December 7, 1865: Thanksgiving




Andrew Johnson kept up the precedent of his predecessor in making a Thanksgiving Proclamation.  However for some reason he set the date on December 7, the only time Thanksgiving has been celebrated on that date.  His other Thanksgiving Proclamations were for the last Thursday in November and the tradition held until the Great Depression when FDR altered it to the fourth Thursday in November.  If Johnson had established a new tradition in 1865, then seventy-six years later Americans would have had another reason to be enraged by the Japanese sneak attack.  Here is the text of the Proclamation: (more…)

Published in: on November 20, 2022 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Profiles in Courage: Andrew Johnson


Walter Matthau as Andrew Johnson?  The odd thing is that it works.  The episode covers Johnson’ s brave stand against secession at the beginning of the Civil War.

In 1828 Johnson, a tailor by trade, entered politics by being elected an alderman of Greenville. Johnson quickly realized that politics was his life’s work and he was very good at it, as a list of his elected positions up to the Civil War indicates: alderman (1828–30), mayor (1830–33) of Greenville, state representative (1835–37, 1839–41), state senator (1841–43), Congressman (1843–53), governor of Tennessee (1853–57), and U.S. Senator (1857–62). Johnson was a Democrat. He defended the interests of his part of the state, largely non-slaveholding small farmers, against those of the slave-holding large plantation owners of the western part of Tennessee. He was intensely class-conscious and often portrayed himself as battling against the interests of entrenched wealth. On the national scene he was always a safe pro-slavery vote in Congress. However, after 1857 his support for the Homestead Bill, opposed by most Southern Democrats, increased the tensions between him and the wealthy plantation owners of his state.

After the election of 1860, Johnson led the fight in Tennessee of pro-Unionists, most powerful in east Tennessee, against the secessionists. On March 2, 1861, he made his stance clear to all: “Show me those who make war on the Government and fire on its vessels, and I will show you a traitor. If I were President of the United States I would have all such arrested, and, if convicted, by the Eternal God I would have them hung!” The only senator from a state in the Confederacy not to resign, Johnson vigorously supported the war effort of the federal government. Eastern Tennessee remained a hotbed of resistance to the Confederacy. 29 counties attempted to secede from Tennessee and join the Union. The Confederacy occupied the area and declared martial law. Throughout the Civil War Johnson was a fervent supporter of the Union. As this statement indicates, opposition to slavery was not a cause for his embracing the Union. “Damn the negroes, I am fighting those traitorous aristocrats, their masters.”

Johnson was appointed military governor of Tennessee after the Union took Nashville in March of 1862. In that capacity he took every effort to eradicate Confederate influence in that state. On August 8, 1863 he freed his slaves. Johnson began to call for negro suffrage on the grounds that a loyal negro was worth more than a disloyal white man. Lincoln running for re-election 1n 1864 realized that he needed to glean the war democrat votes if he hoped to win. He ran on a Union ticket with Johnson as his veep.

On inauguration day, March 4, 1865, Johnson was drunk. He was ill from malaria and fortified himself too well with “medicinal” whiskey. He made a rambling speech, was sworn in which took a fair amount of time due to Johnson slurring and stumbling over his words, and then launched into another drunken speech before a Supreme Court Justice led him away. A pity that C-Span was more than a century and a third in the future! Naturally this drunken escapade was the talk of Washington and Johnson was branded a hopeless drunk, which he was not.

After the murder of Lincoln, Johnson, a Southerner and a Democrat, faced a Northern Congress with Republicans in control. At first no problems were expected. Johnson had made many statements throughout the war which indicated a fiery hatred of the Confederacy, and Radical Republicans who favored a harsh policy towards the defeated South thought they had a firm friend in the White House now, as opposed to the lenient Lincoln. Much to the surprise of everyone, Johnson embraced what he thought Lincoln’s policy toward the South would have been. Johnson believed, along with Lincoln, that legally the Confederate states had not been out of the Union. Johnson’s Reconstruction plan consisted of the following: pardons would be granted to all forner Confederates taking a loyalty oath, only excluding high ranking Confederates and those owning more than $20,000 in property; the new state governments must abolish slavery in their constitutions and formally repeal their acts of secession. The former Confederate states rapidly took these steps and elected new Senators and representatives to Congress.

However, this mild Reconstruction policy found little favor with the Radical Republicans, and they blocked admission of the Southerners to Congress when Congress reconvened in December 1865. Conflict now loomed between Congress and the President over Reconstruction policy. The Radical Republicans viewed the Southern states as defeated provinces that were no longer in the Union. Their readmission would be contingent upon black suffrage, civil rights for blacks, and governments free from control of former Confederates. A long see-saw battle ensued between Johnson and Congress with Congress the ultimate winner after the 1866 elections increased Republican control of Congress. Martial law was declared in the South, and the South placed under military rule, except for Tennessee which had been readmitted to the Union. All Southern states were readmitted to the Union by 1870 and all were initially under firm Republican control due to black votes, the disenfranchisement of former Confederates, the use of Federal troops to suppress violence against black voters and not a little fraud.

Johnson faced impeachment in 1868 for firing Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War and an ardent partisan of the Radical Republicans. This violated the Tenure of Office Act passed by Congress in 1867, over the veto of Andrew Johnson, specifically to protect Stanton. (In 1926 the Supreme Court found that such laws restricting the right of a President to fire a cabinet officer were unconstitutional.) The House of Representatives, illustrating the hatred that had grown up between the President and the Republicans, impeached Johnson three days after he fired Stanton. The Senate failed to convict Johnson by only one vote. In a last act of defiance to Congress before he left office, Johnson on Christmas day 1868 gave a presidential amnesty to all Confederates, including Jefferson Davis.  His administration came to an end a century and a half ago with the inauguration of President Grant on March 4, 1869.

In 1874 Johnson was elected to the Senate from Tennessee. A speech he gave about political turmoil in Lousiana earned him a standing ovation from his fellow senators, many of whom had voted to convict him during the impeachment trial. Johnson died on July 31, 1875 and was buried as he wished: his body wrapped in an American flag and a copy of the constitution under his head.

Throughout his career Johnson was friendly to Catholics. In Tennessee he fought relentlessly against the anti-Catholic Know-Nothings and championed religious tolerance. While in the White House he often worshiped at Saint Patrick’s, admiring the Catholic liturgy and the fact that no special pews were set aside for the rich, as was common in many Protestant churches at the time, and that the rich and the poor sat together.

Well what to make of the obscure, through no fault of his own, Andrew Johnson? Has History rendered a verdict on him? Yes it has. Well, actually, History has rendered two verdicts. From the time of the 1890s up to the modern civil rights movement in the Sixties, most historians, apart from a handful of Republican leaning historians and black historians, viewed Johnson quite favorably. He was the courageous President who attempted heroically to carry out the martyred Lincoln’s lenient policy of Reconstruction and save the nation from the disastrous consequences of the the attempt by vengeful Radical Republicans to rule the south with corrupt regimes placed into power at the point of federal bayonets. This view held such sway that in 1955 in Profiles in Courage, the book which was written by Ted Sorenson and which may have been read by the purported author, John F. Kennedy, one of the senators celebrated was Edmund Ross of Kansas whose vote saved Johnson from being impeached. That even an uber-liberal like Sorenson, a pacifist during World War II, regarded Johnson favorably as late as 1955 is telling. Since the Sixties Johnson has usually been portrayed as a drunken racist and his opponents as noble far sighted statesmen who fought a heroic battle for civil rights for blacks.

Which verdict is correct? Both are in part. Johnson was a racist, as his private correspondence indicates. His public comments as President were statesmanlike on the issue of race, but there is no doubt that he opposed negro political equality. On the other hand, there is also no doubt that a large motivation for many Republicans was not only a desire to protect freed slaves in the South but to ensure Republican control in the South by fair means or foul, including by the use of Federal troops. Many of the Reconstruction regimes were amazingly corrupt, although not too much more than the white regimes that followed them.

I also have no doubt that Johnson was carrying out a Reconstruction policy quite similar to what Lincoln would have implemented if he had lived. However, I also think that Lincoln would have been diligent in attempting to protect the political rights of blacks. Could Lincoln have accomplished this? Probably not, at least not completely. Too many whites were adamantly opposed to any political role for blacks in the South. Occupation of the South by federal troops would have been necessary for decades to accomplish even the minimal task of protecting the civil rights of blacks, and I doubt if the people of the North would have had the long term patience to persist in this policy. What I do think is that with a political master like Lincoln at the helm Reconstruction would not have been quite the disaster it turned out to be. The Radical Republicans could not have run rough shod over Lincoln, a hero in the eyes of rank and file Republicans, as they did Johnson. There would have been no governments installed by military fiat to leave a legacy of hatred among white southerners that has persisted for generations. Focusing purely on black civil rights, rather than attempting to install Republican friendly governments, might have led to blacks keeping political control, or at least retaining the right to vote, in areas where they were the overwhelming majority. White Democrat politicians, once they regained control of their states, may even have found it useful under such circumstances to court black support, as the white governments that took over after Reconstruction were often riven by factions. If blacks had not been effectively disenfranchised, they could have held the balance of power among such factions. Racial animosities, although still great, might have been less than they were historically.   Alas, Johnson was no Lincoln, and in many ways the nation is still paying a price for that sad fact.

Published in: on August 30, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Profiles in Courage: Andrew Johnson  
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July 25, 1861: Crittenden-Johnson Resolutions Passed by Congress

1861 in the Civil War was largely a fight for the Border States of Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland, and the future state of West Virginia.  Each side knew that the outcome of the War might well depend on the ultimate control of this vast area.  Border state unionists were often pro-slavery and their concerns had to be taken into account by the Lincoln Administration.   The most powerful politician in Kentucky was Congressman John J. Crittenden, a man as old as the Constitution, he was a passionate Unionist, but pro-slavery.  The War had bitterly divided his state and his family:  one son would serve as a Union general and another son would serve as a Confederate general.  He understood that Unionists in his state were more than willing to fight to preserve the Union, but they were unwilling to fight against slavery.  In tandem with future president Andrew Johnson, then a Senator from Tennessee, the only member of the Senate from a Confederate state to refuse to resign from Congress following the secession of his state, he crafted resolutions to be passed by the House and the Senate making clear that the purpose of the War was to preserve the Union and not to destroy slavery.  Congress duly passed the resolutions on July 25, 1861,  with only two votes against in the House, but it was only a brief victory for those Unionists who were pro-slavery.   Two weeks later, Abraham Lincoln signed the Confiscation Act allowing the seizure by the Federal government of slaves of rebels as contraband of war.   Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania engineered the repeal of the resolutions in 1861.  The war for the Union would also be a war against slavery.  Here are the texts of the resolutions: (more…)

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July 7, 1865: Hanging of the Lincoln Conspirators



The four Lincoln conspirators sentenced to death were executed one hundred and fifty-seven years ago.  By far the most controversial execution was that of Mary Surratt, the only woman ever to be executed by the Federal government.  Although I have no doubt that she was involved in the conspiracy, her involvement was peripheral in nature and she should not have been executed.  Three days before his death, Andrew Johnson, in an account that should be read with a grain of salt, purportedly gave his opinion of the execution of Mrs. Surratt (The spelling errors are in the original account):

“While Mr. McElwee, explained that he was not attempting to quote the exact words of Mr. Johnson, he gives the substance of the political conversation.

‘The execution of Mrs. Surrat [sic] was a crime of passion without justice or reason. She knew no more about the intentions of Booth and his associates than any other preson [sic] who chanced to know Booth or Asterot. They had simply boarded as others had done, at her boarding house. She was entitled to trial in open court and the record of that trial preserved, but her executioners knew the records would condemn them if they kept till passion had subsided and they were estroyed’ [sic].

‘Is there no record of the condemnation and execution of Mrs. Surratt?’

‘No Sir, the records were immediately destroyed. They were not even kept until John was arrested and tried.’

‘If she was not guilty, why did you not interpose executive clemency?’

‘If I had interfered with the execution it would have meant my death and a riot that would have probably ended in war.’

‘Was there any appeal made to you for mitigating the sentence as reported after the execution.’

‘No appeal reached me. Her daughter forwarded one, but it was suppressed by Secretary Stanton. I heard of it afterward but never saw it. It was murder founded on perjury and executed to gratif pyassion [sic]. The chief witness afterwards confessed to his perjury.'” (more…)

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October 24, 1864: Moses of the Colored Man Speech

On the evening October 24, 1864, addressing a torchlight crowd of blacks in Nashville, Andrew Johnson, military governor of the state of Tennessee and the nominee for Vice President on the National Union ticket headed by Lincoln, freed the slaves of Tennessee.  No doubt it was done for the campaign, but it also was a remarkable event, especially due to the fact that although Johnson had fought throughout his political career in Tennessee prior to the war against the political influence of the large plantation owners, he had never breathed a word against slavery.  However, although still not in favor of Negro equality, the war had radicalized him into an opponent of slavery.  Here is his speech:

Colored men of Nashville: You have all heard of the President’s Proclamation, by which he announces to the world that the slaves in a large portion of the seceded States were thenceforth and forever free. For certain reasons, which seemed wise to the President, the benefits of that Proclamation did not extend to you or to your native State. Many of you consequently were left in bondage. The task-master’s scourge was not yet broken, and the fetters still galled your limbs. Gradually this iniquity has been passing away, but the hour has come when the last vestiges of it must be removed. Consequently, I, too, without reference to the President or any other person, have a proclamation to make; and, standing here upon the steps of the Capitol, with the past history of the State to witness, the present condition to guide, and its future to encourage me, I, Andrew Johnson, do hereby proclaim freedom to every man in Tennessee!

I invoke the colored people to be orderly and law-abiding, but at the same time let them assert their rights, and if traitors and ruffians attack them, while in the discharge of their duties, let them defend themselves as all men have a right to do.

I am no agrarian. I respect the rights of property acquired by honest labor. But I say, nevertheless, that if the great farm of Mark Cockrill, who gave $25,000 to Jeff. Davis’s Confederacy, were divided into small farms and sold to fifteen or twenty honest farmers, society would be improved, Nashville mechanics and tradesmen would be enriched, the State would have more good citizens, and our city would have a much better market than it now has.

I am no agrarian, but if the princely plantation of Wm. G. Harding, who boasted that he had disbursed over $5,000,000 for the rebel Confederacy, were parcelled out among fifty loyal, industrious farmers, it would be a blessing to our noble Commonwealth. I speak to-night as a citizen of Tennessee. I am here on my own soil, and mean to remain here and fight this great battle of freedom through to the end. Loyal men, from this day forward, are to be the controllers of Tennessee’s grand and sublime destiny, and Rebels must be dumb. We will not listen to their consels. Nashville is no longer the place for them to hold their meetings. Let them gather their treasonable conclaves elsewhere; among their friends in the Confederacy. They shall not hold their conspiracies in Nashville.

The representatives of the corrupt (and if you will permit me almost to swear a little) this damnable aristocracy, taunt us with our desire to see justice done, and charge us with favoring negro equality. Of all living men they should be the last to mouth that phrase; and even when uttered in their hearing, it should cause their cheeks to tinge and burn with shame. Negro equality, indeed! Why pass, any day, along the sidewalks of High street where these aristocrats more particularly dwell – these aristrocrats, whose sons are now in the bands of guerillas and cut-throats who prowl and rob and murder around our city – pass by their dwellings, I say, and you will see as many mulatto as negro children, the former bearing an unmistakable resemblance to their aristrocrat neighbors! (more…)

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American Aid to Benito Juarez

One of the more interesting periods in American-Mexican relations was during the occupation of Mexico by Napoleon III beginning in 1862, followed by the imposition of Maximilian I of Austria as Emperor of Mexico through a rigged plebiscite in 1864.  From the beginning, the Lincoln administration looked askance at the French attempt to transform Mexico into a French colony.  In the midst of Civil War all Lincoln could do was to convey his best wishes to Mexican President Benito Juarez who was carrying out a guerilla war against the French occupation.

After the War President Andrew Johnson sent General Phil Sheridan to the Rio Grande as a sign of American displeasure with the French occupation.  Secretary of State Seward, fearing a war with France, opposed attempts to pressure France or to supply the Juaristas.  Generals Grant and Sheridan, recalling with ire the desire by Emperor Maximilian to have an alliance with the Confederacy, clandestinely supplied the Juaristas with funds and weapons, Sheridan noting in his journal the supplying of 30,000 rifled muskets.  3,000 Union veterans went south of the border to join Juarista armies. Johnson privately approved all of this, even clandestinely meeting with an ambassador from Juarez, while publicly merely indicating that the US wanted France to withdraw from Mexico, and that what happened after this was a purely internal Mexican matter. (more…)

May 29, 1865: Amnesty Proclamation



Eventually President Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans in Congress would come to bitter blows over the issue of amnesty for former Confederates.  However, for now they were in agreement, and the Presidential Proclamation of May 29, 1865 outlined the oath to be taken by former Confederates and the classes of individuals excluded from taking the oath:

Amnesty Proclamation


Whereas the President of the United States, on the 8th day of December, A.D. eighteen hundred and sixty-three, and on the 26 day of March, A.D. eighteen hundred and sixty-four, did, with the object to suppress the existing rebellion, to induce all persons to return to their loyalty, and to restore the authority of the United States, issue proclamations offering amnesty and pardon to certain persons who had directly or by implication participated in the said rebellion; and whereas many persons who had so engaged in said rebellion have, since the issuance of said proclamations, failed or neglected to take the benefits offered thereby; and whereas many persons who have been justly deprived of all claim to amnesty and pardon thereunder, by reason of their participation directly or by implication in said rebellion, and continued hostility to the government of the United States since the date of said proclamation, now desire to apply for and obtain amnesty and pardon:

To the end, therefore, that the authority of the government of the United States may be restored, and that peace, order, and freedom may be established, I, ANDREW JOHNSON, President of the United States, do proclaim and declare that I hereby grant to all persons who have, directly or indirectly, participated in the existing rebellion, except as hereinafter excepted, amnesty and pardon, with restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves, and except in cases where legal proceedings, under the laws of the United States providing for the confiscation of property of persons engaged in rebellion, have been instituted; but upon the condition, nevertheless, that every such person shall take and subscribe the following oath, (or affirmation,) and thenceforward keep and maintain said oath inviolate; and which oath shall be registered for permanent preservation, and shall be of the tenor and effect following, to wit:

I, _______ _______, do solemnly swear, (or affirm,) in presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the union of the States thereunder; and that I will, in like manner, abide by, and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves. So help me God. (more…)

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April 29, 1865: Johnson Postpones Day of Mourning For Lincoln



On April 29, 1865, President Johnson in his second Presidential Proclamation postpones the national day of mourning that he proclaimed in his first Proclamation:

By the President of the United States of America
A Proclamation




Whereas by my proclamation of the 25th instant Thursday, the 25th day of next month, was recommended as a day for special humiliation and prayer in consequence of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, late President of the United States; but

Whereas my attention has since been called to the fact that the day aforesaid is sacred to large numbers of Christians as one of rejoicing for the ascension of the Savior:

Now, therefore, be it known that I, Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, do hereby suggest that the religious services recommended as aforesaid should be postponed until Thursday, the 1st day of June next.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this 29th day of April, A. D. 1865, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-ninth.


By the President:


Acting Secretary of State. (more…)

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President What’s His Name


Poor Andrew Johnson! You know that a President is obscure when a film made 77 years ago, when the average American knew far more American history than the average American does today, has a trailer with a quiz about the presidential subject of the film. This is a shame. Andrew Johnson was a fascinating man and led a fascinating life.

Born on December 29, 1808, his father died when he was three, from the ill effects incurred by his efforts in saving several people from drowning, leaving his mother, young Andrew and Andrew’s elder brother William, in dire poverty. Johnson, along with his brother William, were apprenticed by his mother, not an uncommon arrangement at that time , to a tailor when Johnson was 10 or 14, and he learned the tailor’s trade. Johnson never had a formal education and taught himself to read and write. In 1826 Johnson opened his own tailor shop in Greenville Tennessee, located in far eastern Tennessee in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

In 1827 Johnson married Eliza McCardle, probably the turning point in his life. His saintly wife instructed him in mathematics and improved his reading and writing skills. She would read to him while he worked. Johnson drank up the knowledge, worked diligently and his business prospered. It quickly became a center for political discussion in the town as Johnson was fond of talking about politics and debating the issues of the day. To hone his debating skills Johnson joined a debate club at a small college.




Published in: on March 19, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments (3)  
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Thaddeus Stevens: Film Portrayals

I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before his Creator.

Inscription on the Tombstone of Thaddeus Stevens

As regular readers of this blog know, I greatly enjoyed the film Lincoln and praised it for its overall historical accuracy.  Go here to read my review.  One of the many aspects of the film that I appreciated was Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens (R.Pa.), a radical Republican who rose from poverty to become the leader of the abolitionists in the House, and one of the most powerful men in the country from 1861 to his death in 1868.  There haven’t been many screen portrayals of Stevens, but they illustrate how perceptions of Stevens have shifted based upon perceptions of Reconstruction and civil rights for blacks.

The above is an excellent video on the subject.

The 1915 film Birth of a Nation, has a barely concealed portrayal of Stevens under the name of Congressman Austin Stoneman, the white mentor of mulatto Silas Lynch, the villain of the film, who makes himself virtual dictator of South Carolina until he is toppled by heroic Klansmen.  The film was in line with the Lost Cause mythology that portrayed Reconstruction as a tragic crime that imposed governments made up of ignorant blacks and scheming Yankee carpetbaggers upon the South.  This was the predominant view of scholarly opinion at the time.  The film was attacked by both the NAACP and the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, as being untrue to history, a glorification of mob violence and racist.

By 1942 when the film Tennessee Johnson was made, we see a substantial shift in the portrayal of Stevens.  Played by veteran actor Lionel Barrymore, best know today for his portrayal of Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, Stevens is portrayed as a fanatic out to punish the South and fearful that the too lenient, in his view, treatment of the South in Reconstruction will lead to a new Civil War.  This leads up to the climax of the film, the trial in the Senate of Johnson, with Stevens as the leader of the House delegation prosecuting Johnson, with Johnson staying in office by one vote.  The portrayal of Stevens is not one-dimensional.  Stevens is shown as basically a good, if curmudgeonly, man, consumed by fears of a new Civil War and wishing to help the newly emancipated slaves, albeit wrong in his desire to punish the South.  Like Birth of a Nation, Tennessee Johnson reflected the scholarly consensus of the day which still painted Reconstruction in a negative light, although not as negative as in  1915.  Additionally,  the issue of contemporary civil rights for blacks was beginning to emerge outside of the black community as an issue, and Stevens in the film is not attacked on his insistence for civil rights for blacks. (more…)

Published in: on December 10, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Thaddeus Stevens: Film Portrayals  
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