Honors U.S. Government
In contrast to Tompkin’s assertion that Johnson was "not a poor president," Nathan Miller quotes Eric Forner, a “preeminent modern historian of Reconstruction”, as observing that the post-Civil War presidency “required tact, flexibility, and sensitivity to the nuances of public opinion,” qualities Johnson “lacked” (131). Tompkins’ statement is in fact woefully false; Andrew Johnson was certainly not “a good man during a bad time,” but more accurately, a petulant person ill-equipped for the presidency. This is evidenced by the fact that by the end of his term he was spurned by moderates, despised by Northerners, and his greatest legacy was the perpetuation of racism and intolerance.
Johnson, though entering office under the confidence established by Lincoln, soon proved himself to be stubborn and lacking in self-control. In fact, when he embarked on his first whistle-stop campaign from Washington to New York to Missouri and back, he was mainly greeted by hecklers whom “the hot-tempered, impulsive president could not ignore” (146). Johnson often yelled back, turning his speeches into “shouting matches” and “near riots” (ibid). Johnson had many instances like this, where he proved himself to be prone to tantrums and stubbornness — characteristics which shined through during the Reconstruction era.
President Johnson repeatedly took a stand against racial progress, and consequently, exacerbated and prolonged the issue of Reconstruction. Initially, most Republicans, being moderates, were willing to work with the president to modify his “flawed” Reconstruction plan (144). Johnson “would have been wise to accommodate the moderates,” but ignored “congressional and popular opinion,” prompting moderates to support Radical investigations of conditions in the South (145). Viewing all opposition as a personal attack, Johnson showed himself to be not a moderate, but a vindictive man who subscribed to my-way-or-the-highway policies of operation. Relations deteriorated when a bill was passed — “by an overwhelming majority of both houses of Congress” — extending the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau and a civil rights bill, and Johnson vetoed it, “insist[ing] that… blacks did not deserve citizenship” (145). Moderates were appalled at his decision and began to regard him as a “major obstacle to restoring loyalty in the Southern states” (ibid). Johnson’s immaturity and irrationality lost him an important ally.
Radical Republicans and Northerners viewed Johnson the most bitterly. His first blunder in garnering Republican support was in publicly holding that the South was a faction which had not committed treason or any crime in its rebellion. Northerners were “shocked by his leniency” toward the confederates, as he “demanded neither black suffrage nor any other change in the Southern political or social order” and never held treason trials (142). Johnson had forgiven the South as one might forgive an untrained puppy who had simply peed on the rug. Republicans were so unhappy with his plan for reconstruction that they took control of Congress and pushed through their own Reconstruction plan. Later, when the Radical Republican congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, Johnson “egged on the Southern states to reject the amendment,” a move which was immature and irresponsible. This action “convinced most Northerners that he was no longer a credible leader whom they could trust to reconstruct the Union” (146).
Johnson’s lasting legacy after office was not a result of his ill-temper or impatience, but his characteristic of being an “uncompromising racist” (132). His political ineptitude and staunch position on the inferiority of blacks found him “assist[ing] materially in blocking the reconciliation of the North and South” and undermining the work of Radical Republicans by inspiring resistance in the South (149). By doing this, he “left a legacy of racial oppression… that troubled America for generations to come” (150). Little of what Johnson attempted to do as president endured, but his meddling effect in the work of reconstruction has been stuck like King Arthur’s sword in the stone of history.
Johnson was a poor president because the nation had no confidence in him. The radicals despised him, and the moderates he was supposed to be aligned with disavowed him. His only supporters were those in the South, whose rebellious actions had created the very climate of dissension which thwarted his executive authority and he therefore could not aid. Worst of all, his term actually resulted in the extension of Northern and Southern tensions and discord and the continuation of the oppression of blacks.