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THE REAL ANDREW JOHNSON I-A Dispassionate Survey of Lincoln's Successor MARGARITA S. GERRY
A DINGY hotel room a man stood with hand uplifted. He had been roused early to take the oath of office as President, Lincoln having drawn his last difficult breath. He was a short man but well set up, with harsh, definite features; a tension of muscles between his eyes that was almost a scowl; straight, black, Indian-like hair, longer than would be worn now; the Indian immobility; straight lines of decision running from the corners of his nose to the corners of the mouth; thick, swarthy skin, with no tinge of red in it, the eyes full of intense light.
Back of Andrew Johnson was the stark romance of America: a breathless climb from nothingness to a swimming height. Ahead of him lay overthrow so complete that few have doubted it was deserved, and fewer have cared to investigate. There have been reasons why a dispassionate survey of his career has been impossible until now-if it is now possible. Yet nations, like Supreme Court judges, have occasionally reversed their own decisions.
Before we try to make that belated survey, it would be wise to cast a thought backward over progress since a neighbor observed that a "rude, black-headed, black-eyed, good-looking boy” had appeared in a
small Tennessee town, the boy driving a sorry nag hitched to a wagon that had Andy's mother in it—a mother whose support devolved upon this boy of ten. For Andy Johnson, between 1818 and 1865 was to master the tailor's trade, marry, teach himself to read and, with the aid of his young wife, to write and cipher, become the organizer of the white mechanics of Greenville, be elected their alderman, mayor, representative in the State legislature, State senator (always representing Labor), representative in the National Congress where the only legislation he introduced series of Homestead Acts, the only senator from the South left in the Civil War Congress, one of the seven members of the Joint Council of Congress on the Civil War, the loyal war governor of Tennessee: all this with a speed so intense and public service so unremitting, that one wonders whether the month of his Vice-Presidency had not been the one vacation of his more than fifty-five years.
Now, therefore, his thoughts were hurrying toward his first official acts. Up to this point-outside of moderate accumulation of means and normal domestic interestsAndrew Johnson's Andrew Johnson's life had been
directed by a succession of purposes so absorbing as to dwarf even the excitement of the political contests through which he finally climbed to national office. These purposes were to advance the cause of the free white laborer of the South debased by slavery, and to oppose the autocracy of the aristocratic slave-holder; then, as the Civil War threatened, to enforce the Union and to uphold the Constitution.
The earlier of these aspirations were, of course, rooted in his own personal experience. But beginning, though he did, with revolt against a social and economic organization unfriendly to the force in himself, the indignation appears to have become generalized into fixed opposition to a vicious economic and social system. Likewise, personal antagonism to the tyranny of that system would naturally have inclined him to join the Union party. But there again, we have evidence that personal antagonism had merged into abstract conviction that the Union, grounded in the Constitution, was the greatest achievement of the political genius of man.
It is significant that of his two speeches of pre-secession days, bearing comparison with the famous orations of the world, the first had been a fierce and bitter attack on the leaders of the Confederacy, "Traitors," as he called them, deserving hanging; the second, a passionate appeal for loyalty to the Constitution, pitched so high and so throbbing with sincere devotion as to be well-nigh unapproachable in our patriotic literature. The first aroused the vindictive passions of that portion of the population that is moved
primarily by such emotions: the second fired the idealism of those men who are capable of rapt devotion to an idea. Together, these two addresses on the floor of the Senate were the influences that determined the declaration of war. It is not sure that they were not the determining factor. But it is sure that both orations were equally sincere.
It is impossible to escape the conclusion, as one traces the career of Andrew Johnson, through letters, contemporary comment, speeches, Presidential messages and public acts, that those two orations epitomize, not only his attitude toward politics, but the two sharp-cut facets of his nature. What is right is white and shining and demands all devotion. What is wrong is all black and hating it is a virtue. There is no mean between the two. And here the question recurs: What was the primary cause of Johnson's hatred of the Confederacy? Was it the system, whose evils he saw so clearly? Or was he influenced by the fact that members of the Confederacy had despised him and his family and had not scrupled to show it? This is the first and possibly the most important of the questions that confront us.
And the fact that we are met at the beginning by a question mark, recalls that other problem-that with which we began: Why should such discussion not have been settled years ago? Johnson's career was of the kind that has always made the best campaign literature a political candidate can have in this country, whether his ambition has drawn him from a squatter's hut with Lincoln, or a harness shop with Grant. Why,
then, should the blaze of the popularity incident to his stirring oratory have died down by the time of his Presidency and have been replaced by almost universal misgiving?
The answer to the question is complex, but we can indicate some of the elements that made up the atmosphere. We might even lightly hazard the question whether the playfulness of "It takes nine tailors to make a man," does not reveal an underlying snobbishness in an industrial nation's estimate of the labor a man may perform and still be one of Nature's noblemen? Again and to be considered more seriously, there was the fact that his nomination to the VicePresidency was, as that office is so unfortunately apt to be, a political accident. In Johnson's case it was due to his being the only loyal senator from an otherwise unanimously "Secesh" South, an orator, as we have said, whose speeches had been a determining factor in the declaration of war, a possible vote-getter from doubtful border States, and the man who had taken his life in his hands to hold East Tennessee for the Union. It will be observed that no one of these reasons implied necessarily that he had the qualities of a great or even of a good-executive. Again: He succeeded Lincoln whose assassination was already accomplishing his apotheosis. In proportion as people were shocked into sudden recognition of how great and how infinitely kind the murdered President had been, they found an outlet for their sense of loss by saying, “And to think what we have in his place!" In the hysteria of the moment Johnson, as well as every prominent member of the Confederacy, was even suspected by
extremists of having connived at Lincoln's death.
But these were comparatively trivial grounds for criticism or suspicion, destined, under normal conditions, to be quickly forgotten. There were more important and more lasting disadvantages in Andrew Johnson's position. And each of these sources of embarrassment must be understood before one is in a position to estimate the sequence of events that follows.
Johnson was a political irregular, neither Republican nor of the Democrats, who emphasized States' rights over National organization. As such he was hated by the South as a renegade, and distrusted as a Southerner by the Northern Abolitionists whom the war had placed in control of Congress. These could not be sure that Johnson would agree with their determination to consider first the welfare of the freedman in the reconstruction of the South. For the new President had publicly said that he was interested primarily, not so much in the negro as in the white. laborer of the South, whom slavery had practically disfranchised. As to the remnant of the Democratic party left in Congress, it regarded Andrew Johnson with very mixed emotions. The elimination of the trained political leaders of the South was Tammany's chance to salvage and control the party and groom it for its come-back. But if Andrew Johnson as Executive, became too strong a figure, he would normally become the party head, a candidate for President to succeed himself. This would substitute his version of Democracy for that of the Tammany Machine.
Then there would be famine in the Wigwam! This dubious attitude of New York cut into the support of the anti-slavery Democrats who, with the more moderate Republicans, would have been Johnson's natural backers.
Again: The report that on the recent inauguration, the Vice-President had been drunk and had made a humiliating spectacle of himself before the holiday crowd, had been as effectually broadcast as though every other household, then as now, had been equipped with its radio outfit. And while the semi-official explanations made of the incident were correct, and the President, convalescing from typhoid, had been overcome by a moderate dose of whisky taken to brace him for the ordeal of the long ceremony, the denial reached one person in a hundred of those who had heard the slander. It furnished valuable propaganda to political enemies, and prejudiced the public against the new President. As this slander has persisted even unto this day, and as belief that Andrew Johnson was a drunkard would naturally invalidate the principles he stood for, it seems necessary to halt a moment to put forth the facts in the
There is no doubt that Johnson had been a drinking man in a day of hard drinkers. If listing names would affect the case against Johnson, and if one enjoyed doing so, a roster could be made of notorious tipplers who have had part in molding the institutions of this country. And Andrew Johnson, himself, in one of his rare personal letters, has furnished us a picture of a most hilarious congressional party. But still this was the period when Lincoln's famous
suggestion-a successful general being criticized—that it might be well to furnish other less able chieftains the same brand of whisky, roused such sympathetic amusement! And it is not recorded in our national annals that the bibulous habits of certain of our statesmen diminished their glory, or that the earnest temperance principles of Rutherford B. Hayes or of William Jennings Bryan earned large popularity. Moreover, the personal habits of the Executive are of importance only when they affect the moral standards of the nation or his own capacity for work. Since the White House during the Johnson administration was marked by notable dignity, and since it is probable that no other President ever got through so enormous a volume of work as did Andrew Johnson, it is difficult to understand why the fact that he was not a teetotaler should have raised such a smudge. Direct testimony as to the illness that had caused the painful episode of the inauguration, is borne by contemporaries. The most valuable single source of information on this period is the diary of the man who was secretary of the navy under both Lincoln and Johnson. Gideon Welles was a natural-born diarist who could not be really contented unless, at the close of the day, he had made a record of its chief events. Consequently, apart from Welles's high reputation for honesty and for achievement, the fact that these entries were made solely for his own delectation, makes of his records historical documents of the first rank. Therefore, when with perfectly evident consternation and regret, he described the "strange and wander
ing speech" of the Vice-President at Lincoln's inaugural, his staggering as he rose to make it, one cannot fail to accept as well his explanation for the incident. And this agrees-as do other responsible contemporary reports-with the one already cited. It becomes evident, in consequence, that the wide circulation of the slander was due to a definite and unremitting newspaper campaign by his political enemies. The partizan press of the day was, in fact, scurrilous and unprincipled to an almost unbelievable degree.
But the most serious disadvantage in Andrew Johnson's position was something for which he was in no way responsible. The fight on the Executive had been begun during Lincoln's administration, by the Republican leaders of Congress. Johnson merely inherited a dangerous situation. In the Senate the attack was led by Charles Sumner, that "sincere fanatic," as Welles calls him, and, "crazy but honest," as he is defined by Charles Francis Adams. While there were many others of equal fixity of purpose in the Senate, Sumner held his place at their head because in him the abolitionist passion held full sway, unalloyed by the baser motives of some or the superior common sense of others. In the House, Thaddeus Stevens held an extraordinary ascendance-Stevens, old, lame, of narrow and intense nature. This man's concentrated hatred of the South seemed to create a visible force that drove him into the front ranks and ahead of many men of infinitely greater worth. His tyrannical control of the party machine has probably never been equaled.
There is every evidence in the records of Congress that strife really was Johnson's by inheritance. Every debate shows that neither House nor Senate had any intention of resigning the swollen power that the centralization of government incident to a long war, makes inevitable. Through its control over appropriations, Congress held the purse-strings. Sectional hatred had brutalized it. The development of the spy system had warped standards of honor. The almost uninterrupted sessions had worn men until their nerves were unstrung. Horrors had grown so common that men couldn't throw off the habit of expecting them. Moreover, the huge Republican majority caused by the absence of Southern Democrats had suspended that system of checks and balances which is the best feature of party government. The legislative branch of the Government had turned into an oligarchy whose responsibility to constituents could not, as with the English system, be made immediately manifest, and whose power could be checked only by the often debatable power of the Executive and by the long-deferred corrective of the courts.
Legislative attack on the Executive control of reconstruction had begun during Lincoln's administration, although the necessity of subordinating everything else to winning the war, had forced it into the background. Yet Charles Sumner had combined with others to defeat Lincoln's second nomination in favor of Horace Greeley. For Greeley was as vindictive toward the South as Lincoln was, in Sumner's eyes, too weakly concessive. Sumner was a New England "Brahman"; im