With the possible exception of Andrew Johnson, no president in American history has suffered as many self-inflicted wounds as Donald Trump — and he has only recently passed the hallway point of his presidency.
There has not been much news about Andrew Johnson in more than a century, but the man who served as Abraham Lincoln’s second vice president has crawled his way out from the history books.
Lincoln’s successor used the office to stoke racial division at a time of necessary national healing. In rambling speeches, he painted himself as a victim of shadowy conspiracies working to end his presidency. He abused his power to remove officials for insufficient loyalty, while appointing others who were clearly unqualified for their jobs. A critic described Johnson as “egotistic to the point of mental disease … [a] demagogue and autocrat ” that “converts the Presidential chair into a stump or a throne.”
Johnson was the first of two presidents to have been impeached — Bill Clinton being the other — and with impeachment fever on the rise again with a possible move toward impeachment against Donald Trump, the similarities between Johnson’s and Trump’s personalities are remarkable, if not downright scary.
Brenda Wineapple’s riveting new account of the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation” contains no mention of Trump. Wineapple has written a well-timed book on a question rising from today’s headlines: Should the country consider impeaching a reckless, loose-tongued and deeply divisive president as a vital matter of national principle?
Not unlike Trump, Johnson was, according to Wineapple, a “vain, vulgar, and vindictive” president, poorly positioned to lead a country emerging from a devastating civil war. He openly espoused white superiority. Unlike most of his fellow Southerners, however, he called secession treason and charged the South’s plantation-owning elite with abandoning the Constitution.
Lincoln rewarded him with the post of military governor of Tennessee in 1862. Two years later, the Republican Party chose Johnson as Lincoln’s 1864 running mate in hopes of attracting Democratic votes in the crucial presidential race of 1864. Lincoln’s assassination made him an accidental president.
Johnson was a racist and a difficult man to get along with. He routinely called blacks inferior. He bluntly stated that no matter how much progress blacks made, they would remain inferior. He openly called critics disloyal, even treasonous. He flailed against opponents in public speeches. He rudely ignored answers he did not like. He regularly put other people into positions they were not suited for, then blamed them when his policies soured. His own bodyguard later called him “destined to conflict,” a man who “found it impossible to conciliate or temporize.”
Johnson’s background was of little help to him in dealing with congressional opposition. He was considered functionally illiterate into adulthood until his wife painstakingly taught him to read and function in the English language.
As 1865 proceeded, Johnson’s true sympathies became clear: He pardoned former Confederates. He restored confiscated lands to rebel owners. Johnson recognized new Southern state governments led by former slaveholding whites while defending laws limiting the freedom of former slaves.
In 1866, Johnson vetoed a civil rights bill that promised rights of contract and basic legal protections for blacks. But Johnson’s racial outlook led him to insist that guarantees of equality benefited blacks “against the white race.’ ”
Critics began calling for impeachment of the politically wounded president. Radical Republican candidates opposed to leniency for the vanquished South campaigned on a pro-impeachment platform in 1866. Republicans swept both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, making impeachment a real prospect.
By early 1868, Johnson had few remaining allies, leaving the House to impeach him. The House voted to impeach Johnson as a last resort, when the president showed he would be an impossible obstacle to congressional objectives. Despite vanishingly little political support, Johnson gained an acquittal. After being impeached, President Johnson survived his 1868 Senate trial by just one vote.
Historians have often referred to Andrew Johnson as the worst president in American history. But this country has never been led by anyone as dangerous as Donald Trump, a vindictive, volatile bully with no respect for law or propriety. We survived Johnson. We will survive Trump.
Jack Topchik is a retired editor whose passions include Shakespeare, the Frederick Keys and films in which people talk in complete sentences. He writes from Frederick. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.