American history, Andrew Johnson, biographies, book reviews, Eric McKitrick, presidential biographies, Presidents
“Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction” is Eric McKitrick’s 1960 review of the Andrew Johnson presidency and America’s post-Civil War era of Reconstruction. McKitrick was a historian and a professor at Columbia University for nearly thirty years. He died in 2002 at the age of eight-two.
Surprising to most people today, Andrew Johnson was once viewed sympathetically by historians – almost like a misunderstood patriot and unwavering defender of the Constitution. McKitrick’s revolutionary book, published with America in the midst of a defining civil rights movement, re-casts Johnson as an inflexible, fractious, narrow-minded racist. The author’s treatment of Johnson is not savage or unfair, but it is unrelenting.
Although it proves to be less a biography of Johnson than a study of his impact on Reconstruction, this book is useful in understanding this now-unloved former president. McKitrick’s work is well researched, well written, detailed and convincing. But it is a scholarly work which will not appeal to a mass audience. While its central themes are readily accessible, it does not make for light reading.
The book’s best feature is its opening chapter. In these first dozen or so pages McKitrick convincingly explains the rationale for his reassessment of Johnson’s image. What is most interesting is not that the author makes his case convincingly, but that it needs to be made at all. Johnson is now entrenched at the bottom of nearly every ranking of the presidents. But just prior to publication of this book Johnson was rated only slightly below “middle of the pack.”
McKitrick’s analysis of Johnson’s personality is also intriguing and insightful. At one point McKitrick compares Johnson’s and Lincoln’s personalities side by side, observing similarities in their backgrounds and highlighting the traits which aided one in becoming a great president…while relegating the other to the presidential cellar.
Left largely (but not completely) untouched is discussion of Johnson’s years as an ambitious youth and, later, as a successful rising politician. His personal life is also largely ignored, as are his post-presidential years. And I don’t recall Johnson’s decision to return to the U.S. Senate several years after leaving the White House being mentioned at all.
Most surprising is that McKitrick relegates Johnson’s impeachment (for which he is best known) to just two-dozen pages at the end of the book. That chapter is aptly titled “Afterthought: Why Impeachment?” The decision to under-emphasize this aspect of his presidency may seem odd to the modern reader, but by that point in the book the author’s objectives have already been accomplished.
Overall, Eric McKitrick’s book is a revolutionary, dense and penetrating study. In many ways it is a co-biography of the Johnson presidency and Congress during his term in office. Strictly as a review of the Reconstruction Era (and of Johnson’s impact and influence during the period) this book is invaluable. Judged solely as a biography, however, “Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction” is powerful and enlightening but unfortunately incomplete and a bit tedious.
Overall rating: 3¼ stars
Hardly tedious! I LOVED this book when I read it for my dissertation. Chock-full of insights, historical and constitutional. But you’re right — it isn’t for the casual reader. I have you fair warning.
🙂 As I told my wife when I finished reading it, this may have been the best book I’ve read that I didn’t love as a biography. Super-potent and insightful but required some stamina.