Of the six presidents to lead the nation after James Polk, only Abraham Lincoln left a legacy that escaped the bottom quartile. And while Lincoln is usually considered one of the all-time great presidents, Andrew Johnson almost always ranks dead last.
But that is hardly unexpected. Working enthusiastically to obstruct a significant civil rights movement can have that affect on a reputation. And going out of one’s way to agitate Congress never seems to help.
Many of the weak presidents who preceded Lincoln are blamed for doing virtually nothing to champion the rights of all Americans (including those not even considered citizens). But at nearly every turn Johnson seemed to go out of his way to ensure that social progress was impeded. And ironically he did so while claiming to vigorously support the Constitution.
I was surprised to learn almost nothing of Johnson while reading my dozen biographies of his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln. But why would an author focused on one of the most interesting and successful presidents choose to direct attention toward an obstinate, self-righteous politician like Johnson?
But as much as I enjoyed reading about Lincoln, after nearly four months on our sixteenth president I actually looked forward to shifting gears and learning about Andrew Johnson. What I learned was interesting…but disappointing. Fortunately, many of the biographies were engaging – even if the subject was unsatisfying.
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* The first biography of Johnson I read was “Andrew Johnson: A Biography” by Hans Trefousse. This biography, like most, emphasizes Johnson’s presidency at the expense of the more inspirational story of his youth and his ambitious rise to political power. Also similar to other biographies of Johnson, I learned very little of his family and even of the man himself on a personal level.
Perhaps more than any other biography, however, Trefousse’s treatment of Johnson is very well balanced and resists the temptation to castigate the former president for his every transgression. Overall, Hans Trefousse’s biography is thorough and reliable but not particularly exciting. (Full review here)
* Next was Howard Means’s 2006 “The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation.” This is by no means a comprehensive cradle-to-grave biography, but instead focuses on the critical weeks following Lincoln’s assassination and Johnson’s ascension to the presidency. Although the title promises too much (it’s not really obvious the book focuses on forty-five days that changed the nation) the book offers an excellent preface and equally compelling concluding chapter.
Means also provides important background on Johnson’s early life despite this not being a comprehensive biography. However, this book often seems more like a brainstorm than an organized series of thoughts. I frequently lost track of the timeline (and even Johnson himself) in the story’s flow. But even though this is far from an ideal biography of Andrew Johnson, it does offer important tidbits and lessons on this deeply flawed man. (Full review here)
* The third biography of Johnson I read was “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy” by David Stewart. Not surprisingly, Stewart’s book focuses principally on Johnson’s presidency and, specifically, his impeachment. And despite the fact this topic could easily become complex and burdensome, for the most part Stewart keeps the story clear and interesting.
And although not a narrative of Johnson’s life in the spirit of a David McCullough biography, Stewart provides enough colorful context to paint a vivid picture of the times. Like Means’s study of the early Johnson presidency, Stewart’s biography has both an excellent preface and a fantastic concluding chapter. And of all four biographers of Johnson, Stewart is the one I wish had actually attempted to write the definitive biography of Johnson’s entire life. (Full review here)
* Lastly, and unplanned when I first started reading about Andrew Johnson about a month ago, I read Eric McKitrick’s 1960 “Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction.” Recommended by a regular visitor to this site, McKitrick’s work was one of the very first to re-assess Johnson as a racially insensitive failure rather than as a patriotic but misunderstood martyr.
McKitrick’s study is extremely well researched, well written and well organized. Although its scholarly tone may not appeal to a mass audience, its messages are not difficult to uncover – even for a novice. Anyone interested in Johnson’s presidency should at least read the opening chapter; here McKitrick explains the rationale and basis for the entire book.
In hindsight, this book seems really to be a co-biography of Johnson and Congress during the early years of Reconstruction. And in that spirit, McKitrick’s work is invaluable even though it does not make an ideal biography. (Full review here)
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Best Comprehensive Biography of Johnson: “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy” by David Stewart