Andrew Johnson and Jefferson Davis
Bill Long 9/27/07
The Personal Roots of a National Conflict
After Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, was captured by Federal troops at Irwinville, GA on May 10, 1865 many suggestions were made regarding what to do with him. Some angry Northerners wanted him executed. Since Davis was captured in woman's garb (wearing his wife's shawl and waterproof dressing gown--in order to evade recognition by the Union troops), one person wrote to Johnson advising him to let Davis be exhibited in female attire across the country with admission charged. Though some people pled for mercy for Davis, the tenor of the times immediately after the assassination and trial of the conspirators against Lincoln (four of whom were executed on July 7, 1865), suggested that mercy would not be in the cards.
President Johnson's famous statement a few months previously about "making treason odious" confirmed this harsh approach. Indeed, Johnson did nothing to deflect the allegation (untrue, as it turned out) that Davis had actively conspired to assassinate Lincoln. Davis ended up being confined as a military prisoner in Fortress Monroe on the Eastern tip of Hampton, VA under indictment for treason until he was released on a $100,000 bond in May 1867. He was the only Confederate leader so harshly treated. Indeed, the only Confederate leader more feared in the North was Robert E. Lee who by the summer of 1865 had already taken up the Presidency of Washington College (now Washington & Lee University) in Lexington, VA.
Since Pres. Johnson knew that the charges against Davis were false and since all the other Confederate leaders were free, though still not fully pardoned, shortly after the war's end, why would Jefferson Davis have remained imprisoned, at times in shackles, for two whole years after the war's completion? Well, legally speaking, he was under indictment for treason, once in 1865 and once in 1866. Finally, in 1868 the Federal Government dropped charges against him and in Johnson's Fourth Amnesty proclaimation, Dec. 25, 1868, he was pardoned for his offenses against the United States before and during the Civil War.
But something else is going on here.
The Roots of Johnson's Hatred of Davis
Though I don't think it can be proven that Davis' long imprisonment after the Civil War was simply a reflection of Johnson's personal pique at Davis, personal animosity goes a long way to explaining it. A little-known episode in Congress in 1846 was the reason for it. At that time both Davis and Johson were relatively junior members of Congress (both born in 1808). Davis was a regal, sophisticated, precise, articulate member of the MS planter class; Johnson was an unschooled tailor, a hardscrabble man who had left NC for TN in his youth to find work and who allegedly had been taught to read by his wife. The following story is told by Dorris in his work Pardon and Amnesty under Lincoln and Johnson (1953). Davis rose to give a speech commending General Zachary Taylor on his recent victories in the war against Mexico. Since both he and Taylor were graduatees of West Point, Davis credited West Point for the General's success. He then challenged any critic to say whether
"a blacksmith or a tailor could have secured the same results," Dorris, p. 280.
Johnson, already hypersensitive to the gulf between himself and the planter class, thought that the reference made by Davis was to him. So, in return he
"poured scorn and contempt upon the 'illegitimate, swaggering, bastard scrub aristocracy' of which he declared Davis a member."
Davis claimed to be surprised that anyone could have taken his remarks personally, and sincerely apologized on two occasions to Johnson if he felt offended. He explained that his sole aim:
"had been to point out 'the results of skill and military science,' and to call attention to the fact that these could not be expected from men without military education," Ibid.
We may have to know more about Davis and his previous feelings about Johnson to know if he was referring to Johnson in his first statement or whether he was sincere in his later apologies, but all admit that Davis was prone to having a "haughty and sarcastic style" in his younger days. At least some scholars suppose that Johnson never forgave Davis from that moment on, and that he finally was able to exact his vengeance on the upper-class Davis when the latter fell into his clutches in the coverings of a woman on May 10, 1865.
The Thirteenth Exclusion
Johnson's feelings towards Davis and the planter class in general go a long way to explaining why Johnson expanded the classes of people excluded from the First General Amnesty he proclaimed on May 29, 1865. We will recall that Lincoln started the concept of the Presidential amnesty in Dec. 1863 by declaring that any who took an oath of loyalty to the Union would be pardoned for their actions in the War between the States--though he excepted six classes of people who had to apply to him for a personal pardon if they wanted restored status (which enabled them to get their property back and to resume business). His pardoning authority derived not only from the US Constitution but also from the Sec. 13 of the Confiscation Act of 1862. Johnson, who would expand the number of exemptions (i.e., people who must apply personally to him to be pardoned) to 14 classes, listed the 13th exemption as follows:
"all persons who have voluntarily participated in said rebellion, and the estimated value of whose taxable property is over twenty thousand dollars..."
This idea seems to have sprung from the head of Johnson alone, and it resulted in many wealthy planters coming hat in hand to Johnson (or sending their wives to do the dirty work) from Summer 1865-1866. Thus, Johnson's animosity towards the planter class, and his special hatred toward Jefferson Davis, helps explain some of the important and memorable events in American history from 1865-1868. Politics, certainly, is process--and lots of process. But never overlook the personal dimension of it. Look deeply into the people who are behind the process, and then you will understand more fully why they do the things they do. This story from 1846 is priceless, don't you think?
Let's turn now to Andrew Johnson's general amnesties.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long