[NOTE: Followers of this blog know that I usually eschew contemporary politics here, but there have been a few exceptions (for example, here and here). And, here’s another one.
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:
Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)
In Pursuit of Dead Georgians: One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)
George: many thanks for this issue of ‘Retired but not Shy’ History usually helps us better understand the present, and certainly is the case in your piece and our current situation. –annie williams
Thanks for your comment, Annie. I’ve been wondering how (or even whether) to write about the 2018 midterms from a historical perspective (i.e., in a format suitable for the blog, rather than just posting someone else’s op-ed on Facebook, which is my usual approach to current events). White’s treatment of President Andrew Johnson gave me that opportunity, and I took it, though with some trepidation..
Could you, will you go on to suggest ways Johnson’s presidency did considerable damage to the effort of Reconstruction, long-lasting effects, given the failure of leadership–both functional and moral? Did Johnson have a Rudy Giuiliani, with his “the truth isn’t truth?” Or a Kellyanne Conway, with her “alternative truth”? A literary fluorish, from ALL THE KING’S MEN…”soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.” –Lasley Gober…Vote as if the life of the Republic depends on it
Although Johnson certainly didn’t help Reconstruction, he also didn’t have any real power to hurt it further after the impeachment trial. The blame for the long-lasting damage to Reconstruction goes much deeper than one inept racist President. It goes to the nation’s political party system in the post-Civil War years: the cause of the former slaves, *written into the Constitution through the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, for God’s sake*, was contested bitterly by Southern white Democrats; gradually abandoned by the Republicans, the party of the “Great Emancipator”; and deserted by the Supreme Court in rulings like Williams v. Mississippi (1890) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that ushered in the “Age of Jim Crow.” The quote from Warren would make a great campaign slogan, wouldn’t it!
Enjoyed your review of White’s book on Reconstruction. As a retired professional, I know well that most professionals find it next to impossible to read the flood of publications in books and journals and must rely on well done reviews-hope you will extend your work as a reviewer to include influential but non-current books, even long out of print -that you find especially informative.
Glad you enjoyed the review, Joe. As noted above, discussing contemporary politics in “Retired But Not Shy” certainly isn’t my cup of tea, but White’s treatment of Andrew Johnson cried out for some comparative treatment with the antics of our current C-in-C. I’ll take your suggestion about reviewing influential but non-current books under advisement. You’ve mentioned it before, and I know that you’re planning to do something similar as part of your new blog. I can easily pinpoint several such influential volumes in my own background. So, who knows? Maybe I’ll add another topic to my blog’s coverage! Thanks, as always, for taking time to post a comment here.