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REVIEWING

Andrew Johnson

by Annette Gordon-Reed


Times Books (Henry Holt and Company) | 2011 | 165 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

annette gordon-reed

For years, I have had my own versions of heaven and hell. They are both the same place, centered in the same spirit world that is all around us. However, in this incredible world, if you can call it that (because I don’t really have the words yet to fully describe it), there are no sweet and willing young virgins, or costumed clerics strutting about and pulling rank, all the while claiming to be close friends of the Committee of Four, the real Almighties.

Or even, for that matter, free fried chicken joints!

In this world, even the sex seeking dullards come fully alive, because it offers wonder after wonder that even the most insightful of us, on that blessed place we once called earth, never came close to getting right. We humans just didn’t have the information that we needed to see things that can only vaguely be conceived of as earth-bound, carbon-based creatures, totally unaware of all that surrounds us

Those that went to heaven were free to explore this vast, wondrous universe, and if they were diligent enough, thoughtful enough and curious enough--as they floated blissfully by in total wonderment--they might finally learn what their true purpose truly was.

***

Those who committed gross crimes against life, the most precious element in the universe (because that’s what fuels it, and gives it purpose) were forced to face the descendants of those they had wronged, as long as their descendants still lived on Earth, or whatever world they were from.

For example, my favorite American arch villain, Thomas Jefferson, would have to stand and face eons of African Americans, even those with just one drop of decadency -- of all sizes, shapes and colors (including some of his own close relatives), where they could walk up to him and utter one word: “Parasite,” and force him to bow down, as one by one, they slapped him in the face on their way to their own heaven or hell.

For President  Andrew Johnson, who the U.S. had the misfortune to be the person to succeed the slain Lincoln, his hell would be to have to sit alone in a hot, humid, lonely, gloomy log cabin, much like the old south he knew well, and read and reread, until he once again collapsed back into the cosmic egg—Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed’s biography of him.

As an old Southern expression goes, “she laid some serious wood on him.”

Gordon-Reed writes, comparing President Abraham Lincoln to Vice-President Andrew Johnson: “But what made the difference between them? Why was Lincoln the right man at the right time? Why did Johnson fail so miserably when fate handed him the reins of power? Lincoln tops almost every list of the greatest American presidents, admired by conservatives and liberals alike. Johnson, on the other hand, is almost always found among the worst, if not the worst—the man who botched Reconstruction, who energized and gave aid and comfort to the recently defeated enemies of the United States, the first president to be impeached by the House of Representatives, escaping by a hairsbreadth, one vote, in the Senate. America went from the best to the worst in one presidential term.”

She couldn’t have made her point clearer.

She also points out that Andrew Johnson was no friend to blacks: “Throughout the entirety of his political career Andrew Johnson did everything he could to make sure blacks would never become equal citizens in the United States of America. Tragically, he was able to bring the full force and prestige of the American presidency to the efforts.”

I was already well aware of Johnson’s betrayal of Lincoln, the newly freed black slaves, and all of those 600,000 Americans that had perished in the war before I started reading this book. Perhaps that is why what I found most intriguing about this story, written by a Pulitzer Prize winning author, is how a poor, uneducated person--poor white trash, if you will--who was born in circumstances just a short rung above the blacks slaves he came to hate so profoundly, managed to claw his way to the most powerful position the New World had to offer. Up until this point in American history, high-level politicians from the south, in Johnson’s case, Tennessee,  were all from the elite, slave owning class.

This is where Gordon-Reed clearly excels as a writer and historian. Despite her obvious antipathy toward Andrew Johnson, she allows his story to be told. This is the first time I can remember being treated to such a full bodied treatment of the prototype of a Southern white male, who was left out of the grand feast that was slavery, and who despised the planter class and the black slaves, because of it.

In commenting on Johnson’s hard-scrabbled life as the son of parents without property, whose father died when he was just a small child, and who had to enter into a binding apprenticeship to the local tailor at the age of ten, (until he ran away from him at the age of fifteen), Gordon-Reed notes, “We can never be certain, but it was probably during these early years that Andrew Johnson began to develop his deep-seated obsession with the wrongs that poor whites suffered at the hands of the planter class and their alleged enslaved co-conspirators. In Johnson’s later formulation, slavery was not primarily the destroyer of black lives. Its chief harm was that it prevented lower-class whites from rising to take their rightful place at the head of the table…as his action during his presidency suggest, Johnson’s much-vaunted hatred of the southern planter class was born of deep envy and a form of unrequited admiration.”

On his own from fifteen, Andrew Johnson nevertheless rose from successful businessman to alderman, State Senator,  Congressman, Governor, Senator and finally, to Vice President in Lincoln’s second term. This ascendency from someone who only learned to read in his early twenties.

Professor Gordon-Reed points out that much of his success was due to the fact that he was a powerful public speaker; steadfast in his defense of whites left out of the spoils of slavery, as well as a bombastic, plain-spoken bully. What brought him to the attention of President Lincoln was his long, consistent defense of the Union, and his later out-spoken opposition to slavery, although he once supported the “peculiar Institution.”

“…nearing the end of his first term,” she writes, “Abraham Lincoln, one of the most brilliant politicians in American history, was in trouble. He was facing challenges within his own party and from a growing peace movement fueled by…war weariness. Lincoln needed a running mate who could send a clear statement of his resolve to see the war through to a successful end, even as he tried to lay the groundwork for reconciliation between North and the South. Who better to do this than a “War Democrat” from one of the rebel states?”

Johnson faced great personal and political damage in the south because of his stance. Although most of Tennessee joined the new Confederacy, he was the only southern senator that remained in the U. S. Senate, and using all of his gifted skills as an orator, spoke out forcefully against secession, which, as Professor Gordon-Reed points out, greatly endeared him to northerners, and the abolition movement, although the great Frederick Douglass is quoted early in the book that he felt that Johnson was “no friend to blacks.”

Was this why Lincoln, committing perhaps the biggest mistake in his political career, just to get re-elected, dumped his vice president and picked Johnson?  Professor Gordon-Reed hedges her bets, though the evidence she presents certainly makes that case.

For those who do not know that much about the details of what happened next, which led to the unrest that we faced for much of the 20th century, this is good book with which to start.

***

    Professor Gordon-Reed’s Andrew Johnson is an exciting story, and extremely well told. It is also, at its heart, a “what if” story: if Lincoln had survived, would he have done what Johnson did, and allowed blacks in the south to exist as much as they did during slavery, free in name only and under the violent yoke of white supremacy, in order to bring the south back into the Union, with real freedom only coming a century later, in 1965? This, like the other “what if” story concerning whether President Kennedy would have pulled us out of Vietnam, or do what another southern President, Lyndon Johnson did, and escalate the conflict, an action which also tore the nation apart?

We will never know the answer to either one of these questions.

***

As I once closely watched the Civil Rights Movement in the south that brought about this freedom, and brought real Democracy to America, one question that was always in the back of my mind – and I wasn’t alone. One of the white men who beat John Lewis into unconsciousness during one of the Freedom Rides, a few years ago, in his 70’s, wrote Congressman Lewis a letter of apology.

When a newspaper reporter finally tracked him down, and asked him why he wrote the Congressman such a revealing, frank admission of personal failure, the old white man replied that he had been, “Just plain wrong. But you know what,” he added,  “what I still can’t understand, to this very day, is where did all that hate come from?”

That was the same question I had asked. It just didn’t make sense to me. For almost two years I was the only black in my tank platoon. Some of my best white buddies were southerners, including Elvis. But there it was, image after image flooding my television screen of angry white people, grownups, men and women, attacking little children on their way to school.

Professor Gordon-Reed’s book has gone a long way in helping me understand the deep roots of that hatred. Andrew Johnson is one of a series of books on the American Presidency by Times Books, and a series that continues to impress me. Books are supposed to teach you things you didn’t know. This is the third book I have read from the series, and each time, I have either learned something important I didn’t know before, or saw some of what I did know in a totally different way.



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