Andrew Johnson was a man of many prejudices. Born in poverty in North Carolina, Johnson was a racist toward black people, arguing that the Declaration of Independence’s famous statement that “all men are created equal” did not apply to blacks, and, like most Democrats in the 1850s, blamed hot-headed abolitionists for the sectional crisis that led to the Civil War instead of those agitating for slavery. He hated the Radical Republicans, vetoing every major piece of legislation Congress sent to his desk during Reconstruction. He resented elite Southern whites, both for the ways that the Southern plantation system favored them over people like his own family and for their traitorous actions in seceding from the Union and starting the Civil War.
A case can be made that, under different circumstances, Andrew Johnson would be looked upon as a hero. He was the only Senator from a seceding-Southern state — Tennessee — to remain in the Union, and gave speeches in the middle of the secession crisis calling on his fellow Southerners to do the same. For all his racism, he did eventually end up endorsing the Thirteenth Amendment and the end of slavery. His presence (as a Unionist Democrat) on the presidential ticket with Abraham Lincoln in 1864 gave the Republican the optics of a “Unity” ticket that probably helped win an election, the outcome of which, at some points, was far from secure. (Of course, the Union’s improvements on the battlefield from 1863 on certainly helped Lincoln’s popularity at home.) Had he only continued to serve as Lincoln’s vice president, Johnson, if he would be remembered at all, would likely be remembered as a man of his times who, nonetheless, stood for what was right when few others with his background did.
Alas, Lincoln was assassinated, and Johnson was forced to take up the mantle of the presidency in one of the worst matches of man and era that we have seen in American history. The affable, charismatic, and able-to-compromise Lincoln was perhaps uniquely suited to helping lead the Union through the tough work of Reconstruction. (Lincoln was probably uniquely suited to lead the United States through any time in its history.) The 20th-century Southern conservative Richard Weaver, though he admired the Old South (he thought that, for all its faults, on many important issues it had been “right without realizing the grounds of its rightness”), lamented the loss of Lincoln. Because he could call Kentucky and Illinois, South and North home, Lincoln held a unique understanding of the two sections. He knew, better than the Radical Republicans or the newly loyal South, how to balance bringing the states that formed the Confederacy back into an equitable standing in the Union with granting freed slaves the rights that they deserved as human beings. “As it was, things were done which produced only rancor and made it difficult for either side to believe in the good faith of the other,” Weaver wrote. “It is unfortunate but it is true that the Negro was forced to pay a large part of the bill for the follies of Reconstruction.” (Read more on this topic here.)
Johnson was plainly not uniquely suited to this time. His plan for Reconstruction, based on a very early draft of Lincoln’s, included three points: 1) a loyalty oath for the seceded states; 2) a principle of quickly returning the seceded states to their former status in the Union; 3) requiring a personal, presidential pardon for wealthy Southerners and Confederate military and political leaders. Basically, he required Southern elites, men he had despised from the beginning of his life, to come kiss his ring, as if they were Bonasera and he was Don Corleone.
Once the South understood how lenient Johnson’s version of Reconstruction would be, it decided to take advantage of it by passing “black codes” — laws that, while not putting freed slaves into literal chains, certainly made their actual condition not much better off than it was for hundreds of years. These laws allowed for some rights for black people (the right to hold property, sue, and marry, for example), but deprived them of many other rights that whites took for granted: they were not allowed to serve on juries, they couldn’t testify in court against whites, they couldn’t vote, their rights to land ownership, travel, free association, and gun ownership were all limited. Worst of all were “vagrancy laws,” which allowed the police to arrest blacks for breaking the law (often very minor ones) and force them to labor involuntarily. (Let’s be frank: This is simply a longer way of describing “slavery.”)
The Republicans in Congress, seeing what Presidential Reconstruction had wrought, decided to take matter into their own hands, passing the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 (designed to make the black codes illegal), a bill that revitalized the Freedman’s Bureau (helping former slaves transition to freedom), the Military Reconstruction Acts of 1867 (meant to force the former Confederate states to adopt the 14th Amendment), and the 14th and 15th Amendments, giving blacks the right to citizenship and the right to vote, respectively. Johnson vetoed just about all of them; Congress simply overrode his vetoes. Partly due to his intransigence, Johnson became the first president to be impeached, narrowly escaping being forced out of office.
It is easy to simply blame Johnson for all of this. If Lincoln had only lived, it’s easy to think, everything would have been OK. The South would have been fairly and justly brought back into the Union. Freed slaves would have received their civil rights due to them as Americans. Racism would not have had the powerful affect on American society and culture that it had for the next 150 years. America would look much, much different, and much, much better.
It’s easy to say this. But it is not right to say this. The problems that hindered Reconstruction — political corruption, an unwillingness to take land away from the Old South to give to freed blacks, and an intransigent racism on the part of Americans, both in the South and in the North — still existed. While it is safe to say Lincoln would have been more successful than Johnson, to cry “if only Lincoln would have lived!” puts far too much agency and ability on one man and absolves the American people as a whole for their own failings. “Let’s just blame Johnson” is an unfair judgment — the inability to give black people their full rights as Americans was a sin of the nation as a whole. (Look no further than this election, where, in at least one state, the supporters of the likely Republican nominee for president revealed an astonishing level of prejudice and bigotry: Only 69 percent of his supporters disagreed with the notion that whites were a superior race, 38 percent wished the Confederacy had won the Civil War, and almost 20 percent disagreed with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.)
Yes, Andrew Johnson was full of prejudices. So, to one extent or another, are we.