Andrew Johnson: A Tough Man for Tough Times

By Dick Crews
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the winter of 2001.

“The History of mankind,” said the old Scotsman Thomas Carlyle, “is a history of its great men; to find out these, clean the dirt from them, and place them on their proper pedestal is the true function of a historian.”

Andrew Johnson

When it comes to Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States, you would need the largest caterpillar bulldozer to move the dirt piled on him by historians. The picture painted by historians is very unjust to Johnson.

Andrew Johnson was first an American and second a Southerner. He had been the Governor of Tennessee and was a Tennessee Senator when the Civil War broke out. Many of his Southern Senate colleagues were packing to return South after the election of Abraham Lincoln, when on December 18, 1860 Johnson told the Senate that whatever were the fears and grievances of the slave states, the one place their redress could be found was within the Union itself. “If this doctrine of secession is to be carried out upon the mere whim of a State,” he declared, “this government is at an end.” Then he burst forth into an eloquent apostrophe:

“I intend to stand by the Constitution as it is, insisting upon a compliance with all its guaranties. I intend to stand by it as the sheet-anchor of the Government; and I trust and hope, though it seems to be now in the very vortex of ruin, though it seems to be running between Charybdis and Scylla, the rock on the one hand and the whirlpool on the other, that it will be preserved, and will remain a beacon to guide, and an example to be imitated by all the nations of the earth. Yes, I intend to hold on to it as the chief ark of our safety, as the palladium of our civil and our religious liberty. I intend to cling to it as the ship-wrecked mariner clings to the last plank, when the night and the tempest close around him. It is the last hope of human freedom.”

The only grievance advanced by the South, Johnson continued, was that Lincoln had been elected. But Johnson intended to maintain his place in the Senate, to “put down Mr. Lincoln and drive back his advances upon the Southern institutions, if he designs to make any.”

In the Senate, the South could check-mate Lincoln completely. “Let South Carolina and her Senators come back, and on the 4th of March we shall have a majority of six in this body against him. Lincoln cannot make his Cabinet . . . unless the Senate will permit him. He cannot send a foreign minister, or even a consul, abroad, if the Senate be unwilling. He cannot even appoint a first-class postmaster. . .”

“I voted against him,” Johnson exclaimed dramatically. “I spoke against him; I spent money to defeat him; but still I love my country; I love the Constitution; I intend to insist upon its guaranties. There, and there alone I intend to plant myself.” Concluding, he expressed again his abiding faith, his unshaken confidence, in man’s capacity to govern himself. He would stand by the Republic, and he entreated “every man throughout the nation who is a Patriot” to come forward, and rally around the altar of our common country, “. . . that the Constitution shall be saved and the Union preserved.”

Abraham Lincoln delivers his Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.
A little more than a month later, Andrew Johnson would be president.

On March 2, 1861, two days before Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th President of United States, Andrew Johnson rose again to address the Senate on secession from the Union:

“Were I President of the United States, I would do as Thomas Jefferson did in 1806 with Aaron Burr, who was charged with treason. I would have them arrested and tried for treason; and if convicted, by the Eternal God, I would see that he suffer the penalty of law at the hands of the executioner.”

A Southern senator, who was chairman of the Senate at the time, ordered the galleries be cleared and that Johnson risked arrest for such talk. Johnson screamed out, “arrest and be damned.”

A strange twist to this story happened seven years later. Andrew Johnson, the 17th President, did not execute these traitors but pardoned all of them in one of his last acts as President of the United States.