For the first time since I began this journey, I have almost no idea what to expect of the upcoming president. Former President Andrew Johnson has the name recognition of someone in the witness protection program and all of the popularity of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In a recent survey of historians he scored 43rd out of 43 former presidents in terms of his overall rank. That’s dead last.
No previous president has received so little mention in his predecessor’s biographies as Johnson. He was referenced an average of about once in each of the Lincoln biographies I read, and then only to mention (in passing) his role as Lincoln’s vice presidential running-mate during Lincoln’s second run for the presidency.
His service in the executive branch began on an unpromising note as he delivered a rambling inaugural speech as Vice President under the influence of a large amount of alcohol. And just six weeks into his vice presidency Johnson became the seventeenth president of the United States following Lincoln’s assassination.
As president, Johnson proved far less popular than Lincoln and three years into his term he became the first president impeached by the House of Representatives (for intentionally violating the Tenure of Office Act). He was later acquitted by the Senate which fell a single vote short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction.
In the mind of the American public, however, Johnson was guilty of being a rigid and unyielding racist, unable to accept the reality of America’s post-Civil War vision. His failures are frequently blamed for allowing congress to impose new restraints on the power of the executive branch and, effectively, set the tone for national policy for the next several decades.
The first of three biographies of Andrew Johnson I’m reading is “Andrew Johnson: A Biography” by Hans Trefousse. This is the oldest of my Andrew Johnson biographies, having been published in 1989. Trefousse was a historian, author and professor of history at Brooklyn College. He was known as a dean of the Reconstruction era and died in 2010. Although his biography appears to be one of the more “popular” Johnson biographies, it receives only fair marks from readers. I’m not sure whether this is a consequence of the author’s writing style, or due to Johnson’s failures as a subject. We’ll see…
Next I will read Howard Means’s 2006 “The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson.” This biography is shorter than Trefousse’s and, with one-third fewer pages, apparently far less comprehensive. Means authored the first biography of Colin Powell and has assisted in the writing of memoirs such as those by George Tenet, Louis Freeh and Michael Deaver. Although I have high hopes for this book, reviews by previous readers are decidedly “mixed”.
Last I will read “Impeached: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy” by David Stewart. Published in 2009, this biography receives all the acclaim and praise which the previous two biographies on my list are lacking. It seems to possess the right balance of length, insight, analysis and color. Perhaps I’ve saved the best for last?