My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Andrew Johnson, the Seventeenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) actually turned into me reading two books: Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed and Impeached by David Stewart.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.
Andrew Johnson, #17
Andrew Johnson frequently ends up on lists as the worst or, minimally, one of the bottom 5 Presidents. Is that evaluation justified? Or is it as strange as ranking Andrew Jackson in the top 10 Presidents (he manifestly was not)? Having read this pair of books on Andrew Johnson, and some related works about Reconstruction, I think it is almost certain Andrew Johnson ought to be ranked as the worst or one of the worst Presidents we have ever had.
Andrew Johnson is another president who might be said to be a picture of the American Dream–and what he did with his success might be a lesson to us about how we ought to qualify that Dream. Born in a log cabin in poverty, he learned to be a tailor but left his apprenticeship to find his own fortune. Abandoning an apprenticeship was something that the master could find you and put you back into service for, and this shaped Johnson’s perceptions of race and poverty going forward. Many white people who were in these kind of poverty-reinforced relationships saw slavery as a way to at least say someone was worse off than them. Their felt entitled to having lives that were better than that of slaves, who were considered lesser persons. Though Gordon-Reed notes that not every white person felt this way, it was indicative of a general sentiment and background belief that Johnson grew up with (24).
Johnson rose to political power as a self-motivated man seeking to push his own agenda. He often stood against popular positions, as his stand against railroad companies indicated in Tennessee. He rose to the House of Representatives where he fought for the Homestead Act and giving money to poor whites to help get them land. Then, he became the Governor of Tennessee and a United States Senator. His policies continued to favor slaveowners and poor whites. As Senator, Johnson argued that it was the North who was pushing for conflict, not Southern slaveowners. Though he did go on to call the secessionists treasonous, he also supported policies that were concessions to Southern interests.
After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson became President, and this was a horrific tragedy. Though he initially seemed to take a hardline stance, he quickly pushed for concessions. He was determined to avoid offering protections for or endorsements of black votes, he did not believe the Constitution meant he had to allow blacks to vote, and so he allowed Southern states to oppress these votes. When picking political appointments, he favored loyalty to himself and alliances that would benefit him personally to those that would help the party or country. Moreover, he moved to gut the Freedman’s Bureau of federal authority and backing, thus removing protections for newly freed slaves and preventing them from getting the land that was initially promised to them.
Johnson was famously impeached, and the circumstances surrounding this seems to demonstrate a growing frustration of Republican Congressional members with the President they got stuck with. The definitions of terms related to impeachment, such as “high crime” or “high misdemeanor” remain unclear to this day, and the articles of impeachment for Johnson are famously confusing regarding what exact charges were brought forward. Interestingly, numerous people involved in standing against the impeachment were mired in possible payoffs and other political debts which Johnson paid (such as granting positions to apparent enemies). These are covered in detail in Stewart’s Impeached. Though difficult to confirm so long after the fact, it seems plausible that, given Johnson’s predilection for appointments to benefit himself, this may have been what happened. Yet another chapter in a terrible presidency.
Andrew Johnson’s beliefs can only be characterized as extreme, entrenched racism. He stated in private that “I am for a white man’s government in America” (quoted in Stewart, 14) and believed that black political power was a greater evil than the Civil War (ibid, 16). He actively worked to limit the power of freed blacks after the Civil War. He colluded with Southern governments to usher in the Jim Crow era, along with the continuation of slavery by another name (the use of inmates for forced labor). He withdrew federal troops and protections for freed blacks in the south, callously standing aside while thousands of black people were murdered for such “offenses” as looking at a white man.
The amount of damage that Andrew Johnson did to our country cannot truly be measured. Had he not been at the reins after Lincoln was assassinated, we may have been able to unify the country and unite against racism–or at least enforce a lasting peace. Instead, the Jim Crow era was ushered in and it would be decades before the Civil Rights movement began to correct some of the wrongs that continue into today. Andrew Johnson was a terrible President.
Andrew Johnson’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)
Andrew Johnson (17th President – Original Ranking #17)- Andrew Johnson was an unapologetic racist whose opposition to Radical Reconstruction policies damaged our country in ways that continue to have negative impact to this day. His completely capitulation to Southern interests, including allowing Southern whites to murder black people at will, is totally disgusting. His ineptitude at command contributes to his low ranking, as he totally failed to do anything but push for the policies he favored instead of attempting any kind of compromise whatsoever. He was a racist brute who is a disgrace to our country’s history.
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