Last updated on January 1, 2020
The American Civil War remains a key turning point in United States history. The nation nearly tore itself apart as the Union and Confederacy engaged in deadly conflict over several issues including States’ rights, secession, and the system of slavery. Prior to its conclusion, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) met his tragic end on April 15, 1965, falling victim to assassin John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Andrew Johnson, then Vice-President and Democrat, succeeded Lincoln as the 17th President of the Unite States of America. He would only serve in office through 1869 when Lincoln’s term would have ended, but in that short period, his administration would be the center of one of the most critical trials in United States history.
David O. Stewart takes a look back in this well-researched and well-presented investigative account of the trial of Andrew Johnson, who faced impeachment by the Radical Republicans led by U.S. House of Representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868). From start to finish the book is spellbinding and Stewart writes in a style that never bores the reader while presenting the material in an easy to read and streamlined format. And as a result of his work, we now have one of the finest books on the attempted impeachment of a President who nearly pushed the nation into a second Civil War.
The book begins after Lincoln has passed and Johnson has become the next Commander-In-Chief. And nearly instantly, the dark side of Johnson is put on full display as he commits the first of several acts that will turn the Radical Republicans against him and dictate the course of history for the deep south for decades to come. It is not enough to say that Johnson was unfit for office. Stewart realizes this and details the nefarious policies which Johnson advocated. In time they would come to be viewed as the end of the legacy of Lincoln and an insult to those who truly believe that all men are created equal. Further, we come to learn about the personal side of Johnson or lack of it. Generally viewed as cold and rarely in good spirits, Johnson comes off as vindictive and in some cases delusional and out of his mind. Actions such as circumventing Congress to deal directly with southern states, vetoing the Reconstruction Acts and Civil rights bill of Lyman Trumbull (1813-1896), are just several of many that earned Johnson the wrath of many Americans. But his attempted removal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814-1869) was the straw that broke the camel’s back and resulted in the Radical Republicans commencing impeachment proceedings against the despised President.
The impeachment trial is one of the best parts of the book. Johnson came extremely close to impeachment from office, saved only by one vote. Stewart revisits the trial and the events leading up to the trial as each Senator mulls over which way he will vote in deciding Johnson’s fate. For some of them, we see why they voted in the way that they did and for others, the question remains, did they really feel that way or were the allegations of bribery true? It may seem shocking to some to even think that bribery occurred. And while Stewart does not convict anyone with his words, he examines the evidence available reaching a quite startling conclusion.
Today it would be fair to say that the Civil War still haunts America. In the south, it is sometimes referred to as the war of “Northern aggression”. The tearing down of Confederate monuments and the tragedy in Charlottesville remind us of the struggle we continue to deal with in confronting the war that divided our nation. Reconstruction can been seen as a missed opportunity in American history. Millions of freed slaves and White Americans had their lives changed permanently by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Confederacy’s defeat. Congress realizing the opportunity before it, attempted to seize the opportunity but was confronted by a President deeply prejudiced and intent on maintaining the social structure of the south. His efforts would eventually come to pass in the system of Jim Crow that took decades and a Civil Rights Movement to finally defeat. We can only guess what would have happened if Johnson had not only complied but encouraged Congress to pass more legislation to move the nation forward after a brutal conflict and protected the lives of newly freed and disenfranchised Americans.
America now finds itself at a crossroad as we grapple with a political climate that borders on surreal at times. But regardless of what happens, America will survive as it always has. But while we continue to maintain the nation that we have, it is imperative that we do not forget the dark legacy of Andrew Johnson and remember why it is imperative to have a President that is able to unify us all and serve each and every citizen of the United States of America. Stewart’s book is an excellent place to start in understanding the rise and fall of Andrew Johnson.