- The Rhetoric and Corruption of Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction
When considering the presidency of Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln's ill-fated successor, numbers tell the whole story. From the Founding through the Civil War, United States presidents vetoed fifty-nine acts of Congress. In just one term, Johnson vetoed twenty-nine legislative bills (twenty-one regular and eight pocket vetoes), thus generating enormous tension between the executive and legislative branches of the national government. Johnson pardoned over 7,000 Confederates; he also replaced more than 1,600 Republican-appointed federal postmasters with men from his own Democratic Party, thereby stirring both regional and partisan politics. By overturning hard-won Republican victories, Johnson encouraged violence against blacks. In 1865 and 1866, over 500 whites were indicted for murdering blacks in Texas alone, yet none was convicted. America's seventeenth president would soon be impeached for "high crimes and misdemeanors." To avoid conviction, Johnson needed nineteen votes from the fifty-four members of the Senate responsible for his destiny; only nine of them were Democrats. The ensuing conflagration between Southern Democrat President Johnson and the Northern Republican-controlled Congress nearly rekindled the embers of Civil War.
Though an oft-told story, David O. Stewart has elegantly and engagingly recounted the saga of Johnson's impeachment trial. While not a historian by training, Stewart offers the informed perspective of a lawyer who has argued before the Supreme Court, served as clerk to Justice Lewis Powell, and represented a Mississippi judge in an impeachment trial before the United States Senate. Stewart views the showdown between Congress and Johnson, even more than the Reconstruction Amendments, as the "next critical moment" in constitutional history after the Philadelphia Convention (p. 1), which he so ably recreated in his previous book, The Summer of 1787.
Historians have thoroughly mined Johnson's battles with Congress. Michael Les Benedict wrote the short yet scholarly Impeachment and Trial of Andrew [End Page 271] Johnson (1973), which Stewart commends because it, too, "concludes that the Johnson impeachment effort was not the historical atrocity of popular myth" (p. 325). Gene Smith's much lengthier High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (1976), another Watergate/Nixon-inspired study, was a stylistic (though less polished) narrative that approximates Stewart's approach. Even more comprehensive was David Miller Dewitt's The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (1903), a book Stanley Kutler reintroduced in 1967 with the observation that "it is remarkable how useful the basic substance of Dewitt's work remains" despite the fact that Dewitt was a Democratic politician who "naturally disapproved of the Republican program." For the claim that "little is known to the general public of the history of the attempt to remove President Andrew Johnson" to be credible, one has to return to 1896 and Edmund G. Ross's History of the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson.
Stewart's version of the impeachment surpasses all the rest; intended for an intelligent lay audience, it is a superb synthesis of existing scholarship and an insightful depiction of the Reconstruction's frailties. His book includes twentysix concise, exceptionally well-paced chapters filled with fine biographical sketches like that of the "burly, cockeyed former Democrat" Benjamin Butler (p. 170). President Andrew Johnson, an autodidact from Tennessee who "never attended a day of school" (p. 5) is depicted as a stubborn, humorless, vindictive, hard drinking, bitter racist who repeatedly blundered in his dealings with Congress. Republicans selected Johnson—the only United States senator from the South to stand with the Union—as a reconciling replacement for Lincoln's Northern antislavery vice president, Hannibal Hamlin from Maine, on the 1864 Republican presidential ticket.
Though nothing new, the early chapters are peppered with illuminating historical tidbits: Johnson maintained an unwavering commitment to states' rights; "more whites than blacks took advantage of postwar food handouts" (p. 30); Charles Sumner had "little interest in individuals" due to his preoccupation with "great public questions" (p. 37); when Johnson nominated Ohio's Henry Stanberry...