The Unreconstructed President: Andrew Johnson

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am going to be exploring the issue of the abolition of slavery and Reconstruction after the Civil War. Sadly, the effort to integrate society and to ensure that African Americans had the same rights, political, social, legal, economic and educational as whites failed due to a number of factors. The biggest factor was that former Confederates continued the war by other means until they wore down the will of the North and reestablished white supremacy in all areas of Southern life and in the process re-wrote history in the form of the myth of the Lost Cause, something that continues even today with the new Texas history textbooks which promote that myth, minimize slavery and not even talk about Jim Crow. 

Yesterday I received a comment from an officer of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Georgia Military Order of the Stars and Bars calling my work revisionism and spouting the lies of the sanitized history presented by such groups.  That has emboldened me to continue my work on this subject. Here is a part of my text dealing with the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the work of President Andrew Johnson to subvert the efforts of Congress and those who worked to provide African Americans the basics to lift themselves out of the hole dug for them by their White masters before the war. 

So I continue today,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Andrew Johnson

Colin Gray writes that “A successful exercise in peacemaking should persuade the defeated party to accept its defeat.” [1] When the war ended the Confederacy was beaten and most people in the South would have agreed to anything that the North presented regarding peace and return to the Union. The primary political policy goal of Lincoln regarding the war was the reestablishment of the Union and one of the military measures adopted by Lincoln was the emancipation of the South’s slaves who were an important part of the Southern war economy. “During the last two years of the war the abolition of slavery evolved from a means of winning the war to a war aim – from national strategy to national policy.” [2] By Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 that policy included the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy as well as the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

That change in policy, the complete abolition of slavery necessitated a remaking of the old South, a culture where economics, social standing and even religion was linked to the “peculiar institution.” In a sense Reconstruction was “what the war was about.” [3] Just two months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Richard Henry Dana, a Federal District Attorney in Boston, declared that “a war is over when its purpose is secured. It is a fatal mistake to hold that this war is over because the fighting has ceased. This war is not over…” [4] As Dana, and Clausewitz understood so well that war is a continuation of policy and politics by other means, and the failure of the President Johnson and others in the North to fully grasp this fact led to over a century of subjugation of emancipated African Americans. The confusion and lack of determined purpose has fueled a continual racial divide in the United States that is still felt today. Defeated on the battlefield Southerners soon turned to political, psychological and violent means to reverse their losses.

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Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass understood that simple emancipation was not enough, and that the “war and its outcome demanded racial equality.” [5] Despite the that efforts of many in the North this would not happen during Reconstruction and Douglass knew that the failure to accomplish this would be disastrous, “Whether the tremendous war so heroically fought…shall pass into history a miserable failure…or whether on the other hand, we shall, as the rightful reward of victory over treason have a solid nation, entirely delivered from all contradictions and social antagonisms, must be determined one way or another.” [6]

There was a problem with implementing Reconstruction; when John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, the political leaders of the North could not agree on how to do this. The new President, Andrew Johnson was probably the worst possible leader to lead the country in the aftermath of war for all practical purposes Johnson was a Democrat who believed in white supremacy, he had been brought onto the ticket for his efforts to keep Kentucky in the Union and to support Unionist elements in Tennessee. While his selection helped Lincoln in parts of the North and the Border States it was a disaster for the post-war era. Johnson’s approach to reconstruction was very simply to “impose minimal demands on the South. He required only minor concessions from the former Confederates before allowing them to resume their political rights and retain their land. As for freedmen, he seemed to think that the needed no further protection beyond the fact of their emancipation.” [7]

Johnson was “a lonely stubborn man with few confidants, who seemed to develop his policies without consulting anyone, then stuck to them inflexibly in the face of any and all criticism. He lacked Lincoln’s ability to conciliate his foes and his capacity for growth, which was best illustrated by Lincoln’s evolving attitude to black suffrage during the Civil War.” [8] In the months after his unexpected accession to the presidency Johnson demonstrated that he had no understanding of Lincoln’s political goals for the South and the desires of the Republican dominated Congress.

By the summer of 1865 Johnson was already demonstrating “that his sympathies were with the Southern white population and that he believed that their interests should be cared for even at the expense of freedmen.” [9] Johnson’s approach to reconstruction was very simply to “impose minimal demands on the South. He required only minor concessions from the former Confederates before allowing them to resume their political rights and retain their land. As for freedmen, he seemed to think that the needed no further protection beyond the fact of their emancipation.” [10] Johnson gave individual pardons to more than thirteen thousand “high-ranking Confederate civil and military officers and wealthy Southerners.” [11] While doing this he minimized political influence the Southern Unionists who had not supported the Confederacy and ensured that freed slaves were excluded from the political process. He issued a number of orders “appointing interim provisional governors and urging the writing of new state constitutions based upon the voter qualifications in force at the time of secession in 1861 – which meant, in large but invisible letters, no blacks.” [12]

When Frederick Douglass led a delegation of blacks to meet with Johnson in February 1866 Johnson preached that it was impossible to give political freedom to blacks. When Douglass attempted to object Johnson became angry and told Douglass “I do not like to be arraigned by some who can get up handsomely-rounded periods and rhetoric, and talk about abstract ideas of liberty, who never periled life, liberty, or property.” [13] When Douglass took his objections to Johnson’s harangue to a Washington newspaper, Johnson railed against Douglass “I know that d—–d Douglass…he’s just like any other nigger & would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.” [14]

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.14

[2] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 132

[3] Perman, Michael and Murrell Taylor, Amy editors The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.323

[4] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 175

[5] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.407

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.407

[7] Ibid. Perman and Taylor The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition p.323

[8] Foner, Eric Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2005 p.108

[9] Carpenter, John A. Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard Fordham University Press, New York 1999 p.109

 

[10] Ibid. Perman and Taylor The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition p.323

[11] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 177

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.490

[13] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.494

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.494

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Political Commentary

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