Andrew Johnson's "Fatal" Speech
Bill Long 12/31/06
A February 22, 1866 "Serenade"
If there is one act that convinced the Radical Republicans that Andrew Johnson not only stood against their interests but actually would couple that opposition with venom and retaliatory vengeance, it was Johnson's "informal" Washington's B-day speech in 1866. This speech, more than anything else, creates the context for us to understand the subsequent impeachment effort against Johnson, which failed by one vote in 1868. The great irony of the speech is that it was given just when Johnson was at the seeming pinnacle of his power. He had successfully taken the reins of government after Lincoln's assassination, had provided encouragement for the South to ratify the 13th Amendment, and recently had achieved a political victory when his veto of the Freedman's Bureau Act was sustained by Congress.
Then, at the peak of his power, he plunged into the abyss. Such is not an exceptional situation. Richard Nixon did the same in 1972. I think the feeling that such men have is that they are "untouchable" because of their great power. Nothing, in their peception, can toss them from their lofty eminence. But pride affects the brain; it gives one a false sense of invincibility; it leads one even to think one is more than human. In this connection, then, claims of "total victory" whether in politics or in Iraq, are recipes for a thundering fall.
The text of Johnson's speech is nowhere online. It is a long speech, taking five double-columned pages in Edward McPherson's 1875 Political History of the US during the Time of Reconstruction (pp. 58-63). In this and the next two essays I will generously quote from the speech so that you can see how Johnson undermined himself. I am grateful to Garrett Epps, whose scintillatingly interesting Democracy Reborn (2006) described the context for Johnson's speech and provided some very brief excerpts (pp. 138-141).
Epps tells us that the "serenade" was a "now-lost 19th century political custom whereby crowds of supporters would march to the home of their leaders and call them to the window for an impromptu address" (138). The address here was in the context of Congressional resolutions supporting Johnson's plan for reconstruction. That plan is beyond the scope of this essay, but it included lenient terms for Southern re-admission to the Union. Johnson justified this approach by virtue of his theory of the Union--that what made America great was the fact of its being one country. George Washington (whose birthday formed the backdrop for the address) believed in the Union. Andrew Jackson, Johnson's political mentor, believed in the Union. So did the recently-assassinated Lincoln. Thus, Johnson's program of lenient return to political standing for the South was grounded on a philosophy supported by the most illustrious Americans to date.
But the historiography of Andrew Johnson has not been kind to him. Maybe this is because most of it was written by Northerners--sympathizers with the more Radical Republicans. But I think, also, that Johnson's personality, like Nixon's a century later, was one that simply got him into trouble with people. Well, let's look at the flow and some of the language of the speech to see how Johnson's language, which began in a rather conciliatory vein, quickly turned to spite and vitriol.
He began by graciously affirming the "resolutions" passed recently in Congress relative to reconstruction. He interpreted these Congressional resolutions as supporting his policy. "This policy has been one which was intended to restore the glorious Union..." And, of course, "this seems to be a day peculiarly appropriate for such a manifestation," since it was Washington's B-day. He calls Washington "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen." I have long heard that phrase, but I wonder who first coined it. Anyone know?
We recognize that the crowd would feed Johnson's vanity when we read the following. Johnson was saluting Washington's prowess and said: "Washington, whose name this city bears, is embalmed in the hearts of all who love their Government." Then a voice broke from the crowd: "So is Andy Johnson." Hm. Which politician wouldn't love his name being associated with that of George Washington? Johnson must have been very convinced of that moment of what the Scriptures call his surpassing greatness. Only thing is, the Scriptures used this phrase to describe God.
While on the subject of Washington, Johnson urged his hearers to support the building of the Memorial--a monument that took more than a generation to complete because of insufficient funds. But talk of the monument called to mind another such "monument," and that was his fellow Tennesseean Andrew Jackson, whose motto was "The Federal Union--it must be preserved." And then, it is as if he wanted to call Jackson forth from the tomb to speak to the crowd before him. Instead of using the literary device of prosopopoeia, where he actually addresses the dead man, he simply imagines Jackson speaking. Here are his words:
"Were it possible for that old man, who in statue is before me and in portrait behind me, to be called forth--were it possible to communicate with the illustrious dead (NOTE--just 19 years previously the Fox sisters in Rochester inaugurated the movement known as "spiritualism," where the assumption was that you could communicate with the dead), and he could be informed of the progress in the work of faction, and rebellion, and treason--that old man would turn over in his coffin, he would rise, shake off the habiliments of the tomb, and again extend that long arm and finger and reiterate the sentiment before enunciated, "the Federal Union, it must be preserved" (McPherson, p. 59).
This appeal to the spirit of Andrew Jackson will permit Johnson to strike what he considers to be a middle, and therefore conciliatory, course. The next essay describes how Johnson both "takes the middle," and then lets it explode in his face.