President Andrew Johnson's Pardons I
Bill Long 9/28/07
Preceded by My "Take" on Pres. Andrew Johnson
When Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency on April 15, 1865, he did so with widespread support in the North. After all, he had been the only Southern Senator not to have left the Senate upon the adoption of secession enactments by the 11 seceding states. He then became military governor of Tennessee in March 1862, serving honorably in that position until he was elected Vice-President of the United States under Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln's assassination he did a number of things to convince the Radical Republicans in he North that he was, if not one of their number, at least sympathetic to their concerns. He said he would "make treason odious," and the Northerners cheered.
One of the ways we see Johnson's gradual loss of support in the North is the way he handled the "pardon business" after Lincoln's death. Lincoln had issued two general amnesty proclamations (Dec. 1863; March 1864), and Johnson would continue that tradition as early as May 29, 1865. The purpose of this and the next essay is to say a little about Johnson's Four Amnesties (last one Dec. 25, 1868) which ultimately resulted in the pardoning of all Confederate leaders. He wanted to act "in the spirit of Lincoln," but ultimately what got him into trouble was his vanity, his retaliatory spirit, and his maddening habit of getting drunk and then denouncing his Republican opponents (see these essays).
The Historiography of Andrew Johnson
Before getting to his actual amnesty proclamations, however, a word should be said on "Andrew Johnson historiography" or, easier said, how scholars have evaluated his Presidency. Just as President John Adams has come in for some revisionist treatment in the last decade, leading to an "upping" of the Adams "stock" among historians, so Johnson has gone through some different assessments in the 142 years since he assumed the Presidency--though his evaluations have gone in the opposite direction as Adams. For the first forty or fifty years after his Presidency, he was generally painted in a positive light. He was seen as a moderate person who righly opposed the firebrand tactics of the Radical Republicans in their headlong, and unwise (in this school's thought) rush to grant voting and leadership positions to African-Americans in the late 1860s. This school of thought saw him as a sort of martyr, which is the way he saw himself, to the cause of the Union in a time where no one might have really been able to hold the country together.
This school of thought has been replaced in the last 75 or so years by a more critical assessment of Johnson. In more recent days he has been seen as an ineffective leader lacking the depth, political skills and personal charm of Lincoln. That he got himself in the crosshairs of the Republicans, who wanted to impeach him for violating the Tenure of Office Act (by removing Sec. Stanton from the cabinet without Senate approval) was indicative of his intransigence, arrogance and general unfitness to lead this nation--according to this school of thought.
My Approach to Andrew Johnson
In my reading of Johnson's life, I would cautiously advance a "third approach," which may indeed catch on some day. I would call Johnson the "unintentional interim President" who, because of the structural realities of sudden change after an assassination of a very popular leader in the North, would have failed under any circumstance. In other words, I think that the next generation of Johnson scholarship will be informed by principles of how large corporate entities survive and change after the departure of popular or long-tenured leaders. In short, what tends to happen is that the person who follows such a powerful individual is often in a "no-win" situation. The loyalty of the people who remain "on staff" is definitely to the predecessor, no matter how much they would like to support the new guy. And the institution itself is often not prepared to make the kind of changes necessary for the institution to flourish in the next generation. Thus, the President/new CEO is often caught in the midst of such competing tensions that s/he cannot succeed.
As a result of these realities, many corporate entites go to "interim executives" while a long search is underway for a successor. They recognize that an institution needs to catch its breath, regroup, deal with undealt-with things in the last months of the previous leader's life and then move on. But when these entities don't go for interim leaders, the one they hire as the "permanent replacement" often ends up being a temporary, or "interim" leader. Such was the case, for example, at Brown University a few years ago. Vartan Gregorian was an immensely popular and world-recognized leader, with a huge following and a big spirit. After he retired to NYC, the Brown Corporation hastily hired Gordon Gee, a successful President at several large state universities before coming to Brown. But he only lasted 1 1/2 years at the helm of Brown. There were ugly things that happened, to be sure, but my point is that Gee couldn't have succeeded because the institutional forces, including vocal alumni groups, were not yet over the fact that Vartan had left. Thus, they weren't very sympathetic to receive anything that Gordon wanted to do.
Of course, this doesn't happen all the time when a new executive comes follows a very popular predecessor. But it can help to explain why these "Gee-type" situations happen in lots of instances. My contention is that the next generation's approach to Andrew Johnson ought to be informed by these realities. Even though Johnson was "no Lincoln" in many respects, he tried to continue Lincoln's policies, especially on the issue of Presidential pardons and amnesties. But eventually the Radical Republicans baited him, passed overreaching laws to handcuff him (the Tenure of Office Act of 1867, for example, was one such example of overrreaching...for it prohibited the President to fire cabinet members without Senate approval. Can you imagine anyone sympathizing with a Congress that attempted to do that today? Indeed, the US Supreme Court declared the Tenure of Office Act unconstitutional, but it didn't decide this until the 1920s, slightly too late for Johnson's impeachment trial in 1868) and eventually impeached him on charges that were as flimsy as the Republican charges against Bill Clinton in 1999.
No one, in my judgment, could have survived the harsh political climate of the mid-1860s. If he tried to sympathize completely with the Radicals, he would have brought a South back into the country that was so resentful that it might have led to a second Civil War. If he had bent over further to the South, he would have been impeached more quickly. He did a fair job in an impossible environment. And, his personality was a lightning rod for criticism.
Now that this "no win" historiography is out on the table, let's look at the amnesties that Johnson issued at the end of the Civil War. The first, and most far-reaching, was the one on May 29, 1865. The next essay describes it.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long