress!”
Republicans tried to restrain Johnson by passing a law saying he couldn’t fire Cabinet members once they’d been confirmed. Johnson fired one anyway — Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, one of the biggest names of the age. Republicans finally had what they needed: The House impeached Johnson for that and 10 other charges — one of which alleged that Johnson did “make and declare, with a loud voice certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangue.” (Imagine if Johnson had Twitter!) Columbia University historian Eric Foner, who specializes in the Reconstruction era, has summed things up this way: “Andrew Johnson was impeached over violating a fairly minor act of Congress, whereas his real crime was trying to deprive 4 million American citizens of all their rights.”
The impeachment trial lasted nearly three months and saw 41 witnesses testify (three testified in the Bill Clinton impeachment; none may testify in the Trump case). In the end, Johnson survived by a single vote. John Kennedy praised that senator, Edmund Ross, in his book “Profiles in Courage” on the grounds that a conviction might have forever weakened the presidency. Historians might debate that but they are largely in agreement on Johnson’s place in the pantheon of presidents. Varnon writes: “Johnson is largely viewed as the worst possible person to have been President at the end of the Civil War.” Granted, a trip to Greeneville may not be as uplifting as a trip to, say, Monticello, but it’s one way to ponder this question: What lessons, if any, does Johnson hold for us today?