Lincoln in Reverse: Andrew Johnson

  • Philip Abbott
Part of the The Evolving American Presidency Series book series (EAP)


Andrew Johnson is almost universally regarded as one of the worst of presidents. He was, after all, the first president to be impeached and the missed opportunities for genuine reconstruction have been directly traced to his policies. It is the subsequent judgment that impeachment itself was a great error that seems to lessen this assessment and sometimes creates a tipping point away from badness. In 1922, Claude G. Bowers, a popular historian admired by Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), contended that Johnson was not a bad president. In fact, he “fought the bravest battle for constitutional liberty and for the preservation of our institutions ever waged by an executive” against “brutal, hypocritical and corrupt” men.1 Senator Edmund Ross was featured in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage for his refusal to vote for conviction. Kennedy claimed his vote “may well have preserved for ourselves and posterity constitutional government in the United States.”2 It is certainly true that Johnson’s general reputation rose first as a result of negative reassessments of Reconstruction and then as a result of negative reassessments of the Civil War in the 1930s. He was ranked nineteenth out of twenty-nine presidents (just below McKinley) in Schlesinger’s 1948 poll. But post–civil rights assessments that return to ones like those in 1866 when the Atlantic Monthly described the president as “touched with insanity, corrupted with lust, stimulated with drink” are not universal. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, for example, concluded in 1992 that Congressmen mistakenly followed the maxim that “the end justifies the means.” Constitutional protections for an independent executive were regarded as “obstacles to the accomplishment of a greater good.” 3


Racial Prejudice Constitutional Protection Confidence Motion Southern Representation Homage Strategy 
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    Claude G. Bowers, The Tragic Era (Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1929).Google Scholar
  2. Also see, George F. Milton, The Age of Hate: Andrew Johnson and the Radicals (New York: Coward-McCann, 1930).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (New York: Harpers, 1956).Google Scholar
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    William H. Rehenquist, Grand Inquests (New York: William Morrow, 1992). Although see, David Donald, “Why They Impeached Andrew Johnson,” American Heritage VIII (December 1956): 21–25, for a different assessment. David O. Steward contends that despite the questionable constitutional grounds for Johnson’s impeachment, the action did establish the precedent that there are limits to presidential discretion and was also an outlet for the violent political passions of the day. Impeached: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009), p. 323.Google Scholar
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© Philip Abbott 2013

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  • Philip Abbott

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