Presidency of Andrew Johnson

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The presidency of Andrew Johnson began on April 15, 1865, when Andrew Johnson became President of the United States upon the death of President Abraham Lincoln, and ended on March 4, 1869. He had been Vice President of the United States for only 42 days when he succeeded to the presidency. The 17th United States president, he was a member of the Democratic Party before the Civil War, and was Lincoln's 1864 running mate on the National Union ticket, which was supported by Republicans and War Democrats. He took office as the Civil War came to a close, and his presidency was dominated by the aftermath of the war. Republican Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson as president.

Johnson, who was himself from Tennessee, favored quick restoration of the seceded states to the Union. He implemented his own form of Presidential Reconstruction – a series of proclamations directing the seceded states to hold conventions and elections to re-form their civil governments. His plans did not give protection to the former slaves, and he came into conflict with the Republican-dominated Congress. When Southern states returned many of their old leaders and passed Black Codes to deprive the freedmen of many civil liberties, congressional Republicans refused to seat legislators from those states and established military districts across the South. Johnson vetoed their bills, and congressional Republicans overrode him, setting a pattern for the remainder of his presidency.[1] Frustrated by Johnson's actions, Congress proposed the Fourteenth Amendment to the states, and the amendment was ratified in 1868. As the conflict between the branches of government grew, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, restricting Johnson's ability to fire Cabinet officials. When he persisted in trying to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, he was impeached by the House of Representatives, but narrowly avoided conviction in the Senate and removal from office. In foreign policy, Johnson's presidency saw the purchase of Alaska and the end of the French intervention in Mexico. Having broken with Republicans, and failing to establish his own party under the National Union banner, Johnson sought the 1868 Democratic presidential nomination, but it went to Horatio Seymour instead.

Though he was held in high esteem by the Dunning School of historians, more recent historians rank Johnson among the worst American presidents for his frequent clashes with Congress, strong opposition to federally guaranteed rights for African Americans, and general ineffectiveness as president.


Contemporary woodcut of Johnson being sworn in by Chief Justice Chase as Cabinet members look on, April 15, 1865

On April 14, 1865, in the closing days of the Civil War, President Lincoln was shot and mortally wounded by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer. The shooting of the President was part of a conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln, Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward on the same night. Seward barely survived his wounds, while Johnson escaped attack as his would-be assassin, George Atzerodt, got drunk instead of killing the vice president. Leonard J. Farwell, a fellow boarder at the Kirkwood House, awoke Johnson with news of Lincoln's shooting at Ford's Theatre. Johnson rushed to the President's deathbed, where he remained a short time, on his return promising, "They shall suffer for this. They shall suffer for this."[2] Lincoln died at 7:22 am the next morning; Johnson's swearing in occurred between 10 and 11 am with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding in the presence of most of the Cabinet. Johnson's demeanor was described by the newspapers as "solemn and dignified".[3] Johnson presided over Lincoln's funeral ceremonies in Washington, before his predecessor's body was sent home to Springfield, Illinois, for burial.[4]

At the suggestion of Attorney General Speed, Johnson allowed a military commission to try the surviving alleged perpetrators of Lincoln's assassination. A six-week trial culminated in death sentences for four of the defendants, along with lesser sentences for the others.[5] The events of the assassination resulted in speculation, then and subsequently, concerning Johnson and what the conspirators might have intended for him. In the vain hope of having his life spared after his capture, Atzerodt spoke much about the conspiracy, but did not say anything to indicate that the plotted assassination of Johnson was merely a ruse. Conspiracy theorists point to the fact that on the day of the assassination, Booth came to the Kirkwood House and left one of his cards. This object was received by Johnson's private secretary, William A. Browning, with an inscription, "Are you at home? Don't wish to disturb you. J. Wilkes Booth."[6]

Partisan affiliation

Johnson's accession left a Southern former Democrat in the president's office at the end of a civil war that had as its immediate impetus the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Northern Republican, to the presidency in 1860. Johnson had served as a Democrat in various office prior to the Civil War,[7] and he became one of the most prominent Southern Unionists after the start of the war.[8] During the 1864 presidential election, the Republican ticket campaigned as the National Union ticket, and the party convention nominated Johnson in order to have a Southern War Democrat on the ticket.[9] Though he never declared himself to be a Republican,[10] when Johnson took office, he had the approval of both the Radical Republicans and the conservative Republicans.[11] However, Johnson's Reconstruction policy quickly alienated many in the Republican Party, and Johnson's patronage decisions and alliance with Seward alienated many Democrats.[12] Instead of allying with either of the established parties, Johnson sought to create a new party consisting of the conservative elements of both parties.[13] In August 1866, Johnson held a convention of his supporters in Philadelphia. The convention endorsed Johnson's program, and Johnson compared the convention's resolutions to a second Declaration of Independence.[14] Towards the end of his term, Johnson pursued the 1868 Democratic nomination, but his alliance with Lincoln and his patronage decisions had made him too many enemies in that party.[15]



BEP engraved portrait of Johnson as President.
BEP engraved portrait of Johnson as President.
The Andrew Johnson Cabinet
Office Name Term
President Andrew Johnson 1865–1869
Vice President Vacant 1865–1869
Secretary of State William H. Seward 1865–1869
Secretary of Treasury Hugh McCulloch 1865–1869
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton 1865–1868
John M. Schofield 1868–1869
Attorney General James Speed 1865–1866
Henry Stanbery 1866–1868
William M. Evarts 1868–1869
Postmaster General William Dennison 1865–1866
Alexander W. Randall 1866–1869
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles 1865–1869
Secretary of the Interior John P. Usher 1865
James Harlan 1865–1866
Orville H. Browning 1866–1869
(replaced ad interim by Ulysses Grant in August 1867 before being reinstated by Congress in January 1868)

On taking office, Johnson promised to continue the policies of his predecessor, and kept Lincoln's cabinet in place. Secretary of State William Seward became one of the most influential members of Johnson's Cabinet, and Johnson allowed Seward to pursue an expansionary foreign policy. Early in his presidency, Johnson trusted Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to carry out his Reconstruction policies, and he also had a favorable opinion of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCullough. He had less esteem for Postmaster General William Dennison, Attorney General James Speed, and Secretary of the Interior James Harlan.[16] Harlan, Dennison, and Speed resigned in June 1866 after Johnson had broken with congressional Republicans.[17] Speed's replacement, Henry Stanbery, emerged as one of the most prominent members of Johnson's cabinet before resigning to defend Johnson during his impeachment trial.[18] Johnson suspended Stanton after disagreements related to Reconstruction and replaced him with General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant on an interim basis; this decision ultimately led to an impeachment trial against Grant.[19] After clashing with Grant, Johnson offered the position to General William T. Sherman, who declined, and to Lorenzo Thomas, who accepted.[20] During his impeachment trial, Johnson instead decided to appoint John M. Schofield as Secretary of War as a compromise with moderate Republicans.[21]

Judicial appointments

Johnson appointed nine Article III federal judges during his presidency, all to United States district courts; he did not appoint a justice to serve on the Supreme Court. In April 1866, he nominated Henry Stanbery to fill the vacancy left by the death of John Catron, but Congress eliminated the seat by passing the Judicial Circuits Act of 1866. To ensure that Johnson did not get to make any appointments, the act also provided that the Court would shrink by one justice when one next departed from office.[22] Johnson appointed his Greeneville crony, Samuel Milligan, to the United States Court of Claims, where he served from 1868 until his death in 1874.[23]

End of the Civil War

Johnson took office after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomatox Court House, but Confederate armies remained in the field. On April 21, 1865, Johnson, with the unanimous backing of his cabinet, ordered Union General Ulysses S. Grant to overturn an armistice concluded between Union General William T. Sherman and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. The armistice had included political conditions such as the recognition of existing Confederate state governments. On May 2, Johnson issued a proclamation offering $100,000 for the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who many thought had been involved in the assassination of Lincoln. Davis was captured on May 10. In late May, the final Confederate force in the field surrendered, and Johnson presided over a triumphant military parade in Washington, D.C. alongside the cabinet and the nation's top generals. After less than two months in office, Johnson had cultivated the reputation of someone who would be tough on the defeated Confederacy, and his esteem among congressional Republicans remained high.[24]


With the end of the Civil War, Johnson faced the question of what to do with the states that had formed the Confederacy. President Lincoln had authorized loyalist governments in Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee as the Union came to control large parts of those states and advocated a ten percent plan that would allow elections after ten percent of the voters in any state took an oath of future loyalty to the Union. Many in Congress considered this too lenient. The Wade–Davis Bill, requiring a majority of voters to take the loyalty oath, passed both houses of Congress in 1864, but Lincoln pocket vetoed it.[25]

At the time of Johnson's accession, Congress consisted of three factions. The Radical Republicans sought voting and other civil rights for African Americans. They believed that the freedmen could be induced to vote Republican in gratitude for emancipation, and that black votes could keep the Republicans in power and Southern Democrats, including former rebels, out of influence. They believed that top Confederates should be punished. The Moderate Republicans sought to keep the Democrats out of power at a national level, and prevent former rebels from resuming power. They were not as enthusiastic about the idea of African-American suffrage as their Radical colleagues, either because of their own local political concerns, or because they believed that the freedman would be likely to cast his vote badly. Northern Democrats favored the unconditional restoration of the Southern states. They did not support African-American suffrage, which might threaten Democratic control in the South.[26]

Presidential Reconstruction

Johnson was initially left to devise a Reconstruction policy without legislative intervention, as Congress was not due to meet again until December 1865.[27] In the aftermath of the Civil War, Southerners were willing to accept major changes such as black suffrage in exchange for a speedy and organized return to the Union. To Johnson, the Southern states had never truly left the Union, and with the rebellion defeated, he thought that the South should re-take their place as equal partners under the United States Constitution. Despite the pleas of African-Americans and many congressional Republicans, Johnson viewed suffrage as a state issue, and was uninterested in using federal power to impose sweeping changes on the defeated South.[28]

Johnson decided to organize state governments throughout the South, imposing few conditions. On May 9, 1865, Johnson recognized Francis Harrison Pierpont's government in Virginia. On May 29, he appointed William Woods Holden as Governor of North Carolina. Johnson subsequently appointed Unionist governors to the other former Confederate states. He picked governors without regard to their previous political affiliation or ideology, instead focusing only upon their loyalty to the Union. Johnson only asked that the governors encourage ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment and repudiation of the secession ordinances and the Confederate debt. Johnson's actions prompted a backlash from Republican leaders, who rightly feared that Johnson sought to end Reconstruction before Congress reconvened in December.[29]

In addition to quickly restoring state governments, Johnson also sought to restore the property and civil rights of white Southerners. On May 29, 1865 Johnson offered amnesty to most former Confederates. The order did not include high military and civil officers of the Confederacy, war criminals, and those with taxable property greater than $20,000. However, Johnson pardoned numerous individuals who sought clemency. In September 1865, Johnson overturned a Freedmen's Bureau order that had granted abandoned land to freedmen who had begun cultivating it; Johnson instead ordered that property returned to its pre-Civil War owners.[30] The Southern governors that Johnson had appointed called state conventions that organized new governments and called new elections, from which former secessionists emerged triumphant. The new governments passed strict Black Codes that constituted a virtual re-establishment of slavery. Johnson refused to interfere, as he firmly believed that such matters were state, rather than federal, issues.[31] With the quick restoration of the South, Johnson's 1865 program of presidential reconstruction extinguished any hope of enforcing black suffrage in the aftermath of the Civil War, as re-empowered Southern whites were no longer willing to accept such changes to the pre-war status quo.[32]

Break with the Republicans

On its return in December 1865, Congress refused to seat the Southern Congressmen who had been elected by the governments established under Johnson.[33] But in other matters, Congress was reluctant to confront the President, and initially only sought to fine-tune Johnson's policies towards the South.[34] According to Trefousse, "If there was a time when Johnson could have come to an agreement with the moderates of the Republican Party, it was the period following the return of Congress".[35] The President was unhappy about the provocative actions of the Southern states, and about the continued control by the antebellum elite there, but made no statement publicly, believing that Southerners had a right to act as they did, even if it was unwise to do so. By late January 1866, he was convinced that winning a showdown with the Radical Republicans was necessary to his political plans – both for the success of Reconstruction and for re-election in 1868. He would have preferred that the conflict arise over the legislative efforts to enfranchise African Americans in the District of Columbia, a proposal that had been defeated overwhelmingly in an all-white referendum. A bill to accomplish this passed the House of Representatives, but to Johnson's disappointment, stalled in the Senate before he could veto it.[36]

Thomas Nast cartoon of Johnson disposing of the Freedmen's Bureau as African Americans go flying

Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull, leader of the Moderate Republicans and Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was anxious to reach an understanding with the President. He ushered through Congress a bill extending the Freedmen's Bureau beyond its scheduled abolition in 1867, and the first Civil Rights Bill, to grant citizenship to the freedmen. Trumbull met several times with Johnson, and was convinced the President would sign the measures (Johnson rarely contradicted visitors, often fooling those who met with him into thinking he was in accord). In fact, the President opposed both bills as infringements on state sovereignty. Additionally, both of Trumbull's bills were unpopular among white Southerners, whom Johnson hoped to include in his new party. Johnson vetoed the Freedman's Bureau bill on February 18, 1866, to the delight of white Southerners and the puzzled anger of Republican legislators. He considered himself vindicated when a move to override his veto failed in the Senate the following day.[36] Johnson believed that the Radicals would now be isolated and defeated, and that the Moderate Republicans would form behind him; he did not understand that Moderates too wanted to see African Americans treated fairly.[37]

On February 22, 1866, Washington's Birthday, Johnson gave an impromptu speech to supporters who had marched to the White House and called for an address in honor of the first president. In his hour-long speech, he instead referred to himself over 200 times. More damagingly, he also spoke of "men ... still opposed to the Union" to whom he could not extend the hand of friendship he gave to the South.[38][39] When called upon by the crowd to say who they were, Johnson named Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, and abolitionist Wendell Phillips, and accused them of plotting his assassination. Republicans viewed the address as a declaration of war, while one Democratic ally estimated Johnson's speech cost the party 200,000 votes in the 1866 congressional midterm elections.[40]

Although strongly urged by Moderates to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Johnson broke decisively with them by vetoing it on March 27. In his veto message, he objected to the measure because it conferred citizenship on the freedmen at a time when 11 out of 36 states were unrepresented in the Congress, and that it discriminated in favor of African Americans and against whites.[41][42] Within three weeks, Congress had overridden his veto, the first time that had been done on a major bill in American history.[43] The veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, often seen as a key mistake of Johnson's presidency, convinced Moderates there was no hope of working with him. Historian Eric Foner in his volume on Reconstruction views it as "the most disastrous miscalculation of his political career". According to Stewart, the veto was "for many his defining blunder, setting a tone of perpetual confrontation with Congress that prevailed for the rest of his presidency".[44] Congress also passed the Freedmen's Bureau Act a second time, and again the President vetoed it; this time, the veto was overridden.[45]

Despite this victory, even some Republicans who had supported the goals of the Civil Rights Act began to doubt that Congress really possessed constitutional power to turn those goals into laws.[46][47] The experience also encouraged both radical and moderate Republicans to seek Constitutional guarantees for black rights, rather than relying on temporary political majorities.[48] In late 1865, the Joint Committee on Reconstruction had proposed a constitutional amendment stating that any citizens barred from voting on the basis of race by a state would not be counted for purposes of representation of that state.[49] This amendment passed the House, but was blocked in the Senate by a coalition of Radical Republicans led by Charles Sumner, who believed the proposal a "compromise with wrong", and Democrats opposed to black rights.[50] Consideration then turned to a proposed amendment by Representative John A. Bingham of Ohio, which would enable Congress to safeguard "equal protection of life, liberty, and property" of all citizens; this proposal failed to pass the House.[50] In April 1866, the Joint Committee forwarded a third proposal to Congress, a carefully negotiated compromise that combined elements of the first and second proposals as well as addressing the issues of Confederate debt and voting by ex-Confederates.[50] The House of Representatives passed House Resolution 127, 39th Congress several weeks later and sent to the Senate for action. The resolution was debated and several amendments to it were proposed. Amendments to Sections 2, 3 and 4 were adopted on June 8, 1866 and the modified resolution passed by a 33 to 11 vote. The House agreed to the Senate amendments on June 13 by a 138–36 vote. A concurrent resolution requesting the President to transmit the proposal for a fourteenth amendment to the Constitution to the executives of the several states was passed by both houses of Congress on June 18.[51]

Johnson was strongly opposed to the proposed Fourteenth Amendment, which he saw as a repudiation of his administration's actions, and he used his influence to oppose the measure. Despite Johnson's opposition, the amendment passed both houses of Congress in June 1866, and was formally proposed to the states. Neither the amendment nor the joint resolution proposing it required presidential approval before going out to the states. By the summer of 1866, when Congress finally adjourned, Johnson's method of restoring states to the Union by executive fiat, without safeguards for the freedmen, was in deep trouble.[45]

1866 mid-term elections

Facing opposition in Congress, Johnson sought to boost his supporters in the November 1866 congressional elections. In August 1866, Johnson held the National Union Convention, using a label that the Republican ticket had campaigned on during the 1864 presidential election.[45] Following the convention, Johnson campaigned vigorously, undertaking a public speaking tour, known as the "Swing Around the Circle". The trip, including speeches in Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Columbus, proved politically disastrous, with the President making controversial comparisons between himself and Christ, and engaging in arguments with hecklers. These exchanges were attacked as beneath the dignity of the presidency. The Republicans won by a landslide, increasing their two-thirds majority in Congress, and made plans to control Reconstruction.[52] Johnson blamed the Democrats for giving only lukewarm support to the National Union movement.[53]

Radical Reconstruction

Map of the five military districts established by the First Reconstruction Act

Even after the Republican victory in the November 1866 elections, Johnson considered himself to be in a strong position politically. Howsever, reconvening in December 1866, an energized Congress began passing legislation, often over a presidential veto. This included the District of Columbia voting bill that Johnson had hoped to veto in the last session of Congress. In February 1867, Congress admitted Nebraska to the Union over a veto. As a result, the Republican majority in the Senate grew by two, and the Fourteenth Amendment gained one ratification vote. Johnson also vetoed legislation admitting Colorado Territory to the Union, but Congress failed to override it, as enough senators agreed that a district with a population of only 30,000 was not yet worthy of statehood.[54]

Meanwhile, state legislatures in every former Confederate state—with the exception of Tennessee—refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment.[55] This refusal prompted Congressman Stevens to introduce legislation to dissolve the Southern state governments and reconstitute them into five military districts, under martial law. The states would begin again by holding constitutional conventions. African Americans could vote for or become delegates; former Confederates could not. In the legislative process, Congress added to the bill that restoration to the Union would follow the state's ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, and completion of the process of adding it to the Constitution. Johnson and the Southerners attempted a compromise, whereby the South would agree to a modified version of the amendment without the disqualification of former Confederates, and for limited black suffrage. The Republicans insisted on the full language of the amendment, and the deal fell through. Although Johnson could have pocket vetoed the First Reconstruction Act as it was presented to him less than ten days before the end of the Thirty-Ninth Congress, he chose to veto it directly on March 2, 1867; Congress overruled him the same day.[54] Congress also passed a law that called the 40th United States Congress into session in March 1867 rather than December 1867, when it would usually have convened.[56]

The First Reconstruction Act required the appointment of commanders for five districts that covered all of the former Confederate state other than Tennessee, which had been re-admitted in 1866. In consultation with Grant, Johnson appointed Generals John Schofield, Daniel Sickles, John Pope, Edward Ord, and Philip Sheridan to command the five districts.[57]

One of the first actions taken by the 40th Congress was to pass the Second Reconstruction Act, doing so over Johnson's veto. The act provided for the registration of only those voters that could show their loyalty to the union, as well as the calling of state conventions to create new governments.[57] Johnson's Attorney General, Henry Stanbery, asserted that the governments established by Johnson, rather than the military governments established by Congress, reigned supreme in the South.[58]

Disturbed by Johnson's defiance, Congress reconvened in July to pass the Third Reconstruction Act over Johnson's veto. The act established the supremacy of the military government in the South, and gave the military the power to remove state officials from office.[58] After Secretary of War Edwin Stanton opposed Johnson's decision to veto the Third Reconstruction Act, Johnson decided to remove Stanton, setting the stage for a battle that would consume much of the second half of his presidency.[59]

Congress passed the Fourth Reconstruction Act February 27, 1868. When Johnson refused to sign the legislation, it became law on March 11, when Congress overrode the president.[60] The act alllowed for the ratification of new state constitutions in Southern states with the approval of a majority of those voting, rather than (as had originally been the case) a majority of those registered to vote.[61] The enactment of this act produced the results Congress was seeking. By July 21, 1868, seven Southern states (Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia) had adopted new constitutions, had formed new governments, and had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment (resulting in its ratification), thus paving the way for their readmission to the Union. Virginia complied in October 1869, followed by Mississippi and Texas in 1870.[60]


"The Situation", a Harper's Weekly editorial cartoon shows Secretary of War Stanton aiming a cannon labeled "Congress" to defeat Johnson. The rammer is "Tenure of Office Bill" and cannonballs on the floor are "Justice".

Removal of Stanton

On March 2, 1867 Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act over the President's veto, in response to the president's statements during the 1866 campaign in which he said that he planned to fire Cabinet secretaries who did not agree with him. This bill, requiring Senate approval for the firing of Cabinet members during the tenure of the president who appointed them and for one month afterwards, was immediately controversial, with some senators doubting that it was constitutional or that its terms applied to Johnson, whose key Cabinet officers were Lincoln holdovers.[54]

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was an able and hard-working man, but difficult to deal with.[62] Johnson both admired, and was exasperated by his War Secretary, who, in combination with General Grant, worked to undermine the president's Southern policy from within his own administration. Johnson considered firing Stanton, but respected him for his wartime service as secretary. Stanton, for his part, feared allowing Johnson to appoint his successor and refused to resign, despite his public disagreements with his president.[63]

The new Congress met for a few weeks in March 1867, then adjourned, leaving the House Committee on the Judiciary behind, charged with reporting back to the full House whether there were grounds for Johnson to be impeached. This committee duly met, examined the President's bank accounts, and summoned members of the Cabinet to testify. When a federal court released former Confederate president Davis on bail on May 13 (he had been captured shortly after the war), the committee investigated whether the President had impeded the prosecution. It learned that Johnson was eager to have Davis tried. A bipartisan majority of the committee voted down impeachment charges; the committee adjourned on June 3.[64]

Later in June, Johnson and Stanton battled over the question of whether the military officers placed in command of the South could override the civil authorities. The President had Attorney General Stanbery issue an opinion backing his position that they could not. Johnson sought to pin down Stanton either as for, and thus endorsing Johnson's position, or against, showing himself to be opposed to his president and the rest of the Cabinet. Stanton evaded the point in meetings and written communications. When Congress reconvened in July, it passed a Reconstruction Act against Johnson's position, waited for his veto, overruled it, and went home. In addition to clarifying the powers of the generals, the legislation also deprived the President of control over the Army in the South. With Congress in recess until November, Johnson decided to fire Stanton and relieve one of the military commanders, General Philip Sheridan, who had dismissed the governor of Texas and installed a replacement with little popular support. He was initially deterred by a strong objection from Grant. On August 5, the President demanded Stanton's resignation; the secretary refused to quit with Congress out of session.[65] Johnson then suspended him pending the next meeting of Congress as permitted under the Tenure of Office Act; Grant agreed to serve as temporary replacement while continuing to lead the Army.[66]

Grant, under protest, followed Johnson's order transferring Sheridan and another of the district commanders, Daniel Sickles, who had angered Johnson by firmly following Congress's plan. Sickles and Sheridan were replaced by Edward Canby and Winfield Scott Hancock, respectively. Later in 1867, Johnson would replace Ord with Alvan Cullem Gillem and Pope with George G. Meade.[67] The President also issued a proclamation pardoning most Confederates, exempting those who held office under the Confederacy, or who had served in federal office before the war and had breached their oaths.[68]

Although Republicans expressed anger with his actions, the 1867 elections generally went Democratic. No seats in Congress were directly elected in the polling, but the Democrats took control of the Ohio General Assembly, allowing them to defeat for re-election one of Johnson's strongest opponents, Senator Benjamin Wade. Voters in Ohio, Connecticut, and Minnesota turned down propositions to grant African Americans the vote.[68] The adverse results momentarily put a stop to Republican calls to impeach Johnson, who was elated by the elections.[69] Nevertheless, once Congress met in November, the Judiciary Committee reversed itself and passed a resolution of impeachment against Johnson. After much debate about whether anything the President had done was a high crime or misdemeanor, the standard under the Constitution, the resolution was defeated by the House of Representatives on December 7, 1867, by a vote of 57 in favor to 108 opposed.[70]

Johnson notified Congress of Stanton's suspension and Grant's interim appointment. In January 1868, the Senate disapproved of his action, and reinstated Stanton, contending the President had violated the Tenure of Office Act. Grant stepped aside over Johnson's objection, causing a complete break between them. Johnson then dismissed Stanton and appointed Lorenzo Thomas to replace him. Stanton refused to leave his office, and on February 24, 1868, the House impeached the President for intentionally violating the Tenure of Office Act, by a vote of 128 to 47. The House subsequently adopted eleven articles of impeachment, for the most part alleging that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act, and had questioned the legitimacy of Congress.[71]

Theodore R. Davis' illustration of Johnson's impeachment trial in the United States Senate, published in Harper's Weekly

Impeachment trial

On March 5, 1868, the impeachment trial began in the Senate and lasted almost three months; Congressmen George S. Boutwell, Benjamin Butler and Thaddeus Stevens acted as managers for the House, or prosecutors, and William M. Evarts, Benjamin R. Curtis and former Attorney General Stanbery were Johnson's counsel; Chief Justice Chase served as presiding judge.[72] The defense relied on the provision of the Tenure of Office Act that made it applicable only to appointees of the current administration. Since Lincoln had appointed Stanton, the defense maintained Johnson had not violated the act, and also argued that the President had the right to test the constitutionality of an act of Congress.[73] Johnson's counsel insisted that he make no appearance at the trial, nor publicly comment about the proceedings, and except for a pair of interviews in April, he complied.[74]

Johnson maneuvered to gain an acquittal; for example, he pledged to Iowa Senator James W. Grimes that he would not interfere with Congress's Reconstruction efforts. Grimes reported to a group of Moderates, many of whom voted for acquittal, that he believed the President would keep his word. Johnson also promised to install the respected John Schofield as War Secretary. [75] Kansas Senator Edmund G. Ross received assurances that the new, Radical-influenced constitutions ratified in South Carolina and Arkansas would be transmitted to the Congress without delay, an action which would give him and other senators political cover to vote for acquittal.[76] One reason senators were reluctant to remove the President was that his successor would have been Ohio Senator Wade, the president pro tempore of the Senate. Wade, a lame duck who left office in early 1869, was a Radical who supported such measures as women's suffrage, placing him beyond the pale politically in much of the nation.[77][78] Additionally, a President Wade was seen as an obstacle to Grant's ambitions.[79]

With the dealmaking, Johnson was confident of the result in advance of the verdict, and in the days leading up to the ballot, newspapers reported that Stevens and his Radicals had given up. On May 16, the Senate voted on the 11th article of impeachment, accusing Johnson of firing Stanton in violation of the Tenure of Office of Act once the Senate had overturned his suspension. Thirty-five senators voted "guilty" and 19 "not guilty", thus falling short by a single vote of the two-thirds majority required for conviction under the Constitution. Seven Republicans—Senators Grimes, Ross, Trumbull, William Pitt Fessenden, Joseph S. Fowler, John B. Henderson, and Peter G. Van Winkle—voted to acquit the President. With Stevens bitterly disappointed at the result, the Senate then adjourned for the Republican National Convention; Grant was nominated for president. The Senate returned on May 26 and voted on the second and third articles, with identical 35–19 results. Faced with those results, Johnson's opponents gave up and dismissed proceedings.[80][81] Stanton "relinquished" his office on May 26, and the Senate subsequently confirmed Schofield.[82] When Johnson renominated Stanbery to return to his position as Attorney General after his service as a defense manager, the Senate refused to confirm him.[83]

Allegations were made at the time and again later that bribery dictated the outcome of the trial. Even when it was in progress, Representative Butler began an investigation, held contentious hearings, and issued a report, unendorsed by any other congressman. Butler focused on a New York–based "Astor House Group", supposedly led by political boss and editor Thurlow Weed. This organization was said to have raised large sums of money from whiskey interests through Cincinnati lawyer Charles Woolley to bribe senators to acquit Johnson. Butler went so far as to imprison Woolley in the Capitol building when he refused to answer questions, but failed to prove bribery.[84]


The final vote maintained the principle that Congress should not remove the President from office simply because its members disagreed with him over policy, style, and administration of office. But it did not mean that the President retained governing power. For the rest of his term (less than a year), Johnson was a nonentity without influence on public policy.[85] He tried to keep his commitment to avoid interfering with Reconstruction policy, but in June he vetoed readmission of several Southern states (all but Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia) on the grounds that the Reconstruction Acts were unconstitutional. Congress overrode this veto, as well as Johnson's veto of a bill denying electoral votes to the states that had not yet been reorganized. Congress adjourned in July; though it made provisions for a reconvening in September should Johnson defy its policies, it did not reconvene until after the 1868 election.[86]

Constitutional amendments

Nebraska statehood

In June 1866, Nebraska Territory voters narrowly approved a draft constitution; one of its provisions limited voting rights to white males. A bill to admit Nebraska to the union was then introduced in Congress, where it was adopted just before the session ended in late July, notwithstanding some resistance from Republicans who opposed the “white suffrage” clause in the new constitution, as well as Democrats who were leery of granting statehood to another Republican stronghold. President Johnson pocket vetoed the bill as Congress adjourned.[90]

The issue was renewed shortly after Congress reconvened in December 1866. This time, however, an amendment sponsored by Senator George F. Edmunds effectively conditioned statehood on the acceptance by the territory of a prohibition against voting restrictions based on race or color. The amendment won the support of radical Republicans and others hoping to impose similar conditions on the former Confederate states. But it drew fire from Democrats and Johnson, who opposed the condition on constitutional grounds. They argued that the federal government could not infringe on the power of states to establish their own qualifications for suffrage. The issue of statehood had become a question of federalism, as well as a tug of war between the president and Congress. Despite Johnson’s objections, Congress passed admission legislation for Nebraska in January 1867. Johnson vetoed the measure that same month.[90]

Less than two weeks after Johnson vetoed the Nebraska statehood bill, both houses of Congress voted overwhelmingly to override it. The territorial legislature quickly accepted the condition imposed by the Edmunds Amendment, thus eliminating racial restrictions on voting. On March 1, 1867, Nebraska became the first–and to this day the only–state to be admitted to the Union by means of a veto override.[90]

Other domestic policies

In June 1866, Johnson signed the Southern Homestead Act into law, believing that the legislation would assist poor whites. Around 28,000 land claims were successfully patented, although few former slaves benefitted from the law, fraud was rampant, and much of the best land was off-limits; reserved for grants to veterans or railroads.[91] In June 1868, Johnson signed an eight-hour law passed by Congress that established an eight-hour workday for laborers and mechanics employed by the Federal Government.[92] Although Johnson told members of a Workingmen's party delegation in Baltimore that he could not directly commit himself to an eight-hour day, he nevertheless told the same delegation that he greatly favoured the "shortest number of hours consistent with the interests of all."[93] According to Richard F. Selcer, however, the good intentions behind the law were "immediately frustrated" as wages were cut by 20%.[92]

Foreign policy

Soon after taking office as president, Johnson reached an accord with Secretary of State William H. Seward that there would be no change in foreign policy. In practice, this meant that Seward would continue to run things as he had under Lincoln. Seward and Lincoln had been rivals for the nomination in 1860; the victor hoped that Seward would succeed him as president in 1869. At the time of Johnson's accession, the French had intervened in Mexico, sending troops there. While many politicians had indulged in saber rattling over the Mexican matter, Seward preferred quiet diplomacy, warning the French through diplomatic channels that their presence in Mexico was not acceptable. Although the President preferred a more aggressive approach, Seward persuaded him to follow his lead. In April 1866, the French government informed Seward that its troops would be brought home in stages, to conclude by November 1867.[94]

Seward was an expansionist, and sought opportunities to gain territory for the United States. By 1867, the Russian government saw its North American colony (today Alaska) as a financial liability, and feared losing control as American settlement reached there. It instructed its minister in Washington, Baron Eduard de Stoeckl, to negotiate a sale. De Stoeckl did so deftly, getting Seward to raise his offer from $5 million (coincidentally, the minimum that Russia had instructed de Stoeckl to accept) to $7 million, and then getting $200,000 added by raising various objections.[95] This sum of $7.2 million is equivalent to $126 million in present-day terms.[96] On March 30, 1867, de Stoeckl and Seward signed the treaty, working quickly as the Senate was about to adjourn. Johnson and Seward took the signed document to the President's Room in the Capitol, only to be told there was no time to deal with the matter before adjournment. The President summoned the Senate into session to meet on April 1; that body approved the treaty, 37–2.[97] Emboldened by his success in Alaska, Seward sought acquisitions elsewhere. His only success was staking an American claim to uninhabited Wake Island in the Pacific, which would be officially claimed by the U.S. in 1898. He came close with the Danish West Indies as Denmark agreed to sell and the local population approved the transfer in a plebiscite, but the Senate never voted on the treaty and it expired.[98]

Another treaty that fared badly was the Johnson-Clarendon convention, negotiated in settlement of the Alabama Claims, for damages to American shipping from British-built Confederate raiders. Negotiated by the United States Minister to Britain, former Maryland senator Reverdy Johnson, in late 1868, it was ignored by the Senate during the remainder of the President's term. The treaty was rejected after he left office, and the Grant administration later negotiated considerably better terms from Britain.[99][100]

1868 election and transition

"Farewell to all my greatness": Harper's Weekly cartoon mocking Johnson on leaving office

Ulysses S. Grant emerged as the likely Republican presidential candidate during the two years preceding the election. Though he had agreed to replace Stanton as Secretary of War, Grant split with Johnson over Reconstruction and other issues.[101] So great was Grant's support among Republicans that many in Congress were reluctant to impeach Johnson due to the fear that it would prevent Grant from becoming president.[102] The 1868 Republican National Convention chose Grant as the party's presidential nominee and Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax as the vice presidential nominee. Perhaps chastened by Congress's failure to convict Johnson, the party's platform did not endorse universal male suffrage.[103]

Having failed to build his own party, Johnson sought nomination by the 1868 Democratic National Convention in New York in July 1868. He remained very popular among Southern whites, and boosted that popularity by issuing, just before the convention, a pardon ending the possibility of criminal proceedings against any Confederate not already indicted, meaning that only Davis and a few others still might face trial. On the first ballot, Johnson was second to former Ohio representative George H. Pendleton, who had been his Democratic opponent for vice president in 1864. Johnson's support was mostly from the South, and fell away as the ballots passed. On the 22nd ballot, former New York governor Horatio Seymour was nominated, and Johnson received only four votes, all from Tennessee. The party platform embraced Johnson's presidency, thanking him for his "patriotic efforts" in "resisting the aggressions of Congress upon the Constitutional rights of the States and the people." But Johnson was embittered by the result, and some of his backers suggested the formation of a third party.[104]

Republican Ulysses S. Grant defeated Democrat Horatio Seymour in the 1868 election

Seymour's operatives sought Johnson's support, but he long remained silent on the presidential campaign. It was not until October, with the vote already having taken place in some states, that he mentioned Seymour at all, and he never endorsed him. Grant won the election, taking 52.7% of the popular vote and 214 of the 294 electoral votes. Johnson regretted Grant's victory, in part because of their animus from the Stanton affair. In his annual message to Congress in December, Johnson urged the repeal of the Tenure of Office Act and told legislators that had they admitted their Southern colleagues in 1865, all would have been well.[105]

On Christmas Day 1868, Johnson issued a final amnesty, this one covering everyone, including Jefferson Davis. He also issued, in his final months in office, pardons for crimes, including one for Dr. Samuel Mudd, controversially convicted of involvement in the Lincoln assassination (he had set Booth's broken leg) and imprisoned in Fort Jefferson on Florida's Dry Tortugas.[105]

On March 3, the President hosted a large public reception at the White House on his final full day in office. Grant had made it known that he was unwilling to ride in the same carriage as Johnson, as was customary, and Johnson refused to go to the inauguration at all. Despite an effort by Seward to prompt a change of mind, he spent the morning of March 4 finishing last-minute business, and then shortly after noon he left the White House.[106][107]

Historical view and legacy

According to Castel, "historians [of Johnson's presidency] have tended to concentrate to the exclusion of practically everything else upon his role in that titanic event [Reconstruction]".[108] Through the remainder of the 19th century, there were few historical evaluations of Johnson and his presidency. Memoirs from Northerners who had dealt with him, such as former vice president Henry Wilson and Maine Senator James G. Blaine, depicted him as an obstinate boor who tried to favor the South in Reconstruction, but who was frustrated by Congress.[109] According to historian Howard K. Beale in his journal article about the historiography of Reconstruction, "Men of the postwar decades were more concerned with justifying their own position than they were with painstaking search for truth. Thus [Alabama congressman and historian] Hilary Herbert and his corroborators presented a Southern indictment of Northern policies, and Henry Wilson's history was a brief for the North."[110]

The turn of the 20th century saw the first significant historical evaluations of Johnson. Leading the wave was Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James Ford Rhodes, who wrote of the former president:[109]

Johnson acted in accordance with his nature. He had intellectual force but it worked in a groove. Obstinate rather than firm it undoubtedly seemed to him that following counsel and making concessions were a display of weakness. At all events from his December message to the veto of the Civil Rights Bill he yielded not a jot to Congress. The moderate senators and representatives (who constituted a majority of the Union party) asked him for only a slight compromise; their action was really an entreaty that he would unite with them to preserve Congress and the country from the policy of the radicals ... His quarrel with Congress prevented the readmission into the Union on generous terms of the members of the late Confederacy ... His pride of opinion, his desire to beat, blinded him to the real welfare of the South and of the whole country.[111]

Rhodes ascribed Johnson's faults to his personal weaknesses, and blamed him for the problems of the postbellum South.[110] Other early 20th-century historians, such as John Burgess, Woodrow Wilson (who later became president himself) and William Dunning, all Southerners, concurred with Rhodes, believing Johnson flawed and politically inept, but concluding that he had tried to carry out Lincoln's plans for the South in good faith.[112] Author and journalist Jay Tolson suggests that Wilson "depict[ed Reconstruction] as a vindictive program that hurt even repentant southerners while benefiting northern opportunists, the so-called Carpetbaggers, and cynical white southerners, or Scalawags, who exploited alliances with blacks for political gain".[113]

The grave of Andrew Johnson, Greeneville, Tennessee

Even as Rhodes and his school wrote, another group of historians was setting out on the full rehabilitation of Johnson, using for the first time primary sources such as his papers, provided by his daughter Martha before her death in 1901, and the diaries of Johnson's Navy Secretary, Gideon Welles, first published in 1911. The resulting volumes, such as David Miller DeWitt's The Impeachment and Trial of President Andrew Johnson (1903), presented him far more favorably than they did those who had sought to oust him. In James Schouler's 1913 History of the Reconstruction Period, the author accused Rhodes of being "quite unfair to Johnson", though agreeing that the former president had created many of his own problems through inept political moves. These works had an effect; although historians continued to view Johnson as having deep flaws which sabotaged his presidency, they saw his Reconstruction policies as fundamentally correct.[114] A series of highly favorable biographies in the late 1920s and early 1930s that "glorified Johnson and condemned his enemies" accelerated this trend.[115][116]

Beale wondered in 1940, "is it not time that we studied the history of Reconstruction without first assuming, at least subconsciously, that carpetbaggers and Southern white Republicans were wicked, that Negroes were illiterate incompetents, and that the whole white South owes a debt of gratitude to the restorers of 'white supremacy'?"[117] Despite these doubts, the favorable view of Johnson survived for a time. In 1942, Van Heflin portrayed the former president as a fighter for democracy in the Hollywood film Tennessee Johnson. In 1948, a poll of his colleagues by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger deemed Johnson among the average presidents; in 1956, one by Clinton L. Rossiter named him as one of the near-great Chief Executives.[118] Foner notes that at the time of these surveys, "the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War was regarded as a time of corruption and misgovernment caused by granting black men the right to vote".[119]

Earlier historians, including Beale, believed that money drove events, and had seen Reconstruction as an economic struggle. They also accepted, for the most part, that reconciliation between North and South should have been the top priority of Reconstruction. In the 1950s, historians began to focus on the African-American experience as central to Reconstruction. They rejected completely any claim of black inferiority, which had marked many earlier historical works, and saw the developing Civil Rights Movement as a second Reconstruction; some writers stated they hoped their work on the postbellum era would advance the cause of civil rights. These authors sympathized with the Radical Republicans for their desire to help the African American, and saw Johnson as callous towards the freedman. In a number of works from 1956 onwards by such historians as Fawn Brodie, the former president was depicted as a successful saboteur of efforts to better the freedman's lot. These volumes included major biographies of Stevens and Stanton.[120] Reconstruction was increasingly seen as a noble effort to integrate the freed slaves into society.[113][119]

In the early 21st century, Johnson is among those commonly mentioned as the worst presidents in U.S. history.[113] According to historian Glenn W. Lafantasie, who believes Buchanan the worst president, "Johnson is a particular favorite for the bottom of the pile because of his impeachment ... his complete mishandling of Reconstruction policy ... his bristling personality, and his enormous sense of self-importance."[121] Tolson suggests that "Johnson is now scorned for having resisted Radical Republican policies aimed at securing the rights and well-being of the newly emancipated African-Americans".[113] Gordon-Reed notes that Johnson, along with his contemporaries Pierce and Buchanan, are generally listed among the five worst presidents, but states, "there have never been more difficult times in the life of this nation. The problems these men had to confront were enormous. It would have taken a succession of Lincolns to do them justice."[122]

Trefousse considers Johnson's legacy to be "the maintenance of white supremacy. His boost to Southern conservatives by undermining Reconstruction was his legacy to the nation, one that would trouble the country for generations to come."[123] Gordon-Reed states of Johnson:

We know the results of Johnson's failures—that his preternatural stubbornness, his mean and crude racism, his primitive and instrumental understanding of the Constitution stunted his capacity for enlightened and forward-thinking leadership when those qualities were so desperately needed. At the same time, Johnson's story has a miraculous quality to it: the poor boy who systematically rose to the heights, fell from grace, and then fought his way back to a position of honor in the country. For good or ill, 'only in America,' as they say, could Johnson's story unfold in the way that it did.[124]

In 2002, historian Castel took a stern view of Johnson's presidency, saying Johnson "suffered from serious defects of mind and character." According to Castel, Johnson "lacked flexibility and adroitness" and made hasty decisions without foresight. Castel said Johnson's presidency failed because Johnson was a Democrat who led a government controlled by Northern Republicans. Since Johnson was not elected President, he lacked political and moral authority over Congress. Johnson never realized that the Civil War was a revolution and that federal power had superseded state rights. Additionally Johnson believed blacks were inferior to whites, a common view for most white Americans during his presidency. Although Johnson had gained the highest office "he proved incapable of using it in an effective and beneficial manner."[125]


  1. ^ Johnson saw 15 of his vetoes overridden by Congress, more than any other President, before or since.
  2. ^ Trefousse, pp. 193–194.
  3. ^ Trefousse, p. 194.
  4. ^ Gordon-Reed, p. 93.
  5. ^ Trefousse, pp. 211–212.
  6. ^ Gordon-Reed, pp. 90–92.
  7. ^ Trefousse, pp. 38–42.
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  27. ^ Fitzgerald, p. 28.
  28. ^ Trefousse, pp. 214–216, 226.
  29. ^ Trefousse, pp. 214–220.
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  89. ^ Killian, Johnny H.; et al. The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation: Analysis of Cases Decided by the Supreme Court of the United States to June 28, 2002. Government Printing Office. p. 31. ISBN 9780160723797. 
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  113. ^ a b c d Tolson.
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  118. ^ Castel, p. 221.
  119. ^ a b Foner column.
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  121. ^ Lafantasie.
  122. ^ Gordon-Reed, p. 56.
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  124. ^ Gordon-Reed, p. 144.
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  • Beale, Howard K. (July 1940). "On rewriting Reconstruction history". American Historical Review. Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association. 45 (4): 807–827. JSTOR 1854452. 
  • Castel, Albert E. (1979). The Presidency of Andrew Johnson. American Presidency. Lawrence, Kan.: The Regents Press of Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-0190-2. 
  • Castel, Albert E. (2002). "Andrew Johnson". In Graff, Henry. The Presidents: A Reference History (7th ed.). pp. 225–239. ISBN 0-684-80551-0. 
  • Fitzgerald, Michael W. (2007). Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South. American Ways (paperback ed.). Chicago: Ivan R. Dee. ISBN 978-1-56663-739-8. 
  • Foner, Eric (2002) [1988]. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (0-06-093716-5 ed.). New York: HarperCollins. 
  • Foner, Eric (December 3, 2006). "He's The Worst Ever". The Washington Post. 
  • Gordon-Reed, Annette (2011). Andrew Johnson. The American Presidents Series. New York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0-8050-6948-8. 
  • Lafantasie, Glenn (February 21, 2011). "Who's the worst president of them all?". 
  • Rhodes, James Ford (1904). History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850. v. New York: The Macmillan Company. 
  • Stewart, David O. (2009). Impeached: the Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4165-4749-5. 
  • Tolson, Jay (February 16, 2007). "The 10 Worst Presidents: No. 3 Andrew Johnson (1865–1869)". U.S. News & World Report. 
  • Trefousse, Hans L. (1989). Andrew Johnson: A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-31742-0. 

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