The Republicans' Andrew Johnson Moment

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One hundred fifty years ago, in the fall of 1866, President Andrew Johnson forced members of his party to make a choice. They could either accept his vision for the country or abandon him. Facing a similarly stark dilemma, today’s Republicans should consider the cautionary tale of the 17th president.

A year and a half earlier, Johnson had enjoyed the full backing of his party. Elevated to the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Johnson had come into office intending to carry on the work of his predecessor. Although a lifelong Democrat from the South, Johnson had run with the Republican Lincoln on the National Union ticket in 1864—the wartime embodiment of the pro-Union and anti-slavery Republican Party. After Lincoln’s death, every one of his Cabinet members stayed on to serve under Johnson, and Republican congressional leaders expressed strong support for the new president. Even a potential political rival, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the great hero of the Civil War, rallied around the country’s new leader.

Like Lincoln, Johnson favored a policy of Reconstruction for white Southerners that was relatively generous. His two presidential proclamations announced in May 1865, just a month after the end of the war, looked to a speedy reunion. Johnson called for a general amnesty for former Confederates (with some exceptions), thus avoiding long and bitter treason trials. He also called for the formation of new loyal governments in the formerly seceded states, provided that they agree to end slavery, repudiate secession, and cancel the debts owed to Confederate bondholders.

But on another major issue of Reconstruction—the rights of formerly enslaved African-Americans—Johnson gradually staked out a narrow, backward-looking position. Johnson fully supported the 13th Amendment ending slavery, which Lincoln had helped get through Congress. But in contrast to Lincoln’s expressed desire to extend gradually the franchise to African-Americans, Johnson ended up taking a hard line against granting civil or political rights to the former slaves.

In March 1866, responding to African-Americans’ continued advocacy for their own rights, Republicans in Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, the first in U.S. history. The law established that all who had been born in the United States, including the formerly enslaved, were citizens, and it provided that all citizens held the right to sue, make and enforce contracts, and enjoy the rights of property.

Against the advice of most of his Cabinet, Johnson responded with a veto. He described African-Americans as unprepared for citizenship, argued that the measure violated states’ rights to govern their own affairs, and portrayed the legislation as disruptive to the established order in which white Southern landholders governed the labor of black workers.

After overriding Johnson’s veto, Congress went further, passing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment, which three-quarters of the states needed to ratify, sought to enshrine the notions of birthright citizenship and federal protection of civil rights in the Constitution. Again, Johnson expressed strong opposition.

The president’s stance fractured the party. Three Cabinet members who supported the amendment soon resigned, and as Republican leaders in Congress pressed ahead with a civil rights agenda, Johnson decided to take his case directly to the people. With congressional elections on the horizon, he hoped to build a national coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans who opposed the amendment and supported white supremacy.

At the end of August 1866, the president embarked on an unprecedented speaking tour, what he called “the swing around the circle,” which included stops in cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Bringing along two war heroes, Grant and Adm. David Farragut, Johnson attempted to rally public support against Congress’s attempts to advance the rights of the freed people.

Johnson’s off-the-cuff speaking style had served him well on the stump in Tennessee, but when the president encountered hecklers in various cities, matters quickly got out of hand. He engaged in bitter exchanges with them and made a series of outlandish claims. In Cleveland, Johnson implied that Providence had brought about the death of Lincoln in order to make him president. In St. Louis, he inexplicably blamed Republican leaders for a massacre of African-Americans that had occurred that summer in New Orleans. In Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, the jeering of the crowds practically prevented Johnson from being heard.

The spectacle of a president giving intemperate speeches and engaging in undignified behavior prompted Grant to quit the tour, and Johnson’s political ineptness helped solidify his Republican opponents. In the fall congressional elections, Johnson’s Reconstruction policies—particularly his opposition to the 14th Amendment—suffered a resounding defeat. At that point, Johnson in effect abdicated his position as head of the party ticket on which he had been elected and instead functioned as the de facto head of the pro-Southern Democrats. Untethered from the Republicans, Johnson warned against black political participation in any form: “It must be acknowledged that in the progress of nations Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people,” he wrote.

Republicans moved forward. In 1868, they secured ratification of the 14th Amendment, impeached Johnson for firing a Republican Cabinet member (in violation of a new federal law enacted by Congress), and elected Grant as the next president. In 1870, they passed the 15th Amendment, which protected the voting rights of African-Americans.

The Republican Party of the 1860s faced a stark choice. It could either commit itself to its founding principles of expanding freedom, opportunity, and rights, or it could follow Johnson toward a narrow conception of what it meant to be a part of the American community. It could devote itself to, as Lincoln put it, a “new birth of freedom,” or bow to Johnson’s base appeals to white tribalism.

Today’s Republican Party confronts a similar dilemma. Will it be the party of Lincoln, or the party of Johnson?

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