Polk: the Man who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

President #11, C-SPAN Historians’ ranking #12

Looks Like My Work Here is Done

polkBetween the time of Andrew Jackson and before the time of Abraham Lincoln, American Presidents were an undistinguished lot, to put it kindly. No one served more than one term. Most are forgotten.

However, one man in the job managed to stand out. That was James Knox Polk. Polk was the lone President of his era who used the office to actually get things done. He came, seemingly from nowhere; and then, after one term, died soon after leaving office.

Polk’s mostly glowing reputation stems from the fact that he promised to accomplish four major goals while in office. And he did that. Whether or not Polk used methods to accomplish these goals (such as fighting a war of conquest against Mexico that was of questionable legitimacy) is what needs to be evaluated. However, it seems clear from reading this book that James Polk was a man who was very intent on getting things done.

James Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina on November 2, 1795, but his family moved to Tennessee when he was 11. At age 17, young James Polk suffered from a severe pain in his urinary tract. He had a stone lodged in a delicate part of his anatomy. A doctor removed the stone in a way that you don’t want the details of. One of the side effects was that James Polk never had any children.

At the age of 20, James Polk enrolled in the University of North Carolina. UNC was a small institution at the time and had just one professor. (But, preparing for the future, there were seven basketball coaches even though the game hadn’t been invented yet.)

When Polk returned to Tennessee, he got a job as the clerk of the State Senate in 1819. He began to build relationships with prominent Tennessee politicians such as Davey Crockett, Sam Houston (both of whom would move on to Texas), and, most importantly, Andrew Jackson. By 1823, Polk was elected to the Senate. The next year, he married his wife Sarah.

Polk supported Jackson in his quest for the Presidency in 1824, and, like many (since Jackson got the most popular AND electoral votes), was bitterly disappointed when John Quincy Adams was chosen President by the House of Representatives. Polk fingered Henry Clay as the chief villain.

In 1825, Polk was elected to the House of Representatives. By 1833, he was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, thanks to Jackson’s support. In 1834, Polk ran for Speaker of the House, but lost out to another Tennessean, John Bell. However, in 1835, Polk finally ascended to the Speakership.

However, Polk had to give up the Speakership in 1839. He was needed back in Tennessee as the Democrats needed a strong candidate for governor. He won that race, but was defeated for reelection in 1841. When he challenged the incumbent governor (James Jones, portrayed as a hayseed by Borneman) in 1843, Polk lost again. He seemingly was a man going nowhere politically.

Polk still had hopes that he could get back to higher office. His goal for 1844 was to be the Democratic nominee for Vice-President. As he was just 49, Polk figured he could wait until 1852 or 1856 to get a shot at the Presidency.

But, events took a strange turn. In 1844, the hottest political issue in the country was Texas. The then independent country was practically begging to become part of the United States, as it was heavily in debt, and threatened by Mexico and Great Britain.

President John Tyler submitted a treaty annexing Texas that the Senate rejected. Northerners were hesitant to admit such a large slave-owning state into the Union. Tyler’s third Secretary of State (the first one, Daniel Webster, resigned. The second one, Abel Upshur, died in a steamship explosion), John Calhoun, was a proponent of annexation. However, he hurt his plan when he wrote a lengthy diplomatic memorandum to the British minister to the U.S. detailing why slavery was good for Texas and good for America. Texas was now inextricably linked in the minds of many with slavery.

The two presumptive nominees for President in 1844 were Whig candidate Clay and Democratic ex-President Martin Van Buren. Clay was opposed to the annexation of Texas because it would create divisions over slavery and possibly provoke a war with Mexico. Van Buren turned out to be opposed to annexation as well, also because of fears of adding any more slave-owning states to the Union.

Clay and Van Buren announced these positions coincidentally on the same day. When news of Clay and Van Buren’s opposition to Texas reached Andrew Jackson, in retirement in Tennessee, Old Hickory summoned his protege, Polk, to visit him.

DSCF0889

James Polk at the National Portrait Gallery

Polk was a proponent of the annexation of Texas. Polk was pretty much in favor of adding just about any territory the United States could get its hands on. Jackson told Polk that he should aim for the Presidency in 1844. Jackson could make it work.

Both parties held their conventions in Baltimore in 1844. The Whigs nominated Clay by acclamation. They assumed that the Great Compromiser would have his best chance to win the Presidency in his third try.

The Democrats were facing a much more difficult situation. For starters, Democratic party rules required any nominee to gain 2/3 the votes of the delegates. Van Buren led in delegates, but was well short of 2/3. And there was significant opposition to Van Buren. But, there was no one candidate for the anti-Van Buren forces to rally around.

During the eighth ballot, Polk received 44 votes. Then on the ninth, there was a stampede for Polk, bringing him up to 231 votes and making him the nominee.

The convention then nominated Silas Wright of New York for Vice President, but he declined as he chose to run for governor of New York. The convention then chose George Dallas of Philadelphia.

The Whigs derisively asked “Who is James K. Polk?” Polk was considered to be untested and inexperienced, despite his tenure as Speaker of the House. Henry Clay had the resume to be president.

But, when the votes were counted, Polk prevailed by 39,000 votes and by 65 in the electoral vote. The difference was New York, which had 36 electoral votes. Polk carried it by only 5,000 votes. Some credit third party candidate, James Birney (of the antislavery Liberty Party) of siphoning just enough votes to make the difference. (You can’t blame Florida, it wouldn’t become a state until 1845.) Polk failed to carry his home state of Tennessee

Clay ended up hurting himself by waffling on the Texas issue, making it sound as if he could back annexation. Polk resolutely maintained his position on Texas. He also proposed that he would  accomplish four things in office:

  1. Settle the Oregon border dispute
  2. Add California to the United States
  3. Adjust the tariff so it would be on a revenue basis, and not protectionist
  4. Establish an independent Treasury to maintain the assets of the United States, ending the practice of the Federal Government depositing its funds in a host of state banks

Also, Polk pledged to serve just one term, which neutralized a similar pledge that Clay had made. The Whig party did not believe that the President should have much power, but did believe in an activist government that spent money on internal improvements. The Democrats believed in a powerful executive, but also in limited government. It made a lot more sense back in 1844 than it does now.

The Texas issue was solved (to a certain extent) before Polk was inaugurated. On March 3, 1845, Tyler signed a Congressional joint resolution annexing Texas as part of the United States. Once the details were sorted out, Texas would become a state.

As Clay sulked over being denied the Presidency a third time, Polk got to work almost immediately. He intended to be an active hands on manager. He insisted that his Cabinet members stay in Washington and be available to him at all times. He tried to schedule Cabinet meetings twice a week.

Polk’s first big issue he faced was the Oregon situation. The Oregon Territory had been jointly occupied by the Americans and British since a treaty in 1818 (the Spanish and Russians also had claims to the area, but they abandoned them.) The area was sparsely populated, with cafe lattes being much harder to find than they are now. The 1818 Treaty had a provision where either signatory could ask out with one year’s notice. Presumably, the issue would then be resolved by negotiation, arbitration, or going to war. Polk wanted negotiation or war, with little use for arbitration.

The British were willing to negotiate the situation, but it was hard getting an agreement on where to draw the border. The 49th Parallel represented the border between the U.S.  and Canada from Minnesota until you hit the Oregon Territory. One plan had the U.S. getting most of the Oregon Territory except for the area around Puget Sound stretching out east to the Columbia River.

Polk, and his Secretary of State James Buchanan, didn’t particularly like this idea as Puget Sound was necessary from both an economic and strategic standpoint. (Polk also owned stock in Boeing and Microsoft. He was always looking ahead.)

Another problem was a growing nationalist movement in America that demanded that the United States take control of the ENTIRE Oregon Territory, all the way up to the 54’40° mark at the border with the Russian territory of Alaska. The phrase “54’40° or Fight!” entered the American political dialog. One Philadelphia paper used the phrase “Phifty Phour Phorty or Phight” and then changed that to an abbreviation of “PPPP.” (The repeated use of PHs for Fs was about as funny in 1845 as it is today.)

Polk and Buchanan finally agreed to compromise on a border at the 49th Parallel. The British asked for unrestricted navigation for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Polk agreed to this after the State Department found out that the Hudson’s Bay Company was going to lose its charter in the 1850s anyway. The treaty was ratified on June 18, 1846. Polk bought everyone espressos to celebrate.

One quirk of this decision was that there ended up being part of the United States that would only be accessible through Canada. That area is now called Point Roberts, Washington. I visited it once. It’s really not worth the trip.

What Polk is known best for is the Mexican War. This conflict would end up adding three whole states and parts of four others to the United States. It would also prove to be a prelude to the Civil War. And, even today, the peace treaty concluding the war is still in dispute.

After Polk indicated he would make Texas a state (making it much easier for fans to travel to the Cotton Bowl), Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with the U.S. Polk didn’t see this as a crisis, but rather an opportunity.

Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to take up a position in Texas south of the Nueces River near Corpus Christi (which Mexico believed to be the border) and north of the Rio Grande (which the United States thought was the border). Polk had a representative, John Slidell, travel to Mexico City to offer the Mexican government $25 million plus some debt relief in exchange for the territories of New Mexico and Alta California. The Mexican government (which changed frequently at this time) declined the offer.

On April 25, 1846, Taylor’s troops were engaged by Mexican forces and eleven soldiers were killed. When news of the battle got back to Washington, Polk claimed that “American blood had been spilled on American soil.” He asked Congress to declare war, which was done with only a handful of dissenting votes.

Borneman believes that Polk demanding a declaration of war was a turning point in American history. The only other time Congress had declared war (back in 1812), it was Congress, specifically Henry Clay, leading the cause. President James Madison supported the declaration, but deferred to Congress. Polk was not going to let Congress take its time. He wanted action. In the three subsequent declarations of war, the President would be the person telling Congress to declare war. (Since World War II, much of the world has gotten out of the declaring war business. It’s easier to fight without one.)

Polk hoped that a $2 million inducement would bring former Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna return from exile. Polk figured that Santa Anna would retake control in Mexico, followed by a surrender. However, Santa Anna just took the money, and kept fighting. Santa Anna would eventually serve as Mexican President four separate times.

General Stephen Kearney led a small force from Kansas and occupied Santa Fe without a fight. Kearney kept on moving to California in an attempt to claim that territory. When Kearney got to California, he found out that explorer John C. Fremont had already led a rebellion that established an independent republic in California, known as the Bear Flag Republic. (Hence the flag!)

Fremont’s adventuring ended up complicating matters greatly. However, Kearney was eventually able to gain control of the area after a series of small battles in Southern California. The Treaty of Cahuenga finished off this part of the war.

The portion of the war in Mexico proved to be a bit more difficult. For starters, both of the principal American generals, Taylor and Winfield Scott, were Whig politicians who were reportedly angling for the Presidency. Scott had already made attempts to gain the nomination in 1836 and 1840.

Taylor also did not want to help out Scott, who was given the order to make an amphibious landing at Veracruz to take that port, and then proceed on to Mexico City. Taylor won a major battle against Mexican forces in the Battle of Buena Vista (although Borneman doesn’t give Taylor much credit) on February 22, 1847. The Whig press seized upon this victory as one of America’s greatest military triumphs, although mass desertions in the Mexican ranks probably helped out more.

Meanwhile, Polk sent another minister to Mexico, Nicholas Trist, to join Scott. Once Scott captured Mexico City, Trist was to present his credentials as an ambassador and negotiate a treaty. Scott managed to successfully land at Veracruz in March of 1847. Some of the officers under Scott’s command were Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and George Meade. It was like spring training for the Civil War.

Scott pushed on to take over Mexico City and on to Puebla, before stopping his advance in May of 1847. Now, it was time to negotiate.

Polk wanted Trist to get the Mexican government to cede to the U.S. all of Alta California and New Mexico as “payment” for the war costs. Trist turned out to be of an independent mind. He first offered to settle the Texas-Mexico border NORTH of the Rio Grande, which would have made the whole cause of the war bogus. When Polk got wind of this, he wanted Trist to come home.

Fortunately for Trist, communications were slow enough that he had enough time to convince the Mexican government to give Polk almost all of what he wanted. Mexico agreed to give up the land shaded in red in the linked map in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The treaty was signed on February 2, 1848. Trist sent it back to Washington quickly, forcing Polk to have to send it on to the Senate.

With the exception of a section that would have guaranteed Spanish and Mexican land claims, the Senate accepted the treaty on March 10, 1848.

Polk’s conduct of the war was not popular with everyone. An Illinois Representative named Abraham Lincoln tried to get Congress to pass what he called “The Spot Resolution” that would force Polk to identify the actual spot where the initial hostilities happened. It did not pass. In Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay a tax in support of the war and went to jail for a night because of it. Thoreau penned his famous essay “On Civil Disobedience” based on this experience.

Another problem for Polk came from another member of his party, Representative David Wilmot of Pennsyvlania. Wilmot tried to attach a rider (more frequently called the Wilmot Proviso) to an appropriations bill for the war that would have abolished slavery in any territory taken from Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso never passed, but it served as a model for antislavery forces leading up to the Civil War.

One of the questions about Polk’s Administration is: Did he start the war with Mexico in order to provide the South with more territory that would be available for slavery? Borneman doesn’t think that was the case. He portrays Polk as an ardent nationalist in the tradition of Andrew Jackson. Polk wanted California as much for strategic purposes as anything else. However, Polk’s reputation for most of the post Civil War period portrayed him as a greedy slaveowner.

Lately, Polk has been regarded much better by historians. He receives high marks for accomplishing all four of his campaign promises. (The tariff reform and Independent Treasury measures passed with surprisingly little opposition from Congress.)

However, Polk did not leave much of a legacy. Zachary Taylor, whom Polk thought would be a terrible President, succeeded him. Polk and his wife Sarah hoped to spend a quiet retirement in Nashville. But Polk was not a healthy man. The linked photo shows Polk in February of 1849. He is just 53 years old in the photo.

The Polks went by boat from Washington and headed south. They planned to go up the Mississippi back to Tennessee. One of the ships the Polks were on was riddled with cholera sufferers. Polk fell victim to it. On June 15, 1849, just 103 days after leaving office, James Knox Polk died in Nashville. He had the shortest retirement of any President. He also was the youngest President to die of natural causes. His widow, Sarah, lived until August 14, 1891, the longest widowhood of any First Lady.

Borneman’s book, at least the title, claims that Polk changed America. However, it seems to me that Polk was more of a phenomenon than a trendsetter. There would not be another President who would use the office of the Presidency in a similar way until Abraham Lincoln. And Lincoln was opposed to almost all of Polk’s policies.

Polk is unique in American history in that he seemingly came from nowhere, made an enormous impact on the country. Then he died, leaving no political legacy whatsoever. The two Democrats who followed Polk in office, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, were two of the worst Presidents ever. By the times the Democrats got back to the White House in 1885, James Polk’s time had long passed.

Other stuff: The James Polk House is in Columbia, Tennessee, but it’s not where he died. That home was torn down in 1901. Instead, it’s a home from 1816 where Polk lived for a time. James and Sarah Polk are entombed on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Advertisements

Andrew Johnson: A Biography by Hans L. Trefousse

President #17, C-SPAN Historians’ ranking #41

You Cannot Stop Reading This Unless You Have Prior Approval of the U.S. Senate

ajohnsonAndrew Johnson’s story could have been one of the most inspiring in American history. Here was a man born in to extreme poverty, with no formal education at all, and, through very hard work and dedicated service to his country,  he ended up as President.

And once he became President, Andrew Johnson was a colossal failure. He accomplished almost nothing in office (well, we got Alaska!) He claimed to care deeply about the U.S. Constitution, but those feelings somehow manifested itself in overt racism.

Johnson would become most famous for surviving an impeachment trial by a margin of one vote. But, even though Johnson managed to stay in office, it did little to enhance Johnson’s historical reputation. Johnson ranks just one notch above James Buchanan. And it does not help Johnson’s reputation that he succeeded Abraham Lincoln.

Hans L. Trefousse, who will appear again on this blog, gives one of the fairest portrayals of Johnson that any modern historian could. And you can tell very quickly that Trefousse has little regard for our 17th President.

Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on December 29, 1808. His father, who was very likely illiterate, died when Andrew was three. His mother, unable to properly provide for her children, had Andrew serve as an apprentice tailor. While working as an apprentice, young Andrew was taught to read and write. (To this day, there are books that state that Johnson’s wife Eliza taught him how to read and write, but Trefousse insists that Johnson was already literate by the time he married.)

The life of an apprentice tailor was arduous. Johnson toiled for long hours for no pay. He was supposed to serve as an apprentice until he was 21. By the time he was around 16, Johnson decided to head out on his own. But, because he was breaking an apprentice contract, Johnson had to leave North Carolina to work on his own. Johnson ended up in Greeneville, Tennessee.

In Greeneville, Johnson quickly made a name for himself. He proved to be an excellent tailor, and this provided him with a steady income. This, in turn, made him acceptable to women as marriage material. Johnson’s wife, Eliza, would be one of his strongest supporters; although, she was plagued by illness much of her life.

Andrew Johnson quickly learned that he had an excellent speaking voice. And, he proved quite adept at using it to convince other people to do things. Naturally, he went into politics.

Johnson started out as an alderman in Greeneville, worked his way up to mayor, and then to a seat in the Tennessee Legislature. After losing his first reelection bid, Johnson returned two years later to Nashville and wouldn’t lose another election again until after his term in the White House was over.

From the Tennessee Legislature, Johnson made his way to the United States House of Representatives. Johnson’s heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson and his political philosophies would always be based on their philosophies. Johnson believed in an agrarian America, hard currency payments for debts, and a small government.

Since Johnson had come from such poor origins, he wanted others to have a chance to better themselves. His idea for this was homesteading. Johnson repeatedly pushed for a Homestead Act that would grant every white male (being white helped a lot in Andrew Johnson’s world) 160 acres of land free of charge from the Federal Government, provided that improvements were made to the land within one year.

Homestead laws, however, were not popular among Johnson’s fellow Southerners. For starters, most land in the West was not suitable for plantation slavery. Also, Southerners feared increased tariffs, feeling that the Federal government would have to recoup lost income from land sales. (The Homestead Act would not be passed until 1862 when there weren’t any Southerners around to vote against it. That also helped in the creation of the states of Nevada and West Virginia.)

Johnson left the House in 1853 after his district was reapportioned, making it far less inviting for him to run. So, Johnson decided to run for Governor of Tennessee.

Running a populist campaign, Johnson triumphed and moved into the highest office in the state of Tennessee. This was quite an accomplishment for an unschooled apprentice tailor. But, Johnson was not satisfied.

During Johnson’s time, the governor of Tennessee had little real power. He couldn’t veto legislation, and could only appoint officials in a few parts of the government. But, the job carried a great deal of prestige. And it thrust Johnson into the national spotlight.

Johnson hoped that he could garner the Democratic nomination for President in 1856. But, he had little support. Instead, Johnson decided to run for the Senate, which he entered in 1857.

To say that matters were contentious in Congress in 1857 would be understating the matter. Johnson took an unusual approach in the Senate. He was a Southerner (and a slave owner) who wanted to maintain slavery, but refused to back the idea of secession. In fact, Johnson was stridently opposed to secession.

Johnson’s opposition to secession came from several factors. First, Johnson had no regard for the rich Southern aristocrats who owned large amounts of slaves and prospered greatly from their work. Second, Johnson was an ardent admirer of Andrew Jackson and wanted to emulate his stand on the South Carolina Nullification Crisis. Third, Johnson was fanatically devoted to the wording of the Constitution. Johnson found no words in the Constitution that would allow a state to secede.

Andrew Johnson was the only Senator from a state in the Confederacy who refused to join up with the secessionists.  Unpopular (to put it mildly) back  home in Tennessee, Johnson spent the early days of the Civil War in Washington.

But by 1862, Union troops had made inroads in Tennessee, controlling enough territory that President Lincoln felt that there was a need to have a Union leader in control of the politics of the area. Johnson, who was widely heralded in the North for his anti-secessionist stance, was appointed the military governor of Tennessee.

While in the job, Johnson took a firm hand against secessionists. He also vowed not to surrender Nashville when Confederate troops tried to reclaim, going as far as to threaten to burn the city down rather than surrender it. (Union troops intervened in time.) Johnson  swung over to the abolitionist side in 1863. Although, he did not embrace any sort of equality for blacks, especially voting rights.

Johnson was now one of the most popular Southerners in the North. And with the election of 1864 looming, Lincoln decided to add Johnson to the ticket. Although it may seem hard to believe, Lincoln was worried that he would lose his bid for reelection. So, he got rid of his Radical Republican Vice President Hannibal Hamlin in favor of Johnson, whom he felt would present a more conciliatory tone. (Lincoln also wanted to remove Johnson as a potential rival from the Democratic side.) For the 1864 election, the Republican Party became the Union Party. Once the war started to turn decisively in the Union’s favor, Lincoln won reelection easily.

Now, we skip ahead to the fateful day of March 4, 1865. At that time, Vice Presidents were inaugurated before a joint session of Congress in a smaller ceremony than the Presidential inauguration. Johnson was not feeling well that day (he likely was suffering from typhoid fever.) To make himself feel better, Johnson had a belt of whiskey. No change. He had another and decided to proceed into the Capitol for the ceremony. However, he decided to have one more glass of whiskey just to make sure.

In 1865, there were no food labeling laws like we have today. Because today, Johnson would likely have found his bottle of whiskey to have this advice: “WARNING: EXCESSIVE CONSUMPTION OF THIS BEVERAGE MAY LEAD TO EMBARRASSING DISPLAYS WHEN ADDRESSING A JOINT SESSION OF CONGRESS.”

Johnson stumbled his way through the oath of office, and then gave a speech that was about as coherent as you would expect from someone who had just downed three shots. He may have been the first Vice President to be given the hook (metaphorically) on stage to keep him from further embarrassing himself. The American public now had one image of Johnson: a stupid, bumbling drunk. (I can’t find a transcript of the speech online, but it’s probably something like this.)

Although Johnson had two sons who succumbed to alcoholism, Trefousse insists that Andrew Johnson did not have a drinking problem. There are no other reports of him appearing drunk in public. Johnson just picked the worst time ever to be drunk in front of a crowd.

Johnson’s term as Vice President was short. Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. Johnson was now thrust in to the highest office in the land and charged with the duty of sorting out the aftermath of the Civil War. Johnson initially took a hard line against the South and vowed numerous trials for treason. Quickly, he backed off that idea.

Before his death, Lincoln had proposed the “10 per cent plan” for the Confederate states. If 10% of the voters took a loyalty oath, a state would be readmitted to full status in Congress. Also, the defeated states would have to agree to abolish slavery.

Johnson adopted this plan, but immediately ran into objections from the Radical Republicans in Congress. This was a term used to describe the wing of the Republican Party that wanted to punish the South for the war, as well as give all of the recently freed slaves full voting rights.

To further infuriate the Radicals, Johnson appointed governors for all the Confederate states. Johnson picked several men who were strongly opposed by the Radicals, who felt that Johnson was just putting the Confederates back in charge. Johnson had even pardoned Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy.

The new state governments in turn chose new representatives for Congress, none of them allowing blacks to vote. When these Representatives and Senators came to Washington to be seated in Congress, they were turned away. Johnson could do nothing but complain.

A showdown was looming. First, Congress passed a law extending the Freedmen’s Bureau, a Federal agency that helped the newly freed slaves. Johnson vetoed it as being unconstitutional. Johnson believed that there were state governments in place to handle this matter. Congress quickly overrode Johnson’s veto.

Then, an even more ambitious bill, called the Reconstruction Bill was passed by Congress. This divided 10 of the 11 former Confederate states into five military districts that would be run by Army generals. (Tennessee was left out of this plan and Johnson insisted that Tennessee had never left the Union.) Johnson vetoed this bill, and Congress overrode it.

And so it would continue. Congress would pass a measure, Johnson would veto it, and Congress would override it. Johnson would veto 29 different bills and be overriden 15 times, more than any U.S. President. (One of the vetoes that was overridden made Nebraska a state.)

Johnson was most strongly opposed to something that he could not veto, the Fourteenth Amendment. Congress had made ratification of this amendment necessary for any state to be readmitted to Congress. Johnson could not tolerate an amendment that would allow equal rights for whites and blacks. Throughout his political career, Johnson made numerous speeches that showed he was overtly racist. Johnson did not believe that the United States could survive with the votes of black citizens.

In his veto message of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 (which later was turned into the Fourteenth Amendment), you can read how Johnson is appalled at the idea of the freed slaves becoming citizens. They lacked the “requisite qualifications to entitle them to the privileges and immunities of United States citizenship.”

So, Johnson decided to go around the country by train campaigning against the Fourteenth Amendment. This trip, known as the “Swing Round the Circle”, was a disaster. Johnson spoke to crowds of hecklers from the back of his train, deriding any civil rights legislation, while holding himself up as the lone defender of the Constitution. By the time of the 1866 off-year elections, the Radical Republicans won major gains in Congress, isolating Johnson politically.

But, the Radicals were not satisfied with just isolating Johnson politically. They wanted to finish him off for good by impeaching him. The first attempt, in 1867, did not get out of the House, as there were really no charges to bring against Johnson, except for being a jerk.

Congress then set a trap for Johnson with the passage of the Tenure of Office Act. This required that any officer appointed by the President with Senate approval could only be removed with Senate approval. Johnson knew that this act was unconstitutional and was hoping to test it in court.

Johnson decided that he wanted to remove his Secretary of War, William Stanton, whom he felt was disloyal to him (and he was.) Stanton, interestingly supported Johnson’s veto of the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson decided he wanted to replace Stanton with Ulysses Grant. But, Grant refused for a variety of reasons, most of them political. Johnson then asked William T. Sherman to take over.   Sherman refused because he didn’t want to move to Washington and get involved with politics. Finally, Johnson turned to General Lorenzo Thomas to tell Stanton that he was suspended and that he, Thomas, was taking over as Secretary of War on an interim basis.

When Thomas got to Stanton’s office on February 21, 1868 to tell him to leave, Stanton balked because he knew that Thomas did not have Senate approval to remove him from his post. So, Stanton had Thomas arrested on charges of violating the Tenure of Office Act and remained in his office. Although Stanton would drop the charges to avoid giving Johnson the chance to test the legality of the Tenure of Office Act, Radical Republicans saw this as their chance to be rid of Johnson.

The House quickly convened and voted to impeach Johnson, just three days after Stanton’s attempted ouster.  A trial in the Senate was quickly set up. And it appeared that Johnson was a dead duck.

However, Johnson’s attorneys felt that they had a good strategy to get an acquittal. First, they told Johnson, who wanted to appear in front of Congress to defend himself, to stay in the White House for the trial and keep his mouth shut, which he did. Second, the defense team knew that there wasn’t much of a case against Johnson and the charges were mainly political in nature.

Further helping out Johnson was the fact that the man who would have succeeded Johnson, Senate President pro tem Ben Wade of Ohio, was widely disliked by New York financiers. Wade favored an inflationary scheme to pay off Civil War debts. That is, Wade wanted the government to print a bunch of money, hand it out, and pay off the debt that way. Wade had also been defeated in his attempt to win reelection to the Senate, so he was a lame duck. Wade was also in favor of women’s suffrage and the right of labor to organize. Despite these stances, Wade was viewed foremost as a demagogue.

Finally, the case against Johnson didn’t get started in earnest until the end of March 1868. The trial finished in May, so even with a conviction, Johnson would only be out of office for eight or nine months.

The Republican prosecution team was also not the sharpest group around. Benjamin Butler was appointed chief prosecutor and he proved to be no match for Johnson’s lawyers, especially Henry Stanbery, who resigned his position as Attorney General to defend Johnson.

Yet another factor in Johnson’s favor was politics. Johnson still was able to wield patronage power. Johnson was not afraid to tell senators who were leaning toward acquittal that he could make it worth their while. One such Senator who was willing to listen to such a deal from Johnson was Edmund Ross of Kansas, who would later be one of the subjects in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.

Johnson managed to survive by the narrowest of margins, one vote. There were 27 states represented in Congress at the time. A 2/3 vote was neccessary for conviction, so 36 votes were needed. The vote ended up being 35 for guilty and 19 for not guilty. Seven Republicans broke ranks to vote to acquit. Some did it because they believed Johnson was innocent, and perhaps some were convinced by other means.

Regardless of how bad Johnson was as a President, the country was better served not to have him removed from office by impeachment. The impeachment process was put in place so Congress could remove a President or judge who was corrupt, not one who was merely unpopular.

Johnson served out the rest of his term in relative quiet. He still believed that he had done his best to preserve the Constitution. He believed that the Fourteenth Amendment would ruin the country. But, he was powerless to stop that amendment. General John Schofield took over as Secretary of War.

Despite the impeachment trial, Johnson entertained hopes of getting the Democratic nomination to run for President in 1868. But, the Democrats didn’t want him, still remembering him abandoning the party to run with Lincoln four years earlier. New York Governor Horatio Seymour ended up with the nomination. Grant and the Republicans won the election.

Although he did not attend Grant’s inauguration, Johnson was still in Washington on March 4, 1869. He conducted business at the White House and then moved out while the ceremony was going on. Johnson felt that Grant had betrayed him. He had no desire to wish him well.

Johnson went back home to Tennessee, where he was warmly received. He tried to get back into politics almost immediately, but was thwarted in a bid to win a Senate seat. A few years later, Johnson tried to win a House seat, but failed. Finally, in 1875, he won a seat in the Senate.

After being out of the spotlight, Johnson got a chance to go back to Congress and speak his mind. An unexpected special session afforded him an opportunity to be sworn in early and to give a speech. Johnson denounced Federal Reconstruction efforts in Louisiana. He had not lost his zeal for politics.

And there the story ends, Congress adjourned and Johnson went back home. On July 31, 1875, Andrew Johnson passed away at his daughter’s home in Carter Station, Tennessee of a stroke.

Trefousse’s biography does not try to look at Johnson sympathetically. Andrew Johnson’s selection as Vice President may have been one of Abraham Lincoln’s worst ideas. Johnson, as Trefousse points out, was a man of the Jacksonian Era. But, America was no longer in Andrew Jackson’s time. The country had been through a civil war. It had become industrialized. It had a growing population of people from all over the world. Andrew Johnson was ill-suited to be a leader in this time. Reconstruction was an awful time in American history. It’s hard not to see how a racist, backward-looking man only made matters worse.

Other stuff: Johnson is buried in the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Greeneville, Tennessee. It is part of the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site.

Andrew Johnson’s life was the subject of a 1942 film from MGM called “Tennessee Johnson.” Van Heflin played Johnson. It will air on Turner Classic Movies on Wednesday, July 15 at 9:30 am PT.

If you want more details on the impeachment trial, you can try Impeach Andrew Johnson, or this more legalistic one.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine