restricted access Andrew Johnson: A Biography (review)
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BOOK REVIEWS173 Andrew Johnson: A Biography. By Hans L. Trefousse. (New York: Norton, 1989. Pp. 463. $25.00.) Andrew Johnson remains a pivotal figure in the historiography of Reconstruction . While the turn-of-the-century Dunning school saw him as a magnanimous peacemaker, the revisionists of the 1960s stressed his limitations, particularly his racism. Hans L. Trefousse was a leading revisionist, and his The Radical Republicans: Lincoln's Vanguard for Racial Justice sympathetically portrayed Johnson's great antagonists. Now, Trefousse essays a biography covering Johnson's entire career. The author justifies his study by observing that Johnson's "most astute biographers" were satisfied with brief treatments, while "all of the fulllength Lives tend to be favorable to their subject" (14). Trefousse thus presents the first extended critical treatment of Johnson's life, but the passage of time seemingly moderated the author's views. The result is a generally persuasive account, though the effort at balance results in certain inconsistencies. The book's most original contribution is its examination of Johnson's prewar career, and the author has used the "mass of material" gathered by the Andrew Johnson papers to good effect. Trefousse vividly portrays Johnson's contradictory combination of political opportunism and ideological commitment. Though Johnson was solidly proslavery, he identified with his plebeian origins and took his rhetorical opposition to the slaveholding aristocracy personally. As Trefousse observed, he was a "fanatical Jeffersonian-Jacksonian" who "clung to ideas to which many other Democrats paid lip service" (68). A maverick in Congress in the late 1840s, Johnson demonstrated a "veritable obsession" with retrenchment (69). For example, he opposed the acceptance of the private grant which established the Smithsonian Institution, fearing it might involve the government in later expenditures. Elected to the Senate in 1857, he was the sole Southern supporter of homestead legislation, which exposed him to pronounced abuse from his Southern colleagues. Even before the secession crisis, Johnson revealed himself as a strong-willed and individualistic politician. These traits he would need in his forthright defense of the Union cause, but would serve him less well in his embattled presidency. Without underestimating the sincerity of his Unionism, Trefousse makes a convincing case that Johnson took a "politically expedient course" during the secession crisis (133). Johnson had no political future in the Confederacy, having antagonized the Southern leadership while in Congress. But by courageously campaigning against secession and refusing to resign his Senate seat, he transformed himself into a hero in the North. As military governor of Tennessee, he impressed President Lincoln by his support of emancipation and by his vigorous harassment 174crvn. WAR HISTORY of Confederate sympathizers. Trefousse thinks Johnson's zeal is of "questionable " effectiveness, and is struck with his "consistent inability" to get along with the Union military command (156, 163). Johnson also "failed to achieve the main object of his appointment," the speedy creation of an elected loyal government (174-75). No matter, he was a popular War Democrat of unquestioned bravery, and he served to balance the Union Republican ticket as candidate for vice president. As for Johnson's presidency, the volume of revisionist work complicates Trefousse's task, for it is difficult to say much original in such wellexplored terrain. But Trefousse's treatment is even-handed on the origins of Johnson's Reconstruction policy. Johnson demonstrated little sympathy for the freedmen, but his opposition to federal guarantees of civil rights was also consistent with his prewar Jacksonian beliefs. Johnson's constitutional views coincided with his racism to produce an "obsession with states rights" (230). Trefousse also stresses Johnson's political calculations , rather than psychological factors, in much of his behavior. For example, Johnson's fierce talk about hanging traitors initially distracted Radical attention from civil rights; likewise, it was "debatable" that Johnson's generous pardon policy stemmed from his pleasure at being courted by aristocratic Southerners (226). Because continued alliance with Radical Republicans was unlikely in peacetime, it "made sense to seek a new power base," and conciliating the white South was his response (220). Trefousse's treatment of the impeachment crisis succeeds less well than his coverage of the rest of Johnson's presidency. Trefousse observes that the underlying issue of impeachment was...