Andrew Johnson
Hans Trefousse, 1989

I closed my second article on Abraham Lincoln with a look at the 1988 TV movie in which he was played by Sam Waterston. Twenty years later, Waterston became the face of "Unity08," an effort by a handful of party operatives from the 1970s to overcome the red/blue divide of the 2000s by launching a third-party ticket featuring Michael Bloomberg or Chuck Hagel or Joe Lieberman or some other such "moderate" beloved by the Villagers — blog-speak for the clique of press hacks and socialites who view Washington as "their place" and themselves as the gatekeepers between "regular Americans," about whose lives they know virtually nothing, and the country's elected officials, whom they scold for being so accursedly partisan. As Duncan Black noted at the time that the Villagers were attempting to get Unity08 off the ground, "For some reason people in and covering national politics seem to hate the fact that politics actually involves genuine disagreement, and it'd be so much fun if we just got rid of all that stuff we disagreed about." Different groups have disparate, irreconcilable visions of the shape American society should take, and I'd certainly hope that politicians on my wavelength would do everything in their power to defeat opposing factions and discredit their ideas. The Villagers, by contrast, are endlessly enamored with the notion of "reaching across the aisle." Off the top of my head, I can think of two reasons for this:

First, though it may seem like Washington would be a strange place for someone who hates politics to set down roots, realize that, unlike in a constitutional monarchy that separates the ceremonial duties of a head of state from the duller business of actually running the country, those we send to Washington function both as our government and as our court. And what the Villagers want above all else is to share in the courtly aspects of life in the capital. To be, if not rulers, then members of the ruling class all the same. For if the leaders of the nation are coming to your cocktail parties and inviting you to their cookouts, if you're acting — or think you're acting — as their sounding board and chorus... then aren't you all movers and shakers together? And if it's membership in a collegial elite that interests you, then naturally you'll recoil at partisan conflict. Decrying the division between the (centrist) Democratic Party and (right-wing) Republican Party, the Villagers try to maximize their chances of being welcome at as many dinner parties as possible by planting themselves between the two camps, in the center-right, which happily enough is the natural home of the philosophy that the entrenched power structure is just grand and there's no need for dramatic changes in either direction.

Second, most of the Villagers have at least dabbled in journalism, and mainstream American journalism is still wedded to the notion that truth is a function of "balance." Ask a reporter for an article about the shape of the world, and you're pretty much guaranteed to find the evidence that it's round "balanced" by quotes from a lobbyist for the world-edge-insurance industry insisting that it's flat. And Village doctrine dictates that serious-minded pragmatists will therefore split the difference and agree that the world is in fact kind of bowl-shaped. The notion that one side could be entirely right and the other entirely wrong is anathema to the Villagers; to argue that you adopted your political views because you believe that they're correct, and that they're not in fact improved by a compromise with their diametric opposites, will make you persona non grata in their circles. The fact that events have a way of vindicating not the moderates, but rather those they paint as extremists — those who correctly predicted that the invasion of Iraq would be a fiasco, that the failure to regulate the derivatives market would cripple the economy, that oil industry propaganda about the safety of offshore drilling would prove tragically false — in no way weakens their commitment to the mistaken middle. Quite the opposite: look at who gets invited onto the political talk shows and you'll quickly see that the best way to build credibility with the Villagers is to be wrong about everything.

The more I read about the Civil War era and its aftermath, the more convinced I become that Abraham Lincoln was a great guy and a lousy president — but what made him so lousy is precisely what has led to his enduring popularity among the chattering classes. Lincoln was a moderate. On the defining issue of his day, slavery, he took a middle course between those who wanted slavery abolished immediately and those who considered it a positive good: he held that slavery should be kept within its current boundaries, where it would inevitably die out, likely by the year 1950 or thereabouts. Maybe I'm kidding myself, but I'd like to think that nowadays we're all agreed that the abolitionist position is the only morally defensible stance toward slavery and that Lincoln's view should get the fail blogs firing up their Impact fonts. Lincoln's apologists point out that it was precisely because he was not an abolitionist that he was able to get elected and eventually issue the Emancipation Proclamation — you know, the whole "only Nixon could go to China" spiel. But if this is true, how is that a credit to Lincoln? Doesn't it simply serve to point out a fault in those unwilling to vote for someone who was on the right side of history in the first place? And yet the big Lincoln book of the past decade, Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, makes the case for Lincoln, not as the Great Emancipator, but as the Great Balancer. His cabinet was divided precisely in half between ex-Democrats and ex-Whigs! His 1863 message to Congress was equally acclaimed by radicals and conservatives! And look at how he balanced the ticket in 1864!

In 1860, Lincoln had won less than half the vote in the states that eventually stayed in the Union; his share ranged from 75.7% in Vermont and 62.9% in Massachusetts down to 2.5% in Maryland and 0.9% in his native state of Kentucky. His party had lost big in the midterm elections of 1862 and had begun to fracture, with a faction of self-declared radicals giving up on Lincoln as an incompetent, unprincipled ditherer and nominating John Frémont, the 1856 Republican standard-bearer, as their candidate. Unable to win as the representative solely of moderate Republicans, Lincoln hatched a scheme that would make a modern-day Villager swoon: Unity64! Recognizing that the Democrats were divided between those who wanted to negotiate an immediate peace with the rebels, complete with recognition of their so-called Confederacy, and those who disagreed with the Republicans on nearly all other issues but agreed on the necessity of winning the war, Lincoln decided to run, not as a Republican, but as the candidate of the National Union Party. The National Unionists were a coalition of moderate Republicans and War Democrats, and to reflect this, party delegates, with Lincoln's approval, dropped Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, an ally of the radicals, from the ticket in favor of War Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. The Democrats who didn't join up with the National Unionists nominated pro-war candidate George McClellan on an anti-war platform he couldn't campaign on, Frémont came back into the fold in exchange for the dismissal of the most conservative member of Lincoln's cabinet (postmaster general Montgomery Blair), and the Lincoln/Johnson ticket rolled to an easy victory. Lincoln promptly got assassinated, and that's how a viciously racist, reactionary Southern Democrat became president. After four years of devastating warfare, Southern defeat had lasted for less than six days.

Abraham Lincoln claimed to have had, all told, less than a year of formal schooling. Andrew Johnson had zero. Born poor in North Carolina, he served a brief apprenticeship with a tailor before running away to open his own shop in Tennessee. His wife claimed to have taught him to read and write; if so, she didn't do a very good job:

Dear Sir in my usual state of health through mercy I hope this will find you and yours all well — my good friend I want you to Cum and See me if possible in 10 day from the date of this I have Sumthing that Conserns me to Communicate to Mr. Earnes and you when I git you together and a little for Mr Sevier by our Selves before I unbosom my Self to you boath keep this to your Self to I See you — I conclude with my best compliments to my lady to you and the Doctor and all your famileys farewell—

The seventeenth president of the United States, everyone! Of course, politics is generally conducted via the spoken rather than the written word, so maybe one of his speeches will be more representative. Here's an excerpt from his inauguration as vice president:

Hooza Seckatary a' the Navy?

That's right — Andrew Johnson, when sworn in, was drunk off his ass. Lincoln was a lifelong teetotaler, so maybe he was just trying to balance the ticket in this as in so many other respects.

Fortunately for Johnson, he'd been kicking around Washington for a while and people knew he wasn't a drunkard. He'd actually become a bit of a political star not long before — albeit one who was a fair distance off the main sequence. Johnson was sort of the Ron Paul of his day: a member of the right-wing, Southern-dominated party, but a hardline libertarian whose agenda was often at odds with those of his colleagues. Johnson believed that the government should do virtually nothing. Note that, before Franklin Roosevelt, the federal government already did do virtually nothing — the largest government agency at the turn of the century was the post office — but it did do things like build statues to commemorate this or that local hero, and Johnson pissed off the earmarkers by categorically opposing all of these. It was nothing personal: Johnson opposed pretty much every spending bill and every proposed tax. No to a $2 monthly pay raise for soldiers, no to maintaining federal prisons, no to a tax on coffee, no to carpets for the White House, no to books for the Library of Congress, and above all, no to the Smithsonian. Why should the gummint confiscate people's hard-earned liquor money to hand it over to some goddamn myoo-zee-um?

What Johnson did support, his pet issue throughout his political career, was a homestead act — a giveaway of land to poor white farmers. This struck me as slightly odd until I remembered that I'd once watched a speech by Andre Marrou, Ron Paul's running mate on the Libertarian ticket back in 1988, in which he advocated a massive sell-off of public land: "Why does the federal government own 84% of Nevada?" he protested. Privatize! Privatize! Note, though, that Marrou wanted to sell off the land to the highest bidder, while Johnson proposed parceling it out for free. This brought him into conflict with the Southern plantation owners who expected to add that land to their holdings before too incredibly long. And that, in turn, brought him into conflict with pretty much the entirety of the Southern political establishment, which existed to protect the interests of the plantation owners. Johnson, who had grown up poor, took pride in his role as the "Mechanic Statesman" — "mechanic" was the 19th-century word for someone who, unlike the gentry, actually knew how to make something, and by all accounts Johnson was an absolutely first-rate tailor — and replied that, as a Jacksonian Democrat, he backed the interests of the common man. Which raises an interesting question: was it Johnson's ideology that brought him into conflict with the Southern aristocracy? Or was it Johnson's inability to get along with anyone that brought him into conflict with the Southern aristocracy, and forced him to resort to demagoguery as the only way for an outsider to get elected? Either way, get elected he did — even as he made enemies of just about every other politician in Tennessee, he ascended from alderman to mayor to congressman to governor to senator. And as a senator, he had an important decision to make when his state seceded from the Union.

Johnson was from eastern Tennessee, which retained at least a small amount of Unionist sentiment. He himself had long held that those who supported slavery, as he did, had to recognize that it wasn't a natural state of affairs but an artificial institution whose very existence relied on the social framework of the United States. Sounding not entirely unlike Slavoj Žižek, Johnson argued that abolitionists who really wanted to strike a blow against slavery would have to dismantle the broader system that supported it — and that secessionists were therefore stupidly doing the abolitionists' work for them. Johnson was thus not inclined to join his Southern colleagues in leaving the Union. Oh, yeah, and also those colleagues all hated him and he had no political future in a confederacy controlled by the very aristocrats he'd been fighting for thirty years. Whereas the political future of the one and only loyal senator from a rebel state seemed rather bright. Sure enough, Johnson instantly became a political celebrity, his speeches hailed throughout the Union for their power and sagacity. He thus became a natural choice when Lincoln felt the need to add another drawing card to the 1864 ticket. And not only could Johnson bring in votes from Democrats and from border states, but Lincoln liked how putting Johnson on the ticket dovetailed with one of his mantras: that states could not secede, that there was no Confederacy, that this was a civil war started by a band of traitors who had usurped the government of eleven states that remained in the Union. One of those states was Tennessee, and as a member of the rightful government of that state, Johnson had just as much right to run for vice president of the United States as anyone else. Naturally, Johnson agreed wholeheartedly, and would spend the rest of his life claiming that he was the true heir to Lincoln and that his policies were identical to those Lincoln would have adopted had he lived.

It's true that as the war had drawn to a close, Lincoln had advocated leniency toward the South: letting the rebel soldiers return peacefully to their farms while their leaders were permitted to escape to exile in Canada or South America or wherever they liked. Johnson initially seemed as though he was going to take a harder line than Lincoln, telling a Republican delegation that "I hold this: robbery is a crime, rape is a crime, treason is a crime, and crime must be punished. The law provides for it; the courts are open. Treason must be made infamous and traitors punished." It was well known that Johnson bore a personal grudge against his former rivals. As Union forces had re-established control of Tennessee, Johnson had been appointed military governor of the state. When a Union general commended Johnson for being the sole Southern leader supporting justice for blacks, Johnson retorted that he couldn't have cared less about what he called the "splay-footed, bandy-shanked, hump-backed, thick-lipped, flat-nosed, woolly-headed, ebon-colored negro," who he argued "should be in subordination and I will live and die so believing." The reason he had stuck with the Union was that, much as he despised blacks, he was still more committed to "fighting these traitorous aristocrats, their masters."

But Johnson's directives didn't match his rhetoric. Both as military governor and as president, Johnson allowed even the most prominent secessionists to go free and reclaim their estates — all the way up to Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, who by 1866 was not hanging from a gibbet but had actually been re-elected to the United States Senate. Johnson rather enjoyed granting clemency, having his old foes come into his office and beg for his forgiveness... and of course, as word got out that the clemency petitions even of rebel generals and cabinet members were meeting with success, the White House was swamped with applications.

But there was more to Johnson's leniency than the fun of playing Godfather. Johnson had developed his determination to fight the Southern aristocrats in the Jacksonian era, when the general had shown that the masses, given the right man to rally around, could wrest at least a measure of power from the patricians. Johnson imagined that, with the gentry dead, imprisoned, or in exile, the power vacuum would naturally be filled by the common white farmers and mechanics who Lincoln had so wisely ordered be left alone to rebuild. But instead it seemed that the Republicans were attempting to reconstruct the South around such horrifying principles as federal hegemony and racial equality. And if the only way to provide a bulwark against this sort of dystopian future was to revive the old Southern establishment, then bring on the traitorous aristocrats! Besides, for all the acclaim he'd received as the Union's favorite Southern Democrat, Johnson knew that Northern Republicans would never select him over one of their own in 1868; if he wanted to stay relevant in politics, he needed to secure a new power base, and an ecstatically grateful South seemed like just the thing.

As noted, Lincoln had always maintained that a state could not secede. Republicans to Lincoln's left argued that this was patent nonsense: it suggested that, even as the leadership and population of South Carolina was fighting a war against the United States, there existed a Platonic ideal of South Carolina that was still an integral part of the Union. Absurd!, proclaimed the radicals. The people of the South were traitors; they had been defeated; their political divisions had no meaning, and their opinions were of no importance. The entire South should be treated as enemy territory won by conquest, and slowly incorporated into the nation, with new internal boundaries, as the various regions within it were brought into line with the values and culture of the victorious Union. But Andrew Johnson stood with Lincoln: the rebel states had never really left. The moment they were no longer actively in rebellion, they had all the rights and privileges of any other state. This included the right of their citizens (and, the end of slavery notwithstanding, only whites could be citizens) to elect their own officials. Johnson blandly recommended that Southerners not vote the Confederate leadership back into power... but when elections were held and the new legislatures wound up looking uncannily similar to their secessionist predecessors, Johnson did nothing. Those legislatures promptly attempted to reinstitute slavery under another name with the so-called "black codes," which required blacks to sign up as "servants" to white plantation owners (who were to be called "masters") and do any work their masters required of them at any time; if they refused, they would be considered "vagrants," and they and their children could then be captured and sold. Johnson maintained that so long as these laws didn't put slavery back into practice under that name, it would be illegal for him to interfere. Nor was he inclined to. "This is a country for white men," he declared, "and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men."

Ultimately, Johnson ended up spending his entire term in a struggle with Congress, which overrode his vetoes, attempted to put into place a harsher program of reconstruction, and even impeached him — though he was acquitted on the votes of "moderate" Republicans who feared what designated successor Benjamin Wade, a supporter of racial equality, women's suffrage, and the labor movement, might do as acting president. But what followed Johnson's initial inaction isn't really that important. What's important is that there was a moment when the South was resigned to any conditions the North deemed necessary to impose. Republican functionaries sent to the South reported that the locals were submissive and willing to accept voting rights for blacks, and even resistance tended to manifest in the form of abject pleas for mercy. But as word got out that the government was in fact using a light hand in its dealings with the former rebels, that accommodating attitude disappeared. Now the Southerners were full of threats. Blacks who attempted to vote, Northerners who attempted to come down south and educate them, Republicans who attempted to... be Republicans... well, they just might find that the South wasn't a very healthy place for them to be, got it? As early as 1866, reporters could already trace an upward arc in Southerners' pugnacity: "The more lenient the government," wrote one, "the more arrogant they became."

The United States thus became, and still is, a much worse country than it would have been had the South truly been reconstructed, and as a result Andrew Johnson is widely considered one of the worst presidents in American history. But it seems to me that a lot of the blame has to fall to Abraham Lincoln. Let's put aside his decision to force the rebel states back into the union in the first place. Once the Civil War was underway, it seemed as though there were two possible outcomes, both of them pretty good:

  • The South wins and goes its own way, and the Union embarks upon a very different history without a very different culture dragging it hard to the right.

  • The North wins, the Southern power structure is dismantled, and the entire nation is reshaped by a period of unchallenged dominance of the progressive ideals espoused by the Republican Party of the mid-19th century.

Instead, against all odds, the war ended with a Southern Democrat at the head of the United States government. The Great Balancer, in what the Villagers would no doubt hail as wisdom, had decided that it'd be a good idea to "reach across the aisle." The result was that he somehow managed to find a path to defeat in a win-win situation.

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