American history, Andrew Johnson, biographies, book reviews, Hans Trefousse, presidential biographies, Presidents
“Andrew Johnson: A Biography” by Hans Trefousse was published in 1989. Trefousse was a historian, author and professor at Brooklyn College for several decades. He was considered a dean of the Reconstruction era and authored nearly a dozen books (including a biography of former president Rutherford B. Hayes). Trefousse died in 2010 at the age of eighty-eight.
Trefousse’s biography of Johnson is a comprehensive but not burdensome examination of the former president’s life. Unfortunately, the author seems to focus on Johnson’s presidency at the expense of the more inspirational (and potentially more interesting) story of his purposeville escape from poverty (and lack of education) as a child.
Johnson’s historic impeachment by the House of Representatives in 1868 – and his subsequent acquittal by the Senate – receives significant, but not unwarranted, attention. And happily, Trefousse’s biography is easy to read and almost always resists the temptation to overwhelm the reader with more detail than is needed.
Despite the likely temptation to paint Johnson as an despicable human and detestable politician, Trefousse’s coverage of Johnson is thoughtful and well balanced. Although the author seems to frequently sympathize with his subject, he is never reluctant to criticize or castigate Johnson for his numerous failings.
Also accruing to the reader’s benefit, Trefousse often begins chapters by foreshadowing important future events and usually finishes chapters by summarizing Johnson’s predicament-de-jour.
Unfortunately, Johnson seems a difficult person for a biographer to review. He was neither a great person nor a successful president. Little seems to have been recorded of his life which would allow an author to paint a dynamic, colorful and consistently interesting portrait of the man…or else the author simply ignored material which could have provided Johnson with much-needed vitality and charm.
In few of the nearly four-hundred pages did Johnson’s personality (to the extent it existed) leap off the page. By the biography’s end, Johnson remains enigmatic. His family – almost always hidden in the background where Johnson himself kept them – remains unfamiliar. And the compelling story of Johnson’s rise from pauper to president – in many ways similar to that of Andrew Jackson and even Lincoln – is never fully explored.
In addition, Trefousse assumes reader is already acquainted with this era of American history. Rarely does he provide historical context outside the bubble in which Johnson lived and acted. Many of the characters in the story of Johnson’s presidency are familiar (particularly the cabinet which was largely retained from the Lincoln presidency) but otherwise much of the political landscape will be unfamiliar terrain for most.
Overall, Hans Trefousse’s “Andrew Johnson: A Biography” may well be one of the best and most thorough books of Johnson’s life. While receiving high (but not perfect) marks for its historical value and contribution to Johnson scholarship, Trefousse’s biography falls short in dazzling its readers and really bringing Johnson to life. While probably not a goal of the author (and perhaps not even possible given Andrew Johnson himself), the best presidential biographies find a way to inform as well as to entertain.
Overall rating: 3½ stars
Do you think that in part the quality or enjoyability (and thus your ranking) of these biographies is in part a factor of how interesting a life the president led? Trefousse does a good job with Johnson — but he is hardly as interesting a character as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, et al, all of whom have exceptional writers working on their biographies. I wonder if your review is more positive than your ranking.
Johnson was manifestly unqualified for the job required of him (thinking especially of the Reconstruction task) and arguably did lasting damage to the cause of racial and sectional reconciliation, for a century. But if it weren’t for Lincoln’s tragic choice, he would never have been there. When you get to people like Harding or Ford — well, no disrespect to those presidents, but I wonder if even Chernow or Goodwin could make them interesting.
You make a great point, and early in my journey I decided to rank books based half on their treatment of the subject (having everything to do with insight and analysis and nothing to do with the reading experience itself) and half based on how enjoyable they are to read. In this case, I gave Trefousse’s bio very high (but not perfect) marks for his analysis of Johnson and mediocre marks for the bio being exciting to read. I’ve also updated my review to make that more clear.
For several presidents now I’ve wondered whether Chernow, McCullough or Goodwin could bring someone like Taylor, Tyler or Johnson to life (are those authors really that good?) or whether they are just extremely discriminating in who they can afford to profile? It would be nice to find out, but I suspect we will never know…
And, of course, if the most popular biographers — the really great tale-tellers — tackle the most interesting subjects, it leaves the less-interesting ones to the academics and PhDs, who might be great on analysis, but are not trained to be great writers (with some exceptions).
When we visited Johnson’s birthplace in North Carolina, I was so surprised to learn about his harsh childhood and escape from poverty, as well as the fact that he did not learn to read until he was an adult. It’s really quite amazing that he became president. While Johnson is clearly remembered as one of our worst presidents, after learning more about all that he went through, I am willing to cut him a little bit of a break.
Until I read Trefousse’s bio (and it was underscored by Howard Means’s which I’m now reading) I didn’t realize Johnson remains the only president never to have had even a single day of schooling. Lincoln and Andrew Jackson seem almost Ivy-League educated by comparison.
And, by the way, you seem to have traveled everywhere(!)
nancy okeefe said:
Do U know of any website that reviews First Lady Bios?
You should check out a blog I follow that doesn’t focus exclusively on First Lady biographies, but comes pretty darned close…