Book Review The Impeachers:The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation by Brenda Wineapple

Pat Young

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The Impeachers:The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation by Brenda Wineapple published by Random House (2019) 576 pp. Hardcover $32.00, Kindle $13.99.

Brenda Wineapple's newly published volume on the Andrew Johnson impeachment process is, in its first week, probably the most talked about Civil War Era book published in 2019. I have seen many mentions of it far beyond the book reveiw pages and history web sites. It comes after months of new books being published discussing the legalities of impeachment from jurisprudential scholars. Where Wineapple's work differs from most other impeachment books published over the last two years is over the question of whether the first-ever impeachment of president back in 1868 is even worth considering as a serious historical precedent.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was considered an abomination. Presidents like FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Ike were strong men who guarded America's safety and prosperity. The idea of Congress trying to control the president through impeachment seemed like a massive Congressional overreach. This is why, I was told by my teachers, no president was ever again impeached.

JFK enshrined this view by making one of the senators who voted against impeachment a hero of his Profiles in Courage.

The recent impeachment books by law professors tend to simply skip over the Johnson case in their discussions of precedents. I have read three of these works, and at most they have given a couple of pages to the 1868 impeachment crisis. Most see neither precedent nor lesson in that 151 year old case.

Wineapple argues that the Johnson impeachment must be taken seriously. She sees it as a key battle in the struggle for civil rights and as an effective measure to stem presidential usurpations of the powers of Congress. While she draws no parallels to the 21st Century, she says that modern Americans need to understand the Johnson impeachment case to see how Congress can effectively block bad presidential behaviour without actually removing the president.

Maybe she is right. Five years after my teacher told me we would never see an impeachment again, President Nixon stepped down from his high office rather than face an impeachment vote.

Note: Because of its length, this review will be posted in several installments.
 

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Part 2:

Wineapple begins with an assault on the conventional wisdom around the Johnson impeachment. She writes:

...to reduce the impeachment of Andrew Johnson to a mistaken incident in American history, a bad taste in the collective mouth, disagreeable and embarrassing, is to forget the extent to which slavery and thus the very fate of the nation lay behind Johnson’s impeachment. “This is one of the last great battles with slavery,” Senator Charles Sumner had said. “Driven from these legislative chambers, driven from the field of war, this monstrous power has found refuge in the Executive Mansion, where, in utter disregard of the Constitution and laws, it seeks to exercise its ancient far-reaching sway.” [Wineapple, Brenda. The Impeachers (p. xxv). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

Perhaps the dismissiveness of earlier historians arose out of distain for the abuses heaped upon freedpeople by Andrew Johnson. If the only real issue was the Tenure of Office Act and the dismissal of Edwin Stanton then the impeachment is a petty personal squabble. If it is about the fate of the formerly enslaved, then it was the highest stakes game imaginable. Wineapple wonders if the national discomfort with the issue of race lies behind the low standing of the Impeachers. She writes:

Impeachment: it was neither trivial nor ignominious. It was unmistakably about race. It was about racial prejudice, which is not trivial but shameful. That may be a reason why impeachment and what lay behind it were frequently swept under the national carpet. [Wineapple, Brenda. The Impeachers (p. xxv). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]
 

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Part 3:

Wineapple devotes a significant portion of the book to background on Andrew Johnson. Fortunately she does not reduce this sometimes admirable man to his worst acts and opinions. Johnson had, in many ways, a life story not that different from Abraham Lincoln's Born poor he struggled for every chance he got. He believed in democracy and in human equality, as long as the humans in question were white. He braved violent retaliation in Tennessee when he took a stand against secession and he risked everything when he supported emancipation of the slaves.

He opposed the Know Nothings during the 1850s and he braved criticim by attending a Catholic Church to hear the president of Georgetown give the sermon. Johnson was accused of being a Catholic and an infidel and he responded that it was impossible to be both. Lincoln was thankful for Johnson's support of the Union during the Civil War. Whether he picked him to be his vice president remains an open question.
 

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Part 4:

If there was an attractive, even heroic, side to Johnson there was equally a side that repelled many of the men who had helped organize the Union victory that still repells today. Johnson's racism was deep-seated and implacable. His theory of Southern sociology was that poor whites had two sources of oppession, slaveowners and slaves. The emancipation of the slaves, something he came to support, only heightened the threat to poor whites of social displacement.

That racism held deadly consequences for newly freed slaves when Johnson took over for the murdered Lincoln. As the president was assassinated by an unextinguished Confederate sentiment, hundreds of blacks would suffer a similar fate in the months of "peace" that followed. Too often, Johnson was unwilling to use the weapons at his disposal that the events of the hour demanded.
 

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Part 5:

Johnson could not claim to be unaware of the sorry human rights situation in the South. Carl Schurz had been sent on a tour of the South by the president to assess conditions. The German immigrant reported that while initially former-Confederates had behaved like beaten men, as they saw attacks on blacks take place without Federal intervention they began to feel a sense of impunity. This led to systemic violence and a rule of terror by whites over Blacks.

Wineapple writes of Johnson's reaction:

Johnson is said to have quipped that so far his only mistake as President was letting Schurz go South. He had hardened, and when pushed, he lost his temper. Again he proclaimed, this time to the governor of Missouri, that “this is a country for white men and, by God, as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men.” Many Republicans professed shock yet some of them defended the President. “We think it likely he did say so,” temporized The Chicago Times, which then lay the blame at the feet of Radical Republicans. “If he used the language attributed to him, it was undoubtedly in reply to fanaticism and impudence.” [Wineapple, Brenda. The Impeachers (p. 83). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]
 

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Part 6:

Schurz's report was reprinted around the country and 100,000 copies were in circulation. General Grant did a brief trip to the South where he was entertained by the elite. His rosy report supported Johnson's rapid resonstruction policy. Johnson disregarded the growing evidence of reign of terror taking hold in the South, and he fought radical efforts to use the victorious United States army to protect the lives and liberties of the "freedpeople."

Wineapple writes of the intransigence that characterized Johnson's presidency:

Johnson was a proud, vain, and insecure man who distrusted almost everyone, and his talent for pitting himself against almost everyone...would pillory him and warp the course of the entire country for years and years to come. [Wineapple, Brenda. The Impeachers (p. 86). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]
 

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Part 7:

President Johnson adopted the Democratic motto "This is a White Man's government." The response from Thad Stevens was "What is implied by this?...That one race of men are to have the exclusive right forever to rule this nation, and to exercise all acts of sovereignty, which all other races and nations and colors are to be their subject, and have no voice in making the laws and choosing the rules by whom they are to be governed? Wherein does this differ from slavery except in degree? This is not a ‘white man’s Government.’  To say so is political blasphemy, for it violates the fundamental principles of our gospel of liberty….Equal rights to all the privileges of the Government is innate in every immortal being, no matter what the shape or color of the tabernacle which it inhabits. This is not a ‘white man’s Government. To say so is political blasphemy, for it violates the fundamental principles of our gospel of liberty….Equal rights to all the privileges of the Government is innate in every immortal being, no matter what the shape or color of the tabernacle which it inhabits.”
[Wineapple, Brenda. The Impeachers (p. 92). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]
 

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Part 8:

Johnson's retrograde politics were made even more disreputable by his behavior during his so-called "Swing Around the Circle", a series of campaign-like rallies the president staged during which he gave seemingly insane speeches which veered off course as soon as they began into calling his opponents traitors. While the president's strength had been his common-man background, he abandoned that posture as soon as he embarked on his campaign. Wineapple writes:

The presidential party departed Washington on a presidential train provided by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and outfitted with private berths, cushioned seats, and luxurious curtains. It would run on a special timetable with the track cleared for its passage. No expense was spared: the party ate from engraved plates of red, white, blue, and gold prepared for the occasion. The dining car was loaded with a seemingly unlimited supply of wines, liquor, and cigars, and the menus typically included terrapin, canvasback ducks, prairie chicken, and champagne, which according to one member of the group, “were far more plentiful than bread and butter or cold water.” [Wineapple, Brenda. The Impeachers (p. 152). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. ]
 

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Part 4:

If there was an attractive, even heroic, side to Johnson there was equally a side that repelled many of the men who had helped organize the Union victory that still repells today. Johnson's racism was deep-seated and implacable. His theory of Southern sociology was that poor whites had two sources of oppession, slaveowners and slaves. The emancipation of the slaves, something he came to support, only heightened the threat to poor whites of social displacement.

That racism held deadly consequences for newly freed slaves when Johnson took over for the murdered Lincoln. As the president was assassinated by an unextinguished Confederate sentiment, hundreds of blacks would suffer a similar fate in the months of "peace" that followed. Too often, Johnson was unwilling to use the weapons at his disposal that the events of the hour demanded.
It would seem to me Johnson simply reflected the attitudes America has always had since the CW. When a war is declared over, we want it over........we have never been much for lengthy occupations with unconventional warfare.

Plenty of recent or modern examples where 80-90% of Americans are in favor of going to war somewhere.................yet 5 years later not so much for staying the course and honoring promises we made to help them win the peace........no instead, suddenly the popular view is simply bring the troops home it's over............ We excel at overwhelming force now........long term commitment with losses, even if the losses are relatively minor.......not so much.

We want our "peace\endgame" as instant as the military victory in the war. Not like reconstruction dragging on three times longer then the war itself... Not all that surprising people lost patience...... So military law ends and the restoration of local governments occur
 
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Part 9:

Johnson's "Swing" at first reassured the president that his course was correct. His supporters turned out in large numbers at his rallies. But as he progressed in his travels, Johnson increasingly went off script, extemporizing insults and threats towards the opposition. This convinced many radicals that he had to be removed and spread concern among voters about his basic mental stability.

Johnson's audiences did him no good either. Men yelled that he should lock up or execute the political opposition. The calls for the repression of the the pro-civil rights political class was at times endorsed by him in the heat of the rallies. Even his friends warned him that his behavior on the speaker's stand was compromising the dignity of the office of the president.

The president brought two heroes of the Civil War, Grant and Farragut, with him on his tour. The intention may have been to bathe himself in the reflected glory of the military men. What they thought of the use of their war records to legitimate Johnson may be guessed from their apparent desire to end their participation as soon as possible.

The rallies also generated counterprotests as those opposed to his policies turned out at his rallies to shout out their disagreements with Johnson. Reporter Sylvanus Cadwallader recalled that “The President was fortunate if he escaped insult, wherever the train stopped. Grant and Farragut were continually called for, and Johnson’s name jeered and hooted at whenever mentioned.” When he heard harsh words against himself, Johnson might respond by asking why Thad Stevens and prominent abolitionists were not hung. He might call out for white solidarity by saying that “I call upon you here tonight as freemen to favor the emancipation of the white man as well as the colored man.”

Democratic newspaperman James Bennett of the New York Herald warned Johnson that all of his off color-off hand remarks were being telegraphed in real time to newspapers around the country increasing the public perception that the executive office was in the hands of an unbalanced mad man.
 
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Johnson's audiences did him no good either. Men yelled that he should lock up or executed the political opposition.
"Lock them up! Lock them up!"

Has anybody tried to psychoanalyze Johnson's behavior at this point? Was he just frazzled and unfiltered, or was he having some kind of mental breakdown?
 

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Too often, Johnson was unwilling to use the weapons at his disposal that the events of the hour demanded.
What weapons would those be? Congress was being uncooperative, I reckon he could have used his commander in chief powers to move troops around and effectively gut military reconstruction, but given the political climate it doesn't have seen to be much an option either.

Here was a man trying to do what he believed was right, we may disagree today, but what other weapons did he have to do what he believed right?.

I've always figured all I can ask of anyone is to do what they believe right.....I may not always agree with them......but I hardly expect them to do what they believe is wrong.
 
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Johnson was a strong Southern Unionist. The Union Party began in the Upper South during the Secession Crisis. Johnson helped organize the Bridge Burners in East TN and was Military Governor Of TN. Lincoln knew exactly what he was getting, picking Johnson for VP. Lincoln didn’t use Racism to define someone. He used Hinton Rowan Helper. Never read were he rebuffed Sherman.

Small minority of Republicans were the Radicals. Schurz sure changed his opinion by 72 when he joined the Liberal Republicans and denounced Reconstruction! Wonder if the Author explained the Radicals Reversal Of Opinion?
 

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Part 10:

People began to fight at Johnson's rallies and at one a man was killed. At Johnson's event in Johnstown, Pa. a wooden platform collapsed killing six people and injuring three hundred. This all added to the sense of calamity surround the Swing around the Circle. Moderate Republicans began to abandon Johnson as the Swing drew to a conclusion. Even some Northern Democrats were alienated by his performance. By stirring up animosities, he was countering their own efforts at reconciliation and readmission of the Southern states to Congress. He also alienated his two military props, Grant and Farragut, one of whom would soon seek to replace Johnson as president.
 

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This sounds like a book I want to read. The NYT review did not seem all that enthusiastic, but your review is better anyway.
 

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Part 11:

After the Radicals gained the upper hand in 1866 in Congress, Johnson tried to unite conservatives and Democrats around a Union Party. His "Swing Around the Circle" and subsequent Democratic defeats ended Johnson's effectiveness as president. Wineapple effectively describes the collapse of support for Johnson writing:

Henry Raymond of The New York Times finally abandoned the President. “What a muddle we are in politically!” he exclaimed. “Was there ever such a madman in so high a place as Johnson?” Senator John Sherman told his brother that the President had “sunk the Presidential office to the level of a grog-house.” Some moderates were even less kind: they said Johnson might be cunning and skillful, but he was basically a hazy-headed demagogue who should resign his office so it might be said that “nothing in his official life ever became him like his leaving of it.” James Russell Lowell remarked that if the President’s rallies weren’t so pathetic, they’d be funny. [Wineapple, Brenda. The Impeachers (p. 157). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]
 


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