As we delve into another presidential election year, I am hearing folks say that they can’t wait until it is over. That was the consensus in 2016, but the trash talking just seemed to get worse. In fact, it has only escalated moving into the 2020 election. The only good thing to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the news folks got away from the constant barrage of politics for a while.
Think things are bad now? Well, the 1800s were worse.
Andrew Johnson was socially lynched during his time as president by newspapers and politicians rushing to pile on just like we did in our school playground days. I am sure Johnson felt vindicated when the Senate did not remove him from office, and again when he was reelected to the Senate in 1875. Yet the attacks continued.
We have always held Johnson in high regard here in Greeneville. Rightfully so. He is our favorite adopted son. The recent impeachment of President Trump brought out those who wanted to lynch Andy in the press once more. I was interviewed by National Public Radio, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Nashville Tennessean, all wanting my input on Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and comparisons to the current impeachment. After a lot of interview time, I got little space in their articles because I didn’t give the sensationalist comment they were looking for.
The New York Times did take one of my quotes out of the context of what I was saying. It made it sound to the reader that I said Andrew Johnson wanted to be a dictator which is not what I said at all. I told them Johnson wanted to restore the sovereignty of the southern states as Lincoln had wished, but Secretary of War Stanton wanted the federal government to take over railroads and the infrastructure of the South, making him, Stanton, a dictator. I told them the Tenure of Office Act was just a trap to ensnare Johnson. They heard something different.
On paper, the question was whether the president could fire the secretary of war without the consent of Congress. The reality is, it was a battle over reconstruction — the fate of former Confederates and former slaves. It was a referendum over whether Johnson could carry out Lincoln’s plan for unification as he saw it. It was a question over whether Johnson, a Southern Democrat, should even be president at all.
Sensationalism is what sells papers — it always has. Andy Johnson has had a target on his back since he entered the public domain. Newspapers across the country ran amuck claiming “Johnson would use the Army to stay in power.” Sound familiar? “Confederates were marching toward Washington to help him.” The Houston Telegraph reported that “The War Department had been burned; Secretary Stanton wounded in battle.” The Louisville Democrat asked readers: “Are you ready once more to take up the musket?”
Indiana Congressman John Shanks said, “I am in favor of the official death of Andrew Johnson.” During the House debate on impeachment he stated, “I am not surprised that one who began his presidential career in drunkenness should end it in crime.” Other congressmen were almost as nasty. One said the president was stained with “the filth of treason.” Another called him a “despicable, besotted, traitorous man.”
Newspapers were the main source of information in Johnson’s time. It took weeks and even months for some people to see a paper. Newspapers have been replaced by television news that brings an almost instant view of what is happening around the globe. Social media is the new norm of trash talking and spreading falsehoods. It is easy to see why modern students and historians are easily misled about Johnson.
We can find all sort of material to support or detract from Johnson in the many pro-Johnson, anti-Johnson newspapers of his day. What is hard is sorting truth and half-truths to find the real Johnson. I have the 16 volumes of Johnson’s papers and one way to get into a man’s head, to know how he thinks, is to read his papers. I cannot forget after U.S. General George Patton gave German General Rommel his first defeat in Africa during WWII, he was asked how he was able to defeat Rommel. Patton said, “I read the dumb SOB’s book.” He knew how Rommel thought and what his reactions would be by studying his tactics as he had written them himself.
A man’s writing doesn’t stray too far from his thinking. A political speech is usually geared toward the audience, although Johnson seemed to convey his thinking, caring little whether his audience liked it or not. When I run across something that stumps me, I do not hesitate to ask the good folks at the Andrew Johnson NHP. When it comes to Johnson, they know their business.
I am convinced Johnson was one of those people you either liked or didn’t. Still today, people either like him or they don’t; most seem not to, and that is unfortunate. They read a book or old articles and fail to get down in the trenches and sort the issues out for themselves. Instead of condemning Johnson because he said this or that, look under the surface of why he did what he did. Remember the Titanic? It missed the iceberg above water, but the hidden ice below the surface sunk it. Johnson was heralded as a hero in the North in 1864 — “the greatest man of the age,” said the New York Times. He too would find his iceberg. Impeachment still looms heavily today over Johnson’s head — a sad reality.
This past year, a book was released called “The Impeachers.” The book is highly acclaimed by some serious academics simply because of their perception of history. They don’t know Johnson. I have a copy of this book that was given to me and it is simply a hatchet job on Johnson. The author picked what she saw as a weak target that nobody would care about defending. She was out to sell sensationalism.
Over the last 20 years I have learned a few things about big-time professional authors. First, many have research teams that gather their information, and second, often they have writers that assemble it. I have asked questions about something in their book, usually about documentation, only to watch their eyes glaze over. They don’t have a clue because they didn’t write it. They plop out two to three books a year and everyone rushes out to add them to their library. I know people that have put in 10 years of research to get one book out. They are the ones who can answer your questions.
The last few weeks a DVD titled, “Going to the Devil: the Impeachment of 1868” has been making the rounds locally. This is another hatchet job aimed at Johnson. It glosses over and leaves out a lot of pertinent information to explain Johnson’s actions. It makes Stanton out to be an angel targeted by Johnson instead of the vindictive, controlling, backstabber that he was. Thaddeus Stevens is another that takes on an angelic glow. In life he was more corrupt than Johnson could have imagined. Charles Sumner is held in high regard too. Evil prevails over good in this video. The only thing they did not change was the outcome of the Senate trial.
In fairness, I try to remain in the middle with my writing as I believe both sides have a story. Many times, it is the reader who should decide, without my telling them how they should think. However, I must confess, I lean toward Johnson for several reasons. Johnson became president in a controversial, difficult time, during the most climactic period in our history. This makes it interesting, yet easy for modern writers to lynch Johnson.
In the last 20 years so many of our historical writers have gotten tangled up in slanted writing. It is indeed sad to see our history maligned. I think it is writing to fit what is popular at the time. Call it catering to the political-correct crowd if you like. In the last 10-15 years, the most accurate American histories, I am sad to say, are coming out of Europe. They don’t have our “can’t see the forest for the trees” mentality. Their view is not clouded by popular thought.
British Professor Dr. Susan-Mary Grant’s book “North Over South” is an objective, eye-opening look at a neglected central element in the cause of, as she terms it, the “War Against Southern Independence.” Dr. Grant is Professor of American History at Newcastle University. Grant co-founded and is the current chair of the Association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians. She is on the editorial board of Nations and Nationalism and was the editor of the American Nineteenth Century History Journal. She is a person of high scholastic pedigree. She is someone in a position to take a critical look at American history and give an unbiased opinion. I will bet the farm she knows more about American history than most of our current college professors.
Some may think I’m insensitive using the term “lynched” as it brings up memories from the civil rights movement. Lynching is as old as time itself and a preferred method of execution in this country for nearly 200 years. It was not a racial thing, as many faced the rope whether they deserved it or not. In the Old West, as TV western fans can attest, everybody seemed to be hanging somebody.
Andy Johnson was almost lynched, in of all places, Lynchburg, Virginia. The train had stopped to refuel, and he decided to try his anti-secession speech planned for Tennessee out on the Virginians. They pulled him from the train and were about to put the rope around his neck at a nearby tree when someone shouted “Wait, we can’t hang him, he’s a Tennessean! Let the Tennesseans hang him.” Some writers say Johnson was a states’-rights Democrat and that time “states’ rights” saved his life.
When Johnson arrived in Bristol, a group of ruffians were waiting with a rope. He stepped to the back of the train car to speak and pulled out a big army pistol. The potential lynchers seemed to lose interest in hanging Andy that day. In fact, everywhere he stopped to speak, he brandished that pistol before speaking.
A small book about Johnson was written a few years ago locally, and I tell people it is so sugar-coated one can get a cavity by reading it. I prefer the real Andy, warts and all. Nobody is perfect, and he certainly wasn’t. As I have said before, he was a man of his times and that is how we should look at him.
It’s time to leave the lynching of Andy in the past and look at Johnson as he was. He was a common man who walked the streets of Greeneville, worked hard to provide for his family, invested his money, moving himself forward, and earned political office. I believe he enjoyed life and his family. He pushed his children to excel. His daughters did, but the sons could not reach his high expectations.
He was a self-educated man who rose to the highest office in the land. Sure, there were some unusual circumstances, but any great man has realized his position due to circumstance. He deserves his rightful place in history as one of our greatest Americans. He was a man who lived the American dream, although at times he experienced it as a nightmare.
He was always looked on as a “mudsill” (doorstep) by the aristocracy of the day. Yet he trudged on, doing what he felt was right, never wavering from the Constitution as he saw it. Johnson leaves behind a lot of lessons, if we will only take time to study and learn. Short of that, be mindful of the slant of “modern history” — you may be reading some of that not-so-new invention, “fake news.”