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Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 7, Number 1, March 1961
pp. 91-92 | 10.1353/cwh.1961.0063

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BOOK REVIEWS Eric L. McKitrick. Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960. Pp. ix, 534. $8.50.) Several important studies published in 1959 seem to mark a new trend in the writing of the history of the Reconstruction era. Dr. Irwin Unger in two articles, Dr. Stanley Coben in one article, and Dr. Robert Sharkey in his monograph, Money, Class, and Party, presented evidence which, when added together, pointed, among others, to these conclusions: (1) that "Northern businessmen" in the Reconstruction period differed decidedly with one another in their attitudes concerning such economic issues as tariff and currency, and that on these issues "Radical Republicans" also differed in a pronounced fashion with one another; and (2) that there were deep divisions among "Northern businessmen" regarding what policies should be followed in reconstructing the Southern states. The evidence displayed in these studies required substantial modification—some even said abandonment —of the "Beard-Beale interpretation" of Reconstruction, with its emphasis upon the common economic interests of "Northern businessmen" and of "Radical Republicans." (As the other side of the coin, the new studies reached conclusions similar to some of the findings set forth in 1937 in Professor Paul H. Buck's book, The Road to Reunion, although none of the three authors indicated awareness of this fact.) This new trend in the writing of the history of Reconstruction is reflected in Professor McKitrick's volume, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction is a long, detailed, rich, and complex book which is focused on the period covered in the late Professor Howard K. Beale's The Critical Year (1930), but which continues past the terminus of The Critical Year—the elections of 1866—to include events through the impeachment of President Johnson in 1868. The major theme of Professor McKitrick's volume is expressed in the title of its first chapter, "Andrew Johnson: The Case Reopened," for the book is primarily a reexamination of the interpretation of Johnson's actions which was presented a generation ago in the writings of Professor Beale, in the biography of Johnson by George Fort Milton (1930), and in Professor James G. Randall's history, The Civil War and Reconstruction (1937). That interpretation of Johnson became dominant and has remained so to the present; it contains "touches of the heroic," as McKitrick notes, with Johnson appearing as "a man of undoubted personal integrity and firm principle who was slandered intemperately by his fellow citizens" [p.4]. Without seeking to erase those characteristics from the portrait of Johnson, McKitrick adds other characT1 92CIVIL WA R HISTORY teristics which are less favorable. These less favorable attributes emphasize Johnson's own considerable responsibility for the course of events in Reconstruction , since Johnson himself was, in McKitrick's phrase, a "causal agent" in those events—a "causal agent," for example, in the split which developed between Johnson and such "moderate Republican" leaders as Fessenden and Trumbull, a "causal agent" in the development of a recalcitrant spirit in the South, and a "causal agent" in the events which led to his own impeachment, This revised portrait by McKitrick, which bears some similarity to that found in the pages of James Ford Rhodes, thus stresses "how Andrew Johnson threw away his own power as President and as party leader, how he assisted materially, in spite of himself, in blocking the reconciliation of North and South, and what his behavior did toward disrupting the political life of an entire nation" [p.14]. This revised interpretation of Johnson, as McKitrick is careful to point out, rests on approximately the same source materials, manuscript and printed, which were known to Beale, Milton, and Randall; it represents, therefore, the viewing of familiar source materials in a differentTight, and it poses a crucial question to which scholars, in the opinion of this reviewer, should devote more thought and effort: When confronted with widely differing interpretations by qualified experts, how does one deterrnine which version is more accurate on some basis which is not primarily a reflection of his own ideological preferences or biases? For readers who take this question seriously, McKitrick has performed a real service, for he has described explicitly the respects in...