George W. Bush, at the LBJ Library’s Civil Rights Summit, April 10, 2014
Man, I have to admit that I sure am enjoying George W. Bush more-and-more as a former President — and not just because he is no longer President.
I know Grant thoroughly. I had ample opportunity to study him when I was President, and I am convinced he is the greatest farce that was ever thrust upon a people. Why, the little fellow — excuse me for using that expression, but I can’t help pitying him — the little fellow has nothing in him. He hasn’t a single idea. He had no policy, no conception of what the country requires. He don’t understand the philosophy of a single great question, and is completely lost in trying to understand his situation. He is mendacious, cunning, and treacherous…
I tell you, sir, Grant is nothing more than a bundle of petty spites, jealousies, and resentments. And yet they say Grant is a second Washington. Only think of it, when you compare him with Washington or Jefferson, where is he? Why he is so small you must put your finger on him. He, a little upstart, a coward, physically and intellectually, to be compared to George Washington! Why, it makes me laugh…
Grant has nothing. Physically and mentally and morally he is a nonentity. Why, sir, his soul is so small that you could put it within the periphery of a hazel nutshell and it might float about for a thousand years without knocking against the walls of the shell. That’s the size of his soul…
He has no idea, no policy, no standard, no creed, no faith. How can he guide the people? How can he impress any great improvements or moral ideas upon the nation?…The little fellow has come to think he is somebody really. I can’t help pitying him when I think how well I know him and what an infinitessimal creature he really is…
There are reasons for the absence of smiles and the prevalence of furrowed brows in the photographs of Andrew Johnson. His life was not easy. Born into poverty, his family was plunged deeper into it when his father died when Johnson was just three years old. Johnson’s mother did her best to provide for Andrew and his older brother, William, but her work as a weaver and spinner was ultimately not enough. At the age of 14, he and his brother were bound as apprentices to a tailor in Raleigh, North Carolina. An indentured servant, Johnson was living only a little better than a slave, and despite learning a valuable trade, could hardly bear his life. Two years after he was bound to the tailor, Johnson and his brother broke their contract and escaped to South Carolina, returning briefly to Raleigh to gather up his mother and move to Greeneville, Tennessee where he opened his own tailor shop at the age of 17.
Because of his situation, Andrew Johnson never attended a day of school. During his apprenticeship in Raleigh, several men who frequented the tailor shop read to Johnson as he worked and with a book he received as a gift, Johnson labored hard in free moments at night to teach himself how to read. Upon moving to Greeneville, the 17-year-old Johnson met 15-year-old Eliza McCardle. A student at a local school, Eliza and Andrew were married less than a year after they met and since she was thoroughly educated in comparison with Johnson, Eliza taught him how to write, do basic arithmetic, and improve his reading skills.
Johnson was a quick learner, a skilled orator, and had a gift for politics which he began to exploit early, relying on his ability to connect with common people and his popularity as a first-class tailor with a thriving local business. Elected an Alderman in Greeneville just two years after moving to Tennessee, Johnson became Mayor in 1830 at the age of 22. By his 27th birthday, Johnson was serving in the Tennessee House of Representatives. At 33, he was elected to the Tennessee State Senate. In 1843, Johnson headed to Washington as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he would serve five terms.
In 1852, Johnson’s rapid rise in politics led him to Nashville as Governor of Tennessee where, in two terms, he championed education and agricultural advancements at home and supported pro-slavery Democrats and the Kansas-Nebraska Act nationally. In 1857, the Tennessee State Legislature unanimously elected Johnson as Tennessee’s newest United States Senator.
Johnson’s Senate term became historic and not just because he was the architect of the Homestead Act — the most influential, lasting accomplishment of the Lincoln Administration not directly related to the Civil War. As the Civil War approached, Johnson was a steadfast defender of slavery, unsurprising due to the his Southern roots and his unabashed white supremacy. What was unique about Andrew Johnson was his vehement opposition to secession. Johnson harshly criticized President Buchanan (a fellow Democrat) for his inaction in the face of secession and his failure to suppress the Confederate insurrection. In a stunning reversal, Johnson — who supported Stephen A. Douglas in the 1850’s and John C. Breckinridge for President in 1860 — voiced his support for Abraham Lincoln.
As the nation headed to war, Johnson worked with passion and diligence to keep Tennessee in the Union — a battle he ultimately lost. Despite constant threats to him and his family and being labeled a traitor in his beloved South, Johnson defied his state and became the only Southern Senator who refused to join the Confederacy. In the North, Johnson’s actions made him a courageous hero; back in Tennessee, he was burned in effigy and his hometown of Greeneville erected a banner over it’s main street which read “Andrew Johnson, Traitor”.
In March 1862, Johnson was appointed the Military Governor of Tennessee by President Lincoln and given the rank of brigadier general. Johnson returned to his home state, now occupied by Union forces, with orders to establish law and order and return Tennessee to federal authority. With virtually dictatorial powers, Johnson slowly and bravely restored order to Tennessee by shutting down anti-Union newspapers, seizing railroads and bridges, arresting priests for sermons that sympathized with the Confederate cause, enacting martial law, requiring state officeholders to swear oaths of allegiance to the federal government, levying and collecting taxes, and gaining a measure of support in the state by urging Lincoln to exempt Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation. Johnson didn’t rule from afar or hide from a disgruntled population, either — he valiantly remained in Nashville, which was frequently under siege by Confederate forces, declaring that “I am no military man but any one who talks of surrender I will shoot.”
In 1864, President Lincoln urged Republicans to dump Vice President Hannibal Hamlin from Lincoln’s re-election bid and form a coalition party (the National Union Party) with pro-Union Democrats. With an eye to the future and the need for quick national reconciliation Lincoln dumped Hamlin in favor of Johnson, partly as a reward for Johnson’s unwavering loyalty to the Union and partly to balance the coalition ticket with a Democrat who just happened to be a Southerner.
Johnson’s Vice Presidency got off to an inauspicious start. Ill from typhoid fever, Johnson took a few shots of whiskey prior to his inauguration in order to get through the long ceremonies. Unfortunately, the effect was a long, drunken rant against aristocrats and wealthy businessmen and politicians as Johnson spoke to the Senate chamber (Vice Presidents gave their own inaugural addresses at that time) which ended only when outgoing Vice President Hamlin yanked on Johnson’s coattails and steered him away from the speaker’s lectern. Lincoln was embarrassed and the nation was worried that their new Vice President might be an alcoholic.
The nation’s worries grew larger less than a week after the happy news that the Confederates had surrendered at Appomattox and ended the Civil War and not quite six weeks after Johnson became Vice President. Shortly after his alcohol-infused outburst at his inauguration, the New York World worriedly said of Johnson, “To think, that one frail life stands between this insolent, clownish creature and the Presidency.” On April 15, 1865, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln led to Andrew Johnson becoming the 17th President of the United States. Johnson’s ascension to the Presidency was not what anyone wanted or hoped for, including Johnson himself. A stunned nation suddenly found itself with a very different leader as its chief executive. The thoughts of many Americans echoed the words that Benjamin F. Butler would later say, “By murder most foul, he succeeded to the Presidency, and is the elect of an assassin to that high office, and not of the people.”
Johnson’s Presidency was dominated by the challenges of Reconstruction, the opposition of Radical Republicans in Congress opposed to Johnson’s conciliatory policy towards the conquered South, and his staunch refusal to recognize the basic human rights of blacks whom Johnson saw as an inferior race. Johnson had a long history of vivid racism, punctuated by his bombastic speaking style. Among his comments on African-Americans, Johnson had said “You can’t get rid of the negro except by holding him in slavery” and asked “If you liberate the negro, what will be the next step? It would place every splay-footed, bandy-shanked, humpbacked negro in the country upon an equality with the poor white man.”
As his unpopularity in the country and in the Capitol grew, Johnson faced an unprecedented challenge from the Congress. In 1867, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited the President from firing his Cabinet members without the approval of the Senate. On paper, this meant that the President not only required Senate confirmation of his appointments, but Senate confirmation of any potential change in his government’s top officials. In reality, the Tenure of Office Act was a clear provocation of Johnson’s authority, basically daring Johnson to violate the law and face impeachment. It was a legislative coup d’état. Johnson didn’t respond well to challenges; he quickly violated the act, firing Secretary of War (and favorite of the Radical Republicans) Edwin Stanton for “disloyalty”. Every bit as stubborn as the President, Stanton barricaded himself in the War Department and the Congress impeached Johnson on February 24, 1868.
The first President to be impeached (Bill Clinton would join the dubious club 130 years later), Andrew Johnson prepared for a trial in the Senate. Needing a two-thirds majority to convict Johnson and remove him from office, Republicans worked zealously to secure the 36 votes necessary for conviction. Facing eleven articles of impeachment (nine more than President Clinton was tried on in 1999), Johnson narrowly escaped conviction and removal from office. The Senate voted 35-19 to convict Johnson on three articles of impeachment, but as they were 1 guilty vote short of a two-thirds majority, Johnson was able to remain in office and finish out his term. After the first three articles of impeachment successfully went Johnson’s way, the other eight articles were abandoned and the case was closed. Johnson’s Presidency was salvaged by seven courageous Republican Senators who risked their careers by voting with Democrats to acquit President Johnson. Those seven Senators — William P. Fessenden (Maine), Joseph S. Fowler (Tennessee), James W. Grimes (Iowa), John B. Henderson (Missouri), Edmund G. Ross (Kansas), Lyman Trumbull (Illinois), and Peter Van Winkle (West Virginia) — were later lauded in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles of Courage for acts of Senatorial bravery.
Andrew Johnson cried upon hearing the news of his exoneration. While his Presidency was salvaged, he had little real power and no support remaining. Like John Tyler before him, Johnson was also a President without a party and though he hoped to seek election in his own right in 1868, no party was willing to nominate him as their candidate so the former tailor returned to Tennessee, declaring that “I intend to devote the remainder of my life to the vindication of my own character.”
It was his return home, however, that changed his spirits forever. When Johnson refused to support the Confederacy and remained the only Southern Senator in the United States Senate during the Civil War, Johnson’s hometown of Greeneville had famously adorned its main street with a banner that read “Andrew Johnson, Traitor”. Now, as the former President rode back into Greeneville, he found that the burning effigies were gone, the insults were no longer flying, and the banner over his hometown’s main street said something entirely different: “Andrew Johnson, Patriot”.
Johnson remained active in local and state Democratic politics in his final years and in 1875, he was rewarded with what he considered the highest honor of his life. The Tennessee Legislature once again elected Johnson to the United States Senate. Not only was Johnson returning to Washington as the only former President to serve in the Senate, but in one of history’s great coincidences, he was returning to the very legislative body that had nearly ended his political career and removed him from office less than a decade earlier. When Johnson learned that he had been elected to the Senate in 1875, he told his family, “I’d rather have this information than to learn that I had been elected President of the United States. Thank God for the vindication.”
Sadly, Johnson’s resurgent political career didn’t last long. Returning home to Tennessee during a Senate recess, Johnson suffered a series of strokes in the final days of July 1875 while visiting his daughter in Carter County, Tennessee. On July 31, 1875, the former President and loyal Unionist died at the age of 66. In his will, Johnson requested one last act of patriotic devotion: “Pillow my head with the Constitution of my country. Let the flag of the Nation be my winding sheet.” With his body blanketed in the American flag and his head resting on a copy of the United States Constitution inside of his pine casket, Andrew Johnson was buried under a willow tree on a hill he personally chose in what is now known as Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Greeneville, Tennessee.
The two opposing Presidents of the Civil War both spoke respectfully of Andrew Johnson during the great war between the states. Confederate President Jefferson Davis ignored Johnson’s stubborn opposition against the Confederacy and recognized Johnson’s connection with the common people. “One of the people by birth, he remained so by conviction, continually referring to his origin…He was indifferent to money and careless of praise or censure.” Prior to choosing Johnson as his running mate in 1864, Abraham Lincoln understood his sacrifices: “No man has a right to judge Andrew Johnson in any respect who has not suffered as much and done as much as he for the Nation’s sake.”
I have never been so tired of anything before as I have been with the political speeches of Mr. Johnson…I look upon them as a national disgrace.
Ulysses S. Grant, during a speaking tour through several states with President Andrew Johnson, 1866
Our enemies have always made the same mistake. In my lifetime — in depression and in war — they have awaited our defeat. Each time, from the secret places of the American heart, came forth the faith they could not see or that they could not even imagine. It brought us victory. And it will again. For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say “Farewell.” Is a new world coming? We welcome it — and we will bend it to the hopes of man.
Lyndon B. Johnson, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1965
As a Southerner, I am happy to know that a fellow Southerner is in the White House who is concerned about civil rights…LBJ is a man of great ego and great power. He is a pragmatist and a man of pragmatic compassion. It just may be that he’s going to go where John Kennedy couldn’t.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suggesting that LBJ seemed far more willing to fight for civil rights than JFK ever had, following a one-on-one meeting with President Johnson less than two weeks after the Kennedy Assassination
No President ever came to this office on a platform of doing what was wrong. Most of us have made decisions that were wrong. But every man who ever occupied this office, or sat at this desk, or reclined in this chair, has been dedicated to doing what he believed was for the best interest of the people of this country. I am utterly convinced that any man who takes the oath of office as President is determined to do right, as God gives him the wisdom to know the right.
Most people come into office with great dreams and they leave it with many satisfactions and some disappointments, and always some of their dreams have not come true. I’m no exception. But I am so grateful and so proud that I have had my chance. And as to how successful we’ve been in doing the greatest good for the greatest number, the people themselves, and their posterity, must ultimately decide.
Lyndon B. Johnson, October 1968
The definitive study of Lyndon Johnson is Robert Caro’s magnificent series — The Years of Lyndon Johnson — which is up to four volumes so far: The Path To Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate, and The Passage of Power. I don’t know if there has ever been a more detailed series of books ever written about one person, but it is a must-read. It’s takes a commitment to dive into the series since Caro’s almost spent as much time writing the books as it took LBJ to actually live the story told by them and it’s not until the most recent volume (The Passage of Power) that Caro begins delving into LBJ as President. I’m hoping we get the fifth (and final?) volume sometime this decade, but reading the entire series will make it feel like you know Lyndon Johnson.
For those who, unlike me, actually have a personal life, you may not want to devote every waking hour to reading about LBJ via Mr. Caro’s masterpiece. In that case, I’d highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Goodwin has proven her ability over the past couple of decades as one of our great historians, and I think Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream is her best work. When LBJ left office, he prepared to write his autobiography, The Vantage Point. LBJ hired Goodwin to help him research and write the book, but he wanted it to sound Presidential or statesmanlike — basically, the opposite of the candid, off-the-cuff LBJ that was always the most fascinating. The result was that The Vantage Point is stiff and unnecessarily formal — like when LBJ would give a speech on television via prepared remarks rather than the barn-burning, passionate campaign speeches that he would give extemporaneously while on the campaign trail.
After LBJ died, Goodwin culled together the raw notes and anecdotes from hours of working alongside of and talking to Johnson for his autobiography, and she put together Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream — perhaps one of the most personal biographies ever written about a President. Johnson’s candor, his brilliance, his incredible political intuition, his deep insecurities, and everything that made him so remarkable and/or frustrating to those who came face-to-face with him, worked for him, and battle against him shine brightly through in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Goodwin basically wrote the book that LBJ should have written because his voice is clear on each and every page. It’s certainly one of the best books ever written about a President, and it’s enhanced not only by Goodwin’s skill as an historian, but because of the unique access she had to LBJ from the time he left the White House.
There are an awful lot of “What ifs?” in that question, but there is one much bigger problem with your question: Richard Nixon actually WAS President longer than LBJ was. It wasn’t that big of a difference, but the fact is that Nixon’s Presidency lasted about five months longer than Lyndon Johnson’s Administration.
Probably not. And it’s not so much because of Grant’s limitations but due to the fact that almost everybody would have failed in his position at that time.
In his recent biography of Grant, The Man Who Saved the Union, H.W. Brands suggested that Lincoln wouldn’t have been considered as great of a President as he is today if he hadn’t been assassinated the week the Civil War ended:
"Had Lincoln lived, the war’s end would have forced him to answer questions he had avoided amid the fighting. He would have been required to say whether emancipation implied citizenship for the freedmen; whether citizenship entailed suffrage; how far political equality, if it came to that, demanded social equality; and who would enforce the rights of African Americans against the resistance the assertion of such rights must inevitably evoke. In short, he would have been required to specify what reconstruction meant."
Since Lincoln was dead less than a week after General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, those tasks fell to Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant. It’s no surprise that Johnson and Grant are considered by many historians to be among the worst Presidents in American history, but they presided over a period that was no less difficult than the years of Pierce and Buchanan. In a way, it may have been tougher because instead of holding the nation together, Johnson and Grant had to actually put the country back together. They also had to figure out how to handle the newly-emancipated slaves, the defeated Confederates, the conquered Southern leaders, and the utter destruction in the South, which was literally occupied territory.
Johnson was a Democrat instead of a Republican and the only Southern Senator who remained loyal to the Union. He was hated by the former Confederates and he wanted to punish them. But Johnson was also a vicious racist. Obviously, these things did not come together and result in a good President. Johnson’s battles with Congress resulted in his impeachment and he was one vote away from a conviction in the Senate which would have removed him from office. From the moment that Abraham Lincoln’s heart stopped beating at 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865, Andrew Johnson had no chance whatsoever at being successful in Lincoln’s place.
Grant — who also hated Johnson (and the feeling was mutual) — got along much better with Congress and was a better man than Andrew Johnson was. He still had his troubles, but anybody in that spot at that time — including Lincoln, as Brands noted — would have struggled. Quite frankly, I don’t think Grant is as bad of a President as he has traditionally been ranked — in my Presidential Rankings last year, I had Grant ranked 30th out of 43. In fact, Grant’s reputation as President has been improving over the past 20 or so years. In 1948, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. had Grant ranked as the second worst President in history — worse than everybody except Harding, including Buchanan! In 1990, Siena College had Grant ranked 37th out of 40. But in 2010, Siena’s rankings saw Grant jump to 26th out of 43 and the year before, C-SPAN had him at 23rd out of 42. I think C-SPAN has him a bit too high and I can’t see him rising any higher then the mid-20s, but he’s certainly not one of the five worst Presidents in history. Was he a good President? No, probably not. General Grant is on the $50 bill because of his military achievements and he never truly fit in the world of politics. But I don’t think he was a bad President, either.
I completely agree with you. JFK had legislation bottled up in Congress for weeks and weeks before he died. LBJ got a lot of that legislation moving again within days of becoming President. Had he lived, I don’t think JFK would have passed anything close to the amount of legislation that LBJ pushed through Congress. I would have liked to have asked Schlesinger when exactly Kennedy was planning on beginning to accomplish some of the legislative victories that he was so certain that JFK would achieve. I respect Schlesinger as a historian, but I definitely agree with you about him being a Kennedy partisan.
(This is coming from the guy who posted approximately 800 things about LBJ to celebrate his 105th birthday last month.)