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Public Notices

April 23, 2014

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Ivy League Historian: Critical View Of 17th President

Dr. ERIC FONER

Columbia University history professor

Originally published: 2008-09-19 10:02:17
Last modified: 2008-09-19 10:14:41
 


Columbia Historian

Has Critical View

Of 17th President

By DOUGLAS WATSON

Managing Editor

A leading U.S. historian who specializes in the Reconstruction period following the Civil War explained Thursday why he is critical of President Andrew Johnson's racial attitudes and policy positions during that turbulent post-war era.

"Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction" was one of the main topics discussed Thursday during a day-long symposium at Tusculum College that focused on the life and political career of the 17th president.

Dr. Eric Foner, a nationally known historian who is on the faculty of Columbia University in New York, began his hour-long lecture by saying that the Reconstruction Period following the Civil War, which is his area of expertise, is generally viewed as one of the darkest times in this nation's history.

Foner, a former president of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), said that over the nearly century-and-a-half following the Civil War, debate has continued among historians over how to view the Reconstruction period and Johnson's role as the 17th president from 1865 to 1869 following President Lincoln's assassination.

Dr. Foner said some historians have viewed Johnson "as out of his depth" as Lincoln's successor during the turbulent time.

Other historians have judged Johnson in the 1860s to be a defender of "home rule," which was a "euphemism for white supremacy in the Old South."

During the 1920 and 1930s, Dr. Foner said, historians tended to consider Johnson as "the heroic defender of the Constitution," battling the northern "Radical Republicans" in Congress.

After bitter disagreements the U.S. House of Representatives, which was dominated by the Radical Republicans, impeached Johnson for alleged "high crimes and misdemeanors" but fell one vote short of persuading the U.S. Senate to convict the 17th president.

The Columbia University historian described President Lincoln as "a consummate politician" who was flexible enough to mollify or adjust to opponents.

"This was not how Johnson operated," Dr. Foner said, adding that the 17th president was hampered by his political isolation (he was a Democrat dealing with a Congress that was predominantly Republican), and by his own stubbornness.

"He certainly was inflexible. Or another way of putting it is that he held strong views."

Gets Low Rating

Referring to a book he wrote 20 years ago, Dr. Foner said, "My own history of the Reconstruction period was quite critical of Johnson." He added that historians generally rate Johnson as among the least successful of U.S. presidents.

He noted that during the current U.S. presidential campaign, both parties are charging that opposing candidates lack the governmental experience needed to be national leaders.

On that score, Dr. Foner said, Andrew Johnson "certainly was no outsider," having held virtually every elective office one could, from Greeneville alderman to vice president.

The Columbia University historian said that, despite Andrew Johnson's earlier achievements as a governmental leader, he had a "deficient outlook" as president. "I do not think it was the outlook that the country needed at the end of the Civil War," Foner said.

Mixture Of Views

The Columbia historian said the 17th president saw himself as a spokeman for the "yeoman" working class in the South, and throughout his life was critical of the wealthy planter class, the "slavocracy."

Dr. Foner said that Johnson was a strong Unionist, resolutely opposed to a breakup of the United States, but also "a strong believer in local self-government ... It was possible to be a powerful pro-Unionist and a localist."

He said that Johnson "believed that the Civil War had pretty much destroyed the planter class," but later he granted many pardons to Southern planters enabling them to recover their plantations, though not their slaves.

"Johnson embraced emancipation (of the slaves) sincerely," Dr. Foner said, but "nevertheless, he still held some deep-seated racial prejudices."

As an illustration of what he described as Johnson's racial prejudice, the Columbia historian cited some derogatory comments by Johnson about Frederick Douglass, a leading freedman of that era.

Foner noted that Johnson made the comments even though he asked Douglass to head the Freedmen's Bureau, an appointment Douglass declined.

Dr. Foner said, "It would be very wrong to think that (President) Lincoln had a hard and fast plan for Reconstruction ... Lincoln would do anything that worked to make Reconstruction succeed."

President Johnson "left the question of limited black suffrage" to the Southern states," not pushing to assure that former slaves could vote.

Attitude Change?

Dr. Foner said it puzzles historians why Johnson's atttude toward the wealthy Southern planters apparently changed while he was president.

He suggested that Johnson may have become alarmed in 1865, "a period of real upheaval in the South" during which "blacks were trying to get real, substantial meaning to their freedom ... They were seizing land."

In any case, Johnson, who had at first restricted the rights of Southerners owning more than $20,000 in property, later ordered the Freedmen's Bureau "to restore all their land to the planters."

Dr. Foner said President Johnson also took no action against the "Black Codes" being imposed in the South that "made it a legal requirement for every black person to have a year-long labor contract" and made it illegal to offer a black worker a better-paying job.

He said President Johnson is especailly criticized by many historians for his vetoes of legislation to extend the Freedmen's Bureau, which was aiding former slaves, and for his veto of the Civil Rights bill of 1866, which was enacted over his veto. Dr. Foner called that legislation one of the nation's "most important laws."

He said President Johnson "insisted the Congress had no authority to protect the rights of black people in the South ... For Johnson, protecting blacks somehow operated against whites."

Over President Johnson's opposition, laws and amendments were enacted by Congress that "changed our nation irrevocably."

However, Dr. Foner said, "It took a good century" for the nation to fully implement civil rights advances that Johnson had opposed, and the 17th president's resistance to reforms during the Reconstruction period "still reverberates in our lives today."

 
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