Epps on the Fourteenth Amendment IV
Bill Long 12/25/06
Andrew Johnson's Speech on Feb. 22, 1866
Few other examples of American rhetoric have wrought such dramatically bad effects for the speaker as Johnson's 2/22/1866 "serenade speech" outside of the White House. To set the context: Johnson had increasingly been receivng "heat" from the Radical Republicans in the House and Senate--to the effect that he was coddling the South, desirous of permitting them "back in" to the Union too easily, reneging on some of the promise and promises of Lincoln. Johnson, a proud (even arrogant) man who was nurtured in the hardscrabble world of East Tennessee in the Jacksonian era, thought of himself as morally righteous because he was doing all he could to preserve and restore the Union. After all, there were 11 states in 1866 (out of 36) which still were not back in the Union. If he was utterly committed to its restoration, he had to devise a system of re-inclusion. And after he secured the abject humiliation of the Southern planter class, a class which he had hated with a passion all his life, he wanted a system in which the South could be rather easily admitted to the Union.
But, he was also a racist, pure and simple. Not only didn't he want Black suffrage, but he even vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 in March 1866 because it "went too far" in securing "civil" rights to Blacks--such as owning property, testifying in trial, ability to sue and be sued, etc. Thus, he would vigorously oppose any efforts, such as in the re-authorization of the Freedman's Bureau in a Feb. 1866 piece of legislation, which seemed to grant the newly freed Blacks any property rights in the South. He was, however, utterly committed to ending slavery. The loss by the South in the War was evidence to him that America no longer wanted or needed that system. Hence, his strong support for the 13th Amendment.
Well, in Feburary 1866, Johson had an unexpected victory. The Congress had passed, by a large margin, the Freedman's Bureau bill, which had provisions which would enable Southern Blacks to own property and gain access to some of the privileges enjoyed by many Whites. Johnson vetoed the Act. Never before in American history had a Presidential veto been overridden. It looked as if this veto wouldn't stand. But the seemingly solid Republican coalition collapsed, and Johnson's veto was upheld.
Moving Toward the Speech
Then, in an action that for me only makes sense if I think deeply about Richard Nixon's vindictive spirit after the 1972 election, when he experienced one of the largest electoral victories in American history, Johnson decided to give a speech on his victory. Epps lays out the historical context nicely. He says it was customary in that day to "serendade" (p. 138) one's political leaders by showing up at their home and calling on them for an impromptu speech. Johnson loved these events. It gave him an occasion to speak in an unhindered way to an appreciative gathering. It allowed him to appear as the grand man, addressing appreciative throngs of wild-clapping supporters. In occasions like this he might imbibe too much before the speech, thus skewing his judgment yet further. When you combine all of this with his streak of self-righteousness, a streak which made him unable to compromise with others who saw the world differently, you have all the makings of a foolish and overreaching politician who, in the midst of his gloating, will expose himself to potential downfall. Johnson eagerly came forward to do this.
Three things are evident in the speech. First, is his seeming utter devotion to the memory of Andrew Jackson and his quest for the preservation of the Union. I think it was his interpretation of this Jacksonian mandate that led him to a more "moderate" position, which the Radicals interpreted as collusion with the remnants of the Slave Power. But because he felt he was following in the footsteps of Jackson, not to mention Lincoln, Johnson felt he was standing on an unassailable principle. But there is a great deal of difference between trying to be loyal to a principle and considering that one's way to be loyal is the only way to instantiate loyalty. In other words, like any "true beleiver," Johnson saw not only the principle but his interpretation of how to realize the principle as the only way.
Second, we have to realize that he thought of himself as a martyr-like figure, even a Christ-like figure. He would be mild toward the South. Who was the great example of mildness in history? Why, none other than Jesus Christ. Christ taught the virtue of forgiveness, the value of loving your neighbor. Christ faced opposition and even death from those who hated him. Why should it be any different for Andrew Johnson? These dual ideological pictures suffused his mind as he gave his speech.
Finally, he had the effrontery and bad judgment to name his opponents by name in the speech. Admittedly, he was egged on by the crowd to "name names." But he characterized three men (next essay!) as enemies of the Union. When you have thrown down the gauntlet like this, you can expect the most vicious reprisals from those you have named. And, of course, those reprisals came in the next two years, in one of the more sordid chapters of American political life.
With all the extreme tensions in the air, with different plans for reconstruction flying like feathers in a cock fight, with conceptual unclarity on the most basic questions of national life, it is a wonder, from the perspective of 140 years, that a new war didn't break out. So, let's turn now to the language of Johnson's speech. Though it is of signal importance, the speech is nowhere online. I will quote generous portions of it in the next essay or two so that you can see its full flavor.
As you see, there is just so much to say.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long