- Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction
To judge from forty years of Reconstruction scholarship, Ulysses S. Grant seems to have won a last victory. Formerly ranked by historians as one of two presidential failures, he has been lifted out of that class and replaced by Andrew Johnson. Now the longtime editor of The Papers of Andrew Johnson, Paul H. Bergeron, in a temperate, clearly written account, has offered a more generous picture of Lincoln’s ill-fated successor.
Bergeron does little with Johnson’s personal side, the one place where—at least until March 1865—most scholars allow the Tennesseean’s better qualities to outweigh his worse ones; and in him there was much to admire: courage, honesty, ambition, patriotism, and a firm belief in democracy, at least for white men. Even his opponents found themselves liking the man personally, for all of his defects. Instead, this account concentrates on Johnson’s public acts, specifically as military governor and as president, and for this the book relies primarily on the massive collection of material in Andrew Johnson’s papers. Bergeron sees Presidential Reconstruction as a promising beginning and, in light of the challenges, handled better than it might have been. Bringing to the fore Johnson’s understanding of what the Constitution allowed and what role president and Congress must play, Bergeron does not cast blame or even render judgment as much as he narrates how the chief executive’s plans fell afoul of Republicans who thought differently and how Johnson fought a rearguard action to protect his own prerogatives.
Bergeron plays fair, which is more than can be said for a few of the earlier generation of Johnson biographers, sentimentalizing the poor boy made good and demonizing the Republicans as radicals, vengeful, and corrupt fanatics. He recognizes Johnson’s lack of empathy with former slaves, his indifference or worse to civil rights, his tactlessness and tactical mistakes. Anti-Johnson biographers whetting their axes will find in Bergeron few grounds for meting out blows. Some statements may mystify them, to be sure: the contention that in 1866 “the race question represented the agenda of Congress, whereas the restoration or political question was the province of the president” (101). Any such statement would have baffled just about every Republican in Congress to the right of Charles Sumner, from William Pitt Fessenden to Henry Jarvis Raymond. The Fourteenth Amendment in its entirety makes no sense in those terms. Still, radical historians will not disagree with Bergeron’s recounting of facts or their [End Page 625] sequence, or, indeed, with the basic effect of the book, which is to restore to Johnson somewhat more respect than he may receive from those who disagree with his policies and their effect.
Indeed, the real grumblers may be the small coterie of Johnson’s admirers. They may argue that a far more vigorous rehabilitation could have been essayed. A more aggressive scholar might have stressed that Johnson’s racial views look far more outrageous to us than they would have to white contemporaries, most of whom accepted the inferiority of blacks and the comparative incapacity of four million people just released from slavery. An earnest apologist would emphasize that to the end, quite a significant minority of northerners thought Johnson’s approach right, and that among whites south and north, it had wider support than Republicans’ had. Take a permanent, speedy restoration of the Union as the first or, indeed, the one important goal of Reconstruction, downplay the issue of guaranteeing equality before the law, lay heavier stress on the need to return to the narrow confines of “the Constitution as it was,” and Johnson’s course looks rather better; in that regard, Johnson’s apologists may suggest, Bergeron could have used rather more of the president’s pugnacity.
The problem is that by removing so much of the personal, even some of the unreasonable, Bergeron may give Johnson’s policy more plausibility than it deserves, just as, in relying so heavily on the largely supportive letters to...