Eric Foner: Lectures on Andrew Johnson

Historians in the News

A leading U.S. historian who specializes in the Reconstruction period following the Civil War explained Thursday why he is critical of President Andrew Johnson's racial attitudes and policy positions during that turbulent post-war era.

"Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction" was one of the main topics discussed Thursday during a day-long symposium at Tusculum College that focused on the life and political career of the 17th president.

Dr. Eric Foner, a nationally known historian who is on the faculty of Columbia University in New York, began his hour-long lecture by saying that the Reconstruction Period following the Civil War, which is his area of expertise, is generally viewed as one of the darkest times in this nation's history.

Foner, a former president of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), said that over the nearly century-and-a-half following the Civil War, debate has continued among historians over how to view the Reconstruction period and Johnson's role as the 17th president from 1865 to 1869 following President Lincoln's assassination.

Dr. Foner said some historians have viewed Johnson "as out of his depth" as Lincoln's successor during the turbulent time.

Other historians have judged Johnson in the 1860s to be a defender of "home rule," which was a "euphemism for white supremacy in the Old South."

During the 1920 and 1930s, Dr. Foner said, historians tended to consider Johnson as "the heroic defender of the Constitution," battling the northern "Radical Republicans" in Congress.

After bitter disagreements the U.S. House of Representatives, which was dominated by the Radical Republicans, impeached Johnson for alleged "high crimes and misdemeanors" but fell one vote short of persuading the U.S. Senate to convict the 17th president.

The Columbia University historian described President Lincoln as "a consummate politician" who was flexible enough to mollify or adjust to opponents.

"This was not how Johnson operated," Dr. Foner said, adding that the 17th president was hampered by his political isolation (he was a Democrat dealing with a Congress that was predominantly Republican), and by his own stubbornness.

"He certainly was inflexible. Or another way of putting it is that he held strong views."

Gets Low Rating

Referring to a book he wrote 20 years ago, Dr. Foner said, "My own history of the Reconstruction period was quite critical of Johnson." He added that historians generally rate Johnson as among the least successful of U.S. presidents.

He noted that during the current U.S. presidential campaign, both parties are charging that opposing candidates lack the governmental experience needed to be national leaders.

On that score, Dr. Foner said, Andrew Johnson "certainly was no outsider," having held virtually every elective office one could, from Greeneville alderman to vice president.

The Columbia University historian said that, despite Andrew Johnson's earlier achievements as a governmental leader, he had a "deficient outlook" as president. "I do not think it was the outlook that the country needed at the end of the Civil War," Foner said.

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