Tag Archives: Andrew Johnson

Drawing from the Bottom of the Barrel: 3 Things a Failed President Taught Me

In my previous post I wrote about Andrew Johnson, the man who became President after Lincoln was assassinated. Here I share what I learned from a reading of his life in Hans Trefousse’s biography of Johnson.

English: President of the United States of Ame...

English: President of the United States of America Andrew Johnson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1)  Convictions can blind us. Generally, one’s strengths are also one’s weaknesses. Johnson’s stalwart, devil-may-care clinging to his beliefs, led him to act unilaterally in restoring the country as he thought should be done. Being sympathetic with the South, and not a supporter of the ex-slaves, he set a very low bar for re-admission to the Union. Actually he believed that the southern states never truly seceded at all since in his reading of the Constitution a state could not legally remove itself from the Union. So as long as they ratified the 13th Amendment and made a vague promise of loyalty, they could come back. Congress generally thought otherwise, and fought against the President. It was a confusing time, and I don’t claim to understand it, although I am looking forward to learning more as I read Grant’s biography. But it is clear to me that it was wrong for Johnson to claim sole authority to bring about restoration, ignoring the many opinions and ideas being circulated. He was certain he was right, and refused to consider the ideas of others. And the country suffered for it.

2)  How do we use the power we have? We all have beliefs and convictions. When do we stand by them “to the death,” and when do we compromise and strive to work with those who have other convictions or beliefs? As a pastor, I certainly have my non-negotiables, and many of these I share with the leadership of the church I serve. But beyond those, my responsibility is to lead with, not over, the lay leaders. I may have strong opinions about what we should do in a certain area, but so do my leaders. It is not for me to simply enforce what I want, even if I can. My calling is to work together with the leadership to find solutions and to make decisions. And the more crucial the decision, the more important that is. The future of our church, not unlike the future of the country, is not solely up to me to decide. Nor was it Johnson’s. And when you act as though it is your decision, you may find yourself impeached, just like Johnson.

Use the power you have, but don’t exceed it, not just for your own good, but for the good of the church too. Johnson, because of his bullheadedness, squandered the opportunity the country had to do Reconstruction right. Instead, the course was set for a future of continued racism, white supremacy, and Jim Crow.

The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the T...

The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the Trial of Andrew Johnson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3)  Integrity under fire, even when you deserve to burn. Andrew Johnson deserved to be humbled for his arrogance and his over-stepping, but he was acquitted of the charges brought against him in his impeachment. There was no evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors”. And everyone really knew that. But, drawing on that inner well of conviction, Johnson weathered the storm with integrity. He continued to do his job, did not strike back at his enemies, and kept the course he had always followed. After his generally failed presidency, he even had the wherewithal to get elected to the Senate again. That impresses me. Is that well of conviction in me strong enough to see me through adversity, deserved or undeserved, and keep me working for what I believe in?

I don’t want to do what Andrew Johnson did, and I don’t think I will.  But my certainty of that may be simply because I know I don’t have the strength of conviction that he had. Does that make me stronger? Or weaker?

Drawing From the Bottom of the Barrel: Lessons on Success from a Failed President

Andrew Johnson, Hans TrefousseSome years ago I embarked on the odyssey of reading a biography of every U.S. president. After watching a program on the American Revolution I was intrigued by the story of Benedict Arnold and got a book out of the library on his life. That led me to read a biography of George Washington. And I was hooked. Reading biographies teaches me much about history, but also about living and working in the world. I just finished Andrew Johnson, by Hans L. Trefousse, a well-written and readable biography of one of lowest ranked presidents. Andrew Johnson is famous for being the Vice President left with the daunting task of picking up the pieces after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and for being the first U.S. President to be impeached. While no one could have effectively followed Lincoln, one of our greatest presidents, Johnson did a really poor job of it. He deserves his low rank among our presidents because he squandered the opportunity to integrate ex-slaves into the nation. Instead he entrenched the racism that would yield the Jim Crow south that would reign until the Civil Rights era. Still, I learned a lot from reading about his life, and I do think of him more highly than some of the other presidents whose biographies I have read. I actually found much to admire about Johnson. One of the oddities of presidential history is that some great men have been mediocre, or even bad, presidents. It all depends on what they face, and how they face it. Johnson was a natural leader and an effective politician. He rose from poverty, not exactly to riches, but certainly to prominence, being first a renown tailor in Greeneville, Tennessee. He quickly moved into local political leadership and then served 10 years in Congress. He was elected Governor and then Senator. Through it all he consistently pursued economic responsibility and championed the cause of the farmer and tradesman, his people. Even at the federal level he stuck to that program even when he had much to gain by “compromising”. This won him the support of the people, something he always believed he retained, but also made enemies of many of his fellow Congressmen and Senators. Johnson became Lincoln’s second Vice-President because of his stalwart support of the Union even as the south seceded and the war began. He refused to go along with the South not because he was against slavery, for he was not, but because he believed the challenges the country faced could be solved by working within the Constitution. He was willing to defy most of his own state, at great personal danger, in this belief. Lincoln noticed and first installed him as Military Governor of Tennessee, and then made him his running mate for his second term. Not long after the election, and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson became President.

A political cartoon of Andrew Johnson and Abra...

A political cartoon of Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln, 1865. The caption reads (Johnson to the former rail-splitter): Take it quietly Uncle Abe and I will draw it closer than ever!! (Lincoln to the former tailor): A few more stitches Andy and the good old Union will be mended! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have never really thought much about the challenges the country faced after the Civil War ended. What do you do after half the country has rebelled and then lost? How do you rebuild? What do you do with the rebel leaders? These are the difficult questions of Reconstruction. One of the great “what-if’s” of history is what if Lincoln had not been killed? What would he have done to rebuild the nation? No one really knows. But Johnson believed he knew. And he did it no matter what anyone else, even Congress thought. Next time we’ll look at the lessons I learned from Johnson, from this bottom-of-the-barrel President.