As mentioned in the first article of this series, Johnson’s humble beginning never truly left him. Done wrong by the rich planter class and having to make his own in the world, Johnson never trusted them and grew to despise them. This came out in one of the first debates of reconstruction, amnesty. What was to be done with the Confederates? If the Southern states were to be brought back into the union, they had to be given back citizenship, lest the Union gained nothing more than a few unruly territories that would likely rise up again within a generation. Who was to be given amnesty then? And under what conditions?
Johnson’s answer was, for most Southerners that had stayed with the South, an oath of loyalty. It was a slap on the wrist, but for the rich planter class, the deed would be much stricter. For those whose net worth was above $20,000 and had supported the Confederacy, amnesty would not be granted. They could appeal to the president directly however.
A simultaneous debate swirled around the emancipation of Black slaves and what should be done with them. Radical Republicans wished to appropriate land and wealth to them, though this never came to fruition. More realistically, it was considered whether Blacks should be able to vote and on what circumstances. Johnson believed in states’ rights as he did on many issues, though he did advise the South to grant limited voting rights to literate Black veterans. Johnson was unsentimental to the plight of Blacks, reasoning that they had come out of the war with a nice bargain while unionist White Southerners got nothing but destruction, hardship, and bloodshed. In early 1866 he vetoed a bill extending the lifetime of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, created to aid Blacks establish themselves as an autonomous entity. The bill also allowed for repropriation of land to Blacks, a policy Johnson wholeheartedly rejected, believing in the struggle of a man rather than gibs.
Other debates arose as Johnson pushed the South to ratify and accept state constitutions that forcefully delegitimized secession as well as accept the 13th amendment. The South did this only grudgingly and usually did as little as they were required to rejoin the union.
In 1866 Johnson and Congress truly began their war over how to handle reconstruction. Johnson vetoed a Civil Rights bill effectively making Blacks equal under the law; he did this because he thought it came too soon after their freedom as well as the fact it was too strict with equality, possibly allowing intermarriage. Obviously this annoyed the Radical Republicans and set them off an even more radical path to legislate the South’s destiny and so the veto was overruled.
Once the 1866 midterms came Johnson was in even direr straights as his policy and beliefs were now hanging by a thread, outnumber 3-to-1 in the House. By the beginning of 1867 impeachment was being considered and some Republicans sought to limit presidential power, especially as he opposed the 14th amendment and advised states not to ratify it. It wouldn’t truly be undertaken for another year though. In the meantime Johnson and Congress clashed over the first reconstruction act which effectively set the South in a state of martial law despite the country being at peace. Again Johnson’s veto was overruled.
Soon his presidential powers were restricted and his ability to replace members of his cabinet was severely undermined by the Office of Tenure act. Under this act the president essentially had to have permission from the Senate to remove appointed officials. As 1867 rolled on, his power over the military was also challenged as Radical Republicans wished to crack down on Southern states more so than they already had. Johnson’s veto stopped Congress on that regard however. Johnson later acted in mid-1867 by sacking his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton which he had sought to do for quite some time. The House Judiciary Committee met in November to discuss impeachment as it had before. Now with the removal of Stanton, the vetoes, pardons, restoration of rebel property, and “fomenting violence in the South,” the committee voted 5-4 for impeachment. It died in the House however, with 54 in favor and 108 against.
-Edwin M. Stanton
The Senate at this time was out of session and so Stanton’s removal was pending, but once it reconvened in January it voted to keep Stanton. Grant — who had been temporarily put on Stanton’s place — failed to appropriately hand over the office and so Stanton was back in to the annoyance of Johnson. Stubborn Johnson continued on his warpath to remove Stanton, considering George Thomas, the Scalawag of Chickamauga. On February 21 Johnson was done considering and did, removing Stanton again and placing Thomas in his place. Impeachment was imediately brought up in the House and the Senate also voted 28-6 that Johnson’s move was unconstitutional. The next day Thomas prepared to remove Stanton by force if necessary (he had stalled for time the day prior) but was arrested himself for violating the Tenure Act. Later released on bail, Thomas approached Stanton but was overpowered in an altercation. Stanton dropped the charges afterward.
On February 24 the House votes to impeach Johnson 128-47. On March 2-3 eleven articles of charges were aimed at the president. Among them included the violation of the Tenure of Office Act, violations with the appointment of Thomas, a conspiracy to violate the Tenure Act, violations of yhe Conspiracy Act of 1861, and dishonor of the presidency by Johnson’s rhetoric. Johnson’s defense was that the Tenure Act was unconstitutional and besides, Stanton was appointed by Lincoln. Aiding his defense, Stanton had before seen the Tenure Act as unconstitutional as well — until it could be used to protect his position.
By May 26 the Senate voted 35-19 to convict Johnson, one vote short of the required number. Johnson had escaped narrowly. His presidency was still not over however, and he would clash with Congress again over the readmission of all Southern states into the Union except for Virginia, Texas, and Mississippi. The 14th amendment finally passed in July. With two more blanket pardons the vast majority of Southerners had regained their right to vote and would be voting in the 1868 presidential campaign. Johnson however would not be on the ballot as the Democrats chose Horatio Seymour over him.
Johnson searched for a place in the Senate in 1869 but wasn’t nominated. In 1872 he ran for Tennessee’s at-large district (newly created to save the effort of redistricting) but lost the election. He did win William G. Brownlow’s seat in the Senate in 1875 over William Bate, a former Confederate general. On March 22 the Senate voted on whether to back Grant’s propping up of the Louisiana government, made up of scalawags and carpetbaggers. Johnson respectably denied to endorse the action, calling it what it was, an effort to end free government. Johnson’s second time-around the Senate was short lived though, and he died on July 31, 1875, the victim of two strokes.
Though I might call Johnson a scalawag several times in these articles for his actions in the war, we must not be too quick to judge a man for deeply-held sympathies on complicated issues. How any true Southerner could turn his back on Dixie in her time of need is unconcievable for me; yet Johnson has his reasons, that being to deeply entrenched in the idol that is unionism. He stood for the constitution before and during his presidency (but not during the war) and pursued a plan of reconstructiom that was less harmful than that of the Republicans. We have a tendency to have simple opinions on complex people, labeling them as one thing and leaving it at that. While this may be easy we mustn’t neglect that complexity. To the South Johnson was both a patriot and traitor — at different times of course. He was both desirable and undesirable, a defender of the constitution and yet an attacker of its main tenets, popular sovereignty. In order to properly analyze such figures we must understand their reasoning even if we wholeheartedly detest them and pick apart their actions one by one. For Johnson, his reasoning was the lifelong belief that the aristocracy was harmful, privileged, and exploitive, as well as the idea that the system the founders set forward was an ideal system unlike any other. That is why, to him, tearing it apart — even if that be to establish something right along its lines — was unthinkable. I will leave off with James E. Sefton’s final paragraph,
“Summer in Green was a long road back from summer in the cities of urban Amerixa, and the vindication Johnson wanted from history is not history’s to give or to withold. What is history’s to give is an explanation of how and why he followed the course he did, of the thoughts and actions that shaped his part in our national past. That is something which is never final, never infallible, never whole, and it is something we give not just to a historical figure but especially to ourselves.