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 15, 1870: Georgia Readmitted to the Union



Georgia was the last of the former Confederate States to be readmitted to the Union.  Congress refused to sit Georgia representatives or senators in Congress in 1869 due to the action of the Georgia legislature in expelling black members of that body.  This was followed by an attack by a white mob in the town of Camilla, Georgia on a Republican gathering that killed 12 blacks.  Federal military rule was reimposed in December of 1869.  In 1870 the troops were withdrawn and the Georgia Congressional delegation seated, when the Georgia legislature agreed to sit blacks.  By 1872 Geogia was firmly under the control of one of the so-called “Redeemer” white governments throughout the old Confederacy that used a mixture of legislation and terrorism to disenfranchise blacks.  The Civil War ended slavery and preserved the Union.  The Reconstruction era failed to protect the civil rights of blacks, a sad legacy that is still impacting the nation.

Published in: on July 15, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on July 15, 1870: Georgia Readmitted to the Union  
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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…)

Published in: on May 29, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 29, 1865: Amnesty Proclamation  
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March 3, 1865: Lincoln Signs Bill Creating Freedmen’s Bureau

One of the chief instruments of Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau, formally known as The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, had a broad area of responsibility as set forth in the Act creating it:

An Act to establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That there is hereby established in the War Department, to continue during the present war of rebellion, and for one year thereafter, a bureau of refugees, freedmen, and abandoned lands, to which shall be committed, as hereinafter provided, the supervision and management of all abandoned lands, and the control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from rebel states, or from any district of country within the territory embraced in the operations of the army, under such rules and regulations as may be prescribed by the head of the bureau and approved by the President. The said bureau shall be under the management and control of a commissioner to be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, whose compensation shall be three thousand dollars per annum, and such number of clerks as may be assigned to him by the Secretary of War, not exceeding one chief clerk, two of the fourth class, two of the third class, and five of the first class. And the commissioner and all persons appointed under this act, shall, before entering upon their duties, take the oath of office prescribed in an act entitled “An act to prescribe an oath of office, and for other purposes,” approved July second, eighteen hundred and sixty-two, and the commissioner and the chief clerk shall, before entering upon their duties, give bonds to the treasurer of the United States, the former in the sum of fifty thousand dollars, and the latter in the sum of ten thousand dollars, conditioned for the faithful discharge of their duties respectively, with securities to be approved as sufficient by the Attorney-General, which bonds shall be filed in the office of the first comptroller of the treasury, to be by him put in suit for the benefit of any injured party upon any breach of the conditions thereof.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That the Secretary of War may direct such issues of provisions, clothing, and fuel, as he may deem needful for the immediate and temporary shelter and supply of destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen and their wives and children, under such rules and regulations as he may direct.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That the President may, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, appoint an assistant commissioner for each of the states declared to be in insurrection, not exceeding ten in number, who shall, under the direction of the commissioner, aid in the execution of the provisions of this act; and he shall give a bond to the Treasurer of the United States, in the sum of twenty thousand dollars, in the form and manner prescribed in the first section of this act. Each of said commissioners shall receive an annual salary of two thousand five hundred dollars in full compensation for all his services. And any military officer may be detailed and assigned to duty under this act without increase of pay or allowances. The commissioner shall, before the commencement of each regular session of congress, make full report of his proceedings with exhibits of the state of his accounts to the President, who shall communicate the same to congress, and shall also make special reports whenever required to do so by the President or either house of congress; and the assistant commissioners shall make quarterly reports of their proceedings to the commissioner, and also such other special reports as from time to time may be required.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That the commissioner, under the direction of the President, shall have authority to set apart, for the use of loyal refugees and freedmen, such tracts of land within the insurrectionary states as shall have been abandoned, or to which the United States shall have acquired title by confiscation or sale, or otherwise, and to every male citizen, whether refugee or freedman, as aforesaid, there shall be assigned not more than forty acres of such land, and the person to whom it was so assigned shall be protected in the use and enjoyment of the land for the term of three years at an annual rent not exceeding six per centum upon the value of such land, as it was appraised by the state authorities in the year eighteen hundred and sixty, for the purpose of taxation, and in case no such appraisal can be found, then the rental shall be based upon the estimated value of the land in said year, to be ascertained in such manner as the commissioner may by regulation prescribe. At the end of said term, or at any time during said term, the occupants of any parcels so assigned may purchase the land and receive such title thereto as the United States can convey, upon paying therefor the value of the land, as ascertained and fixed for the purpose of determining the annual rent aforesaid.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That all acts and parts of acts inconsistent with the provisions of this act, are hereby repealed.

Congress would reauthorize the Freedmen’s Bureau each year until 1872 when it was dissolved.  We shall follow its activities in future posts.

Published in: on March 3, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on March 3, 1865: Lincoln Signs Bill Creating Freedmen’s Bureau  
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June 19, 1865: Juneteenth

The last slaves liberated on June 19, 1865 in Texas by the Union troops occupying Galveston.  The event has been commemorated down through the years as Juneteenth: (more…)

Published in: on June 19, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on June 19, 1865: Juneteenth  
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Pitchfork Ben Tillman and The Ending of Reconstruction in South Carolina

I trust that regular readers of this blog can tell from my posts that I take pride in being an American and enjoy studying the history of our nation.  Alas, no American can take pride in all aspects of our history.  One feature of our history that is a matter of shame and not pride is the treatment that Black Americans endured in our nation for centuries.

After the Civil War, “Redeemer” white governments arose after Reconstruction and fought to take away the newly won franchise from Blacks .

Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina, he got the nickname Pitchfork  from stating in his 1896 that he would drive a Pitchfork into President Grover Cleveland’s ribs, on March 23, 1900 in a speech in the Senate summed up what happened to the rights of blacks throughout the South:

We did not disfranchise the negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. We adopted the educational qualification as the only means left to us, and the negro is as contented and as prosperous and as well protected in South Carolina to-day as in any State of the Union south of the Potomac. He is not meddling with politics, for he found that the more he meddled with them the worse off he got. As to his “rights”—I will not discuss them now. We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him. I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores. But I will not pursue the subject further.

Of course “Pitchfork” Ben prettied up the process for a national audience.  Rights were taken away from Blacks in South Carolina through a long process of violence and murder.  Tillman was involved in one notorious incident, the Hamburg massacre of 1876, that Tillman bragged about when he ran for governor in 1890.

The Attorney General of South Carolina made a report on the Massacre shortly after it occurred: (more…)

Published in: on May 29, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Pitchfork Ben Tillman and The Ending of Reconstruction in South Carolina  
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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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December 8, 1863: Lincoln Issues Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction




By the end of 1863 Abraham Lincoln could look back on a year in which the Union had made some progress in its goal of defeating the Confederacy.  Although barren of results, the Union had won the largest battle of the War at Gettysburg, a huge boost for Union morale.  In the West results were more tangible, with the Union seizing control of the Mississippi, and rooting Confederate forces from Tennessee.  The Union certainly had not yet won the War, but the signs were encouraging.  This allowed Lincoln to turn his attention to the vexing questions of what to do with former Confederates who wished to pledge their loyalty to the Union and how to re-establish pro-Union civilian governments throughout the Confederacy.  Lincoln had always been clear in his view that the Confederate states had never left the Union, and that once the rebels who had seized control of these states were suppressed, that these states could resume their rightful places in the Union.  His policy thus favored leniency both to individuals and to states, to ensure that the military victory of the Union would be followed by a lasting peace.  It is a great tragedy that Lincoln did not live to attempt to implement the policy.  On December 8, 1863 Lincoln issued a Proclamation that set forth his policy regarding amnesty for individuals and the re-establishment of pro-Union civil governments in defeated Confederate states.  Here is the proclamation: (more…)

Published in: on December 8, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on December 8, 1863: Lincoln Issues Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction  
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Grant’s War on the Klan

President Grant has a rather deserved reputation for being a poor president.  However there were bright spots to his term in office, and one of the brightest was the war he waged against the Klan.

Basically a domestic terrorist group that used violence and the threat of violence against blacks and Republicans in the South, the activities by the Klan had aroused a fury in the North by 1870.    With Grant taking the lead Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan act on April 30, 1871.  The text of the Act is here.  The Act gave broad powers to the Executive Branch to combat the Klan, including use of the military and suspension of the writ of habeus corpus.  (more…)

Published in: on December 2, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Grant’s War on the Klan  
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What Might Have Been



One of the great tragedies of American history is that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he could implement his post war reconstruction policy.  In a letter in January 1864 to Major General James Wadsworth, a wealthy New York politician and philanthropist who helped found the Free Soil Party, Lincoln set forth his basic policy:


You desire to know, in the event of our complete success in the field, the same being followed by a loyal and cheerful submission on the part of the South, if universal amnesty should not be accompanied with universal suffrage.

Now, since you know my private inclinations as to what terms should be granted to the South in the contingency mentioned, I will here add, that if our success should thus be realized, followed by such desired results, I cannot see, if universal amnesty is granted, how, under the circumstances, I can avoid exacting in return universal suffrage, or, at least, suffrage on the basis of intelligence and military service.

How to better the condition of the colored race has long been a study which has attracted my serious and careful attention; hence I think I am clear and decided as to what course I shall pursue in the premises, regarding it a religious duty, as the nation’s guardian of these people, who have so heroically vindicated their manhood on the battle-field, where, in assisting to save the life of the Republic, they have demonstrated in blood their right to the ballot, which is but the humane protection of the flag they have so fearlessly defended.The restoration of the Rebel States to the Union must rest upon the principle of civil and political equality of the both races; and it must be sealed by general amnesty. (more…)

Published in: on April 14, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on What Might Have Been  
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