The Republicans' Andrew Johnson Moment

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tags: election 2016, Andrew Johnson



Timothy S. Huebner, the Sternberg Professor of History at Rhodes College, is the author of “Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism,” recently published by University Press of Kansas.

One hundred fifty years ago, in the fall of 1866, President Andrew Johnson forced members of his party to make a choice. They could either accept his vision for the country or abandon him. Facing a similarly stark dilemma, today’s Republicans should consider the cautionary tale of the 17th president.

A year and a half earlier, Johnson had enjoyed the full backing of his party. Elevated to the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Johnson had come into office intending to carry on the work of his predecessor. Although a lifelong Democrat from the South, Johnson had run with the Republican Lincoln on the National Union ticket in 1864—the wartime embodiment of the pro-Union and anti-slavery Republican Party. After Lincoln’s death, every one of his Cabinet members stayed on to serve under Johnson, and Republican congressional leaders expressed strong support for the new president. Even a potential political rival, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the great hero of the Civil War, rallied around the country’s new leader.

Like Lincoln, Johnson favored a policy of Reconstruction for white Southerners that was relatively generous. His two presidential proclamations announced in May 1865, just a month after the end of the war, looked to a speedy reunion. Johnson called for a general amnesty for former Confederates (with some exceptions), thus avoiding long and bitter treason trials. He also called for the formation of new loyal governments in the formerly seceded states, provided that they agree to end slavery, repudiate secession, and cancel the debts owed to Confederate bondholders.

But on another major issue of Reconstruction—the rights of formerly enslaved African-Americans—Johnson gradually staked out a narrow, backward-looking position. Johnson fully supported the 13th Amendment ending slavery, which Lincoln had helped get through Congress. But in contrast to Lincoln’s expressed desire to extend gradually the franchise to African-Americans, Johnson ended up taking a hard line against granting civil or political rights to the former slaves.

In March 1866, responding to African-Americans’ continued advocacy for their own rights, Republicans in Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, the first in U.S. history. The law established that all who had been born in the United States, including the formerly enslaved, were citizens, and it provided that all citizens held the right to sue, make and enforce contracts, and enjoy the rights of property.

Against the advice of most of his Cabinet, Johnson responded with a veto. He described African-Americans as unprepared for citizenship, argued that the measure violated states’ rights to govern their own affairs, and portrayed the legislation as disruptive to the established order in which white Southern landholders governed the labor of black workers. ...




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