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andrew johnson

8 april 2011

Annette Gordon-Reed is the Jeremiah of 21st-century American historians. She not only calls it like she sees it; she calls in ringing tones that indict and convict the past. She is at pains in Andrew Johnson to defend herself pre-emptively from charges of "presentism." Quite aside from the point that it would seem impossible to avoid "presentism" unless you pretend not to live in a present, she succeeds well.

Gordon-Reed calls Andrew Johnson a racist. One rebuttal of her point might be to say that Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain – and for that matter probably William Lloyd Garrison and Thaddeus Stevens – were racists. In the broad scheme of the development of civil rights in America, that's a true enough claim. But every period has its own internal continuum. On that scale, Johnson was not merely a guy who disliked African-Americans. He fought to keep African-Americans in a quasi-feudal subjection that mimicked some of the features of slavery. And when you think about it, even if, let's say, Charles Sumner had a low opinion of black people, he fought against such things. It's not "presentism" to point that out; in fact, it's a sensitive adherence to the scale of values held by people in the past.

As in her marvelous work on the Hemings family, Gordon-Reed shows a perceptive common-sensical attitude toward over-sentimentalized discourse about race in America.

A criticism of the congressional Republicans, at the time and over the years[:] They did not really love or really care about the freedman, it was said. Their fight for black suffrage was all about getting votes for the Republican Party. One asks, "So what?" That is the way democracy works. (111)
Indeed. A tenet of Confederate-tilted historiography has been that the slaveowner loved the slave (doubtless true in warped ways and rare cases), while the slave featured only as a data point in the calculations of the abolitionist. Electoral calculations can be cold and atomizing, but they also empower the atoms being calculated.

Andrew Johnson himself was a champion of universal (white male) suffrage, who insisted on individual rights for the "common man" and was absolutely no stranger to electoral calculations. To give him his due, he wasn't sentimental about the slave, either. He hated slaves even more than he hated slaveholders, which is saying something. Johnson, born penniless and trained as a tailor, had chips on both shoulders. He made his indignant resentment into a political philosophy of hidebound stubbornness.

While reprehending almost everything Johnson stood for, Gordon-Reed manages to give him his due for political talent. It was the talent of a strident campaigner, not that of a statesman, but Johnson had it in large measure. He was a galvanizing public speaker, a gifted rhetorician, very good at throwing straws into the wind and deciding which way to move. He was implacably ambitious, like most people who attain high office. It's hard not to admire that drive. It's even easy to sympathize with Johnson's lifelong promotion of homestead privileges for poor whites, and the fierce Unionist stance he took in Confederate Tennessee. If he could have yielded on the issue of race, he might have been a great President; but ultimately he valued white supremacy above even political expedience.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. Andrew Johnson. New York: Times Books, 2011.