I’ve said before that, between Jackson and Lincoln, the presidential talent pool gets pretty shallow. Of the eight presidents between our seventh and sixteenth chief executives, two died before they could accomplish much, the rest flailed wildly for one reason or another, and only James K. Polk came close to achieving any greatness. It took Lincoln, a plain-spoken, self-educated backwoods lawyer to sew the nation back together after over a decade of northern doughfaces placating an increasingly irrational South. Unfortunately, Lincoln was cut down by a hot-headed traitor to both north and south before he could implement any kind of reconstruction plan after four years of civil war nearly destroyed the nation.
The burden of rebuilding the Union fell upon a former Tennessee senator who showed up drunk to his inauguration as vice-president, Andrew Johnson. Like James Buchanan before him, Johnson actually came to the White House better qualified than most of his more recent predecessors at the start of their terms, including the man whose mantle he inherited. Unlike Buchanan, Johnson was anything but wishy-washy. Hearkening back to his personal hero, Andrew Jackson, Johnson walked into the White House fully prepared to personally hang Jefferson Davis.
In his book, The Avenger Takes His Place, Howard Means describes an extremely complicated man who very narrowly missed assassination on that fateful April night in 1865. There were many similarities this life-long Democrat shared with his Republican president. Both men were self-educated. Both men were voracious readers. Both men worked their way up from nothing to be incredibly successful in their chosen fields – Lincoln a lawyer, Johnson a tailor, even during his political career. Both men prized the Union above all else.
That’s where the similarities end. Johnson was, like many southerners in his day, a racist. However, like the Founding Fathers, who sensed something wasn’t right about the peculiar institution of slavery they were preserving, Johnson’s racism wasn’t really a defining quality. He was a benign slave holder, his slaves often seeking him out as a gentle master. Johnson’s view on slavery and black equality was essentially class-based. If it helped bring down the planter class he so despised, Johnson was all for it. If it would secure a Union victory, so much the better.
So why is Johnson considered a failure as president, particularly when he was head and shoulders better than Lincoln’s half dozen or so predecessors? Simple. Lincoln was flexible, his views on slavery, black equality, southern reconstruction, and preserving the Union were constant works in progress. Put simply, Lincoln needed his friends’ input. (Means mistakenly asserts Lincoln had none, failing to miss two cabinet members, his first vice president, and even several of his rivals whose friendship and opinions he valued.) He needed his enemies input just as badly.
Johnson, to quote one of his more recent successor’s view of the presidency, was The Decider. Johnson, when speaking off the cuff, was an often angry, bombastic man. When writing, he was thoughtful, articulate, and intelligent. Regardless, Johnson lacked Lincoln’s ability to bend and flex to get what he wanted. Is this bad?
It worked for Jackson. It later worked for Harry Truman quite nicely. And George W. Bush managed to get reelected based on standing his ground. But Jackson was a hero, even after his policies wrecked the US economy during his successor’s term. Truman needed to stand pat in the face of Roosevelt’s Harvard-trained cabinet and a Republican Congress unsure of its role in postwar America. And Bush? Bush had two houses of Congress under his party’s control. They all could afford to be inflexible.
Neither the Union nor the defeated Confederacy could afford Johnson’s inflexibility. Why? Congress was under the control of Radical Republicans, who were hell-bent on revenge against the South. Had Lincoln lived, they would have chafed under Lincoln’s plan to gently ease the South back into the Union, but they would gladly accept it. And it would have happened. Lincoln, the shrewd, soft-spoken small-town lawyer, would have massaged and tweaked relations with his rivals in both parties and manipulated them into making his plan happen.
Johnson? Andrew Johnson lacked the most critical politician’s skill – making deals and networking. Johnson saw things in black and white. While he took almost six weeks to put out his plan, basically an adjustment of Lincoln’s plan, once out, that was the end of the discussion. Unfortunately, Congress was in no mood for reconciliation and reconstruction. The more Johnson dug in his heels, the more Congress attempted to thwart him, to the point of impeaching him for violating the unconstitutional Tenure in Office Act. Johnson survived, but never backed down.
Could Johnson have done better? It’s likely that if he had been in the White House in April of 1861, the Union victory would have taken a very different form, but still would have happened. Johnson probably would have made a good war time president, being decisive and relentless in his decisions. In the face of an intractable Congress, he wound up saddled with a law that hamstrung the presidency – much to the detriment of America itself – for two decades. Imagine how forgettable the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson might have been had the Tenure in Office Act remained in force. In retrospect, Lincoln might have been better served to keep Hannibal Hamlin as vice-president. Today, switching vice presidents is almost unthinkable. Nixon was forced to do so when Agnew was forced to resign, and Ford was forced to change running mates due to Nelson Rockefeller’s illness. Beyond that, the vice presidency has remained extremely stable, and indeed grown in importance, since World War II. Perhaps if Johnson had remained military governor of his home state under Lincoln, his stature would be higher today, and President Hamlin might have made Lincoln’s plans come to fruition.
We will never know.