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date: 26 October 2021

Andrew Johnson and the Legacy of the Civil Warlocked

Andrew Johnson and the Legacy of the Civil Warlocked

  • Elizabeth R. VaronElizabeth R. VaronCorcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

Summary

Perhaps no other American leader has experienced so precipitous a fall from grace as Andrew Johnson, seventeenth president of the United States (1865–1869). During the Civil War, Johnson was the preeminent symbol of Southern Unionism—and thus, the ideal running mate for Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 election, on the Union Party ticket. Four years later, as president, he was widely viewed as a traitor to his political allies and even to the Union, and barely escaped impeachment. In modern scholarship, the image persists of Johnson as politically inept, and willfully self-destructive—driven by visceral emotions, particularly by implacable racism, and lacking in Lincoln’s skill for reading and molding public opinion. But such an image fails to capture fully the scope of his political influence. As President, Johnson staked claims that shaped the course of Reconstruction—that emancipation signified nothing but freedom; that the immediate aftermath of the Civil War was a golden moment of reconciliation, which Radicals squandered by pushing for black suffrage; that the Congressional program of Reconstruction inaugurated a period of so-called “black rule,” during which former Confederates were victimized and disfranchised. Such propaganda was designed to deem the Republican experiment in black citizenship a failure before it even began. Johnson’s term offers an example as striking as any in U.S. history of the power of presidents to set the terms of political debates—and of the power of their words to do lasting harm.

Subjects

  • Civil War and Reconstruction

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