Andrew Johnson's Feb. 22, 1866 Talk
Bill Long 12/31/06
Talking Union; Identifying with Christ
As said previously, Andrew Jackson was Johnson's political hero. What did Jackson do in his presidency to preserve the Federal Union? Here is what Johnson says:
"We remember what he said in 1833. When treason and treachery and infidelity to the Government and the Constitution of the United States stalked forth, it was his power and influence that went forth and crushed it in its incipience."
He may be referring to John Calhoun and the development of the doctrines of interposition and nullification in that year. While not blaming the "rebellion" exclusively on the South, Johnson mentioned the "two extremes" which developed in the country between 1833 and 1860. Some in the South reached a point where "people where disposed to dissolve the Government of the United States, and they sought to preserve their peculiar institution" (i.e., slavery). But the radical Northerners, for Johnson, weren't much better. "There was a portion of our countrymen opposed to this, and they went to that extreme that they were willing to break up the Government to destroy this peculiar institution of the South" (p. 59, second col.). These two forces were arrayed against each other. And, guess what? Johnson stood against both, as he says. "I denounced there those who wanted to disrupt the Government, and I portrayed their true character..." But what did Johnson stand for?
"I stand now where I did then, vindicating the Union of these States and the Constitution of our country. The rebellion manifested itself in the South. I stood by the Government. I said I was for the Union with slavery. I said I was for the Union without slavery. In either alternative I was for the Government and the Constitution," (Id.).
Indeed, we can pick up how he is now wrapping himself in the comfort of the Constitution and the "Union." He is not far, now, from delivering arrogant, intemperate words. Let's continue.
Moving to "Today" (i.e., 1866)
Now that the war is over, Johnson states his philosophy of Southern readmission in a nutshell:
"I have said it again and again, and I repeat it now, 'disband your armies, acknowledge the supremacy of the Constitution of the United States, give obedience to the law, and the whole question is settled,'" (Id.).
So simple. Why didn't everyone think of that? But, of course, the issue was how much to make the South "pay" for leading the country into the Civil War. Was it enough just to have them get rid of slavery, admit they were wrong, swear fealty to the Federal Union and then come on back? Or, were there to be all sorts of Southern loyalists who were made politically and civilly incompetent, with penalties of death or imprisonment to their leaders, with "reparations" or some kind of payment to the Union for the losses they suffered? This was a huge question, and it stalks every victor in War, including the US in Iraq in 2003. Johnson's approach, as we see, is lenient. After he achieved the personal satisfaction in 1865 of having the planter class bow and scrape before him to keep some of their land, Johnson seemed to be personally satisfied. Now, let's just get back to business.
Johnson the Martyr
Now that Johnson has stated briefly his plan for Southern readmission, he must have thought about all the Southern suffering and thus he naturally turns to his own suffering. No one, really, had asked him about it. But there it was. As one scholar has remarked, Johnson uses the first person singular 210 times in this speech; now we can see why he does it. Let's quote his words:
"Who has suffered more than I have? I ask the question. I shall not recount the wrongs and the sufferings inflicted on me. It is not the course to deal with a whole people in a spirit of revenge....I have quite as much asperity, and perhaps as much resentment, as a man ought to have, but we must reason regarding man as he is, and must conform our action and our conduct to the example of him who founded our holy religion" (59-60).
Oh-oh. Once you start mentioning Christ in the same breath as your own sense of being a martyr, you know that things are getting dicey. But he plunges on. He said that when he came into office there were "eight millions of people who were convicted, condemned under the law, and the penalty was death." He is referring to the defeated South. But, "through revenge and resentment, were they all to be annihilated?" Of course not. Why? Because we have an example from our "holy religion" of forgiveness. Now he not only pulls rank on the Northerners by referring to Washington, he goes straight to the heart of the issue and appeals to Jesus Christ.
"Oh! may I not exclaim, how different would this be from the example set by the Founder of our holy religion, whose divine arch rests its extremities on the horizon while its span embraces the universe. Yes, He that founded this great scheme came into the world, and saw men condemned under the law, and the sentence was death. What was his example? Instead of putting the world or a nation to death, He went forth on the cross and testified with His wounds that He would die and let the world live. Let them repent; let them acknowledge their rashness; let them become loyal, and let them be supporters of our glorious strips and stars...I say let the leaders, the conscious, intelligent traitors, meet the penalties of the law. But as for the great mass, who have been forced into the rebellion--misled in other instances--let there be clemency and kindness, and a trust and a confidence in them," (60).
Conclusion--the "Real" Issue
After the Christological reference, where Johnson leaves the distinct impression that he, too, is a Christ-like martyr because he is following the path of forgiveness to the South, he moves on to what I think is one of the really big issues. Of course, readmission of the South is a huge one. But what had been going on in the 10 months since Lincoln's death were heated debates among the Radical Republicans regarding the scope of federal, in contrast to state, power. States rights rhetoric had gotten the country into the War, they would argue. Thus, in order to make sure that this kind of talk doesn't continue to hinder the country, they had to (or chose to) develop a theory of a strong federal government, which could force recalcitrant states into subjection. This bit of political philosophy would drive the former States Rights folks and moderates completely up a wall.
My next (and final) essay describes Johnson's fears of this ideology, and then provides the coup-de-grace for his political career.