First, some background. When I was in History graduate school (1968-1973), the “gold standard” in multi-volume histories of the United States was Harper and Row’s New American Nation Series, edited by Richard Morris and Henry Steele Commager. I bought most of the volumes in this series in paperback, and several proved very useful while I was working on lectures for my American survey course and preparing for written, comprehensive exams.
Scholarship, research, and interpretations march on, however. In more recent decades, the crown for up-to-date, scholarly, multi-volume treatment of this nation’s past has been worn by Oxford University Press’s The Oxford History of the United States, whose General Editor is Stanford University’s David M. Kennedy. The series remains unfinished at this date, but there’s a better than even chance that the remaining chronological gaps will be filled, perhaps before Kennedy retires from the editorship.
I own every volume published by Oxford so far and have read all but the most recent one, Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1876 (2017), which I have begun this summer. As I made my way through White’s account of the tumultuous presidency of Andrew Johnson, I was struck by his description of Johnson’s campaign to seize control of Reconstruction from Congress, which was dominated at the time by the so-called “Radical Republicans.”
Why did White’s treatment of the Johnson Presidency prove so captivating to me? Because his analysis of the overmatched Tennessean’s campaign suggested certain traits of our current President, as he, too, looks ahead to the midterm elections this November. White’s volume was published in 2017, which means that he might have been influenced in his treatment of President Andrew Johnson by the antics of Donald Trump, at least during the campaign season. At any rate, certain of White’s points of emphasis strike home, and I think they might also resonate for some of you.]
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Scene 1: In February 1866, President Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, and Congress narrowly sustained his veto,
but Johnson remained the kind of man who was angry even in victory. As was the custom, on Washington’s Birthday a crowd gathered before the White House to serenade the president, and Johnson gave an impromptu speech that provided more evidence that he should never give impromptu speeches. He equated [Thaddeus] Stevens, [Charles] Sumner, and the abolitionist Wendell Phillips with the Confederate leadership. They were, he said, as bad as traitors since they too aimed to undermine the Constitution. The president referred to himself 210 times in a speech of little more than an hour, or three times every minute. (66-67)
Scene 2: When a black delegation led by Frederick Douglass visited Johnson, he
told the delegation that it was poor whites, not blacks who were the real victims of slavery in the South. After the delegates left, he told his private secretary: “Those damned sons of bitches thought they had me in a trap. I know that damned Douglass; he’s just like any nigger, & he would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.” (67)
Scene 3: White explains that
There was method in Johnson’s madness. His goal was a coalition of conservatives who would cross party and sectional boundaries to maintain a white man’s republic. On March 27 Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill as an attack on the rights of white people and as a move to centralize all power in the federal government. . . .
He also indicated that only he could speak for the nation. Congress spoke for parochial interests. . . . Johnson’s political calculation was that by framing the issue as a dual contest between the rights of whites and the rights of blacks, and between the expansion of the federal government and the preservation of local governments, he could not lose. (67)
Scene 4: Here’s where the parenthetical “sort of” in the title of this post comes in. When President Johnson set off on his “swing around the circle” from the East through the Midwest in 1866, in an effort to weaken the hold of Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives,
He ended up delighting his enemies and appalling many of his supporters. With each stop, the crowds became more hostile, and Johnson grew angrier. He argued with hecklers, comparing himself to the crucified Christ, and found himself abused in the press. . . . (82)
Clearly, President Andrew Johnson had misjudged the temper of his “base,” unlike our current President (of course, President Johnson did not have access either to Twitter or to Fox News, more’s the pity).
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Johnson’s “swing around the circle” in the summer and fall of 1866 turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for him and his vision of Reconstruction. The results of the 1866 midterms ushered in a “veto-proof,” Radical Republican-dominated Congress, setting the stage for the attempt to impeach the President and remove him from office. This effort narrowly failed, but for the remainder of his term Johnson was reduced to a little more than a political cipher.
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So, is any of this actually relevant to the 2018 mid-term elections this November?
President Trump’s allies and his base are determined to retain control of Congress and strengthen their man’s hold on affairs. The opposition, both Democrats and “Never Trump” Republicans, seems just as focused on capturing at least one house and thereby weakening the President.
Some anti-trump members of the op-ed “commentariat” are even predicting a “Blue Wave” election result that will reduce the President to a cipher for the remainder of his time in office, as happened to Andrew Johnson, and, who knows, perhaps lead to his impeachment. (Of course, those editorial voices are the same ones who confidently assured us in 2016 that Trump had no chance to be elected President. Yikes!)
The current situation suggests that, at a minimum, we should make sure we’re registered to vote, regardless of our party affiliation, and then show up at the polls on election day. (I know, I know, radical notions both.) The contest has all the makings of a referendum on Trump and “Trumpism,” as it should, and neither side can afford to become complacent. It’s also important to keep in mind that history–real, verifiable history–you know, with facts and all–remains the crucial source when deciding for whom to vote, not what your favorite news channel might urge.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: