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Andrew Johnson

ISSUE:  Summer 1928

Andrew Johnson, Plebeian and Patriot.
By Robert W. Winston. New York: Henry Holt & Company. $5.00.

It is a surprising thing that the shelves of the Congressional Library at Washington, the greatest compendium of printed matter on this continent, contain only a half-dozen lives of Johnson, and of these six, all but one are hasty campaign biographies, written either when he was a candidate for vice-president in 1864, or immediately after his elevation to the presidency after the fatal April night so soon after Appomattox had brought peace again to the war-torn land. But today, a half century after Andrew Johnson soberly breathed his last, the interest of many historians and biographers has turned to him, and Judge Winston’s work herein reviewed is merely the precursor of a number of books on Johnson which the next few years are expected to bring forth.

This full length biography of the nation’s most-abused president, should be on the book-shelves of all who really wish to know the truths of history. It is the first worth-while biography of Andrew Johnson ever written, and the mere fact of its composition indicates that the American nation, viewing the tailor-president through the sober spectacles of historical perspective, is about ready to right the wrong done his name by the radicals of Reconstruction days. The volume itself is interestingly written, draws a graphic and sympathetic portrait of as patriotic a man as ever occupied the White House, and should play a great part in the rehabilitation of the nation’s judgment of the character and services of its only tailor-president. The author, Judge R. W. Winston, a distinguished North Carolina jurist and pub-Heist, made its writing a labor of love.

The revisionist attitude today pervading the field of writing history and biography has been responsible for some severe distortions of truth, but it has likewise led to some salutary corrections of error, and of these last, none more just than the revision of the estimate of Andrew Johnson. Within ten years of his death, his patriotism began to be generally acknowledged; and today the dictum of no less a body than the Supreme Court of the United States sets its stamp of eminent approval upon his policy as to Congress, reconstruction and the conquered South.

The Winston volume is a full-length biography, of over 500 pages, with many interesting illustrations. It commences with the birth of the future president in Raleigh, N. C, and carries him step by step to the grave. One finds few startling new facts in the volume, but a great compilation from the multitude of sources of incidents affecting the life and forming the character of this great man. Judge Winston accepts unreservedly the Jacob Johnson paternity of Andy, and scoffs at talk that a Haywood was his father. This at least deserves discussion, for in Tennessee the Haywood story will not down. The author likewise gives complete indorsement to the contention that President Lincoln picked out Johnson for his running-mate in the National Union convention at Baltimore in 1864, a contention which he fails to sustain with authorities. This is one of the moot points of Johnson’s political career, and while it is probable that Lincoln was not unwilling to have a Tennessee war-governor, yet the evidence that Seward was more vitally concerned and instrumental than Lincoln, is too large to be ignored.

In addition, one cannot escape the feeling that Judge Winston was far too gentle with Johnson’s bitter enemies, Stanton, Sumner, Stevens, Butler, Boutwell, Ashley and Wade. It is difficult to read of their infamous machinations to impeach a president of “high crimes and misdemeanors” merely so as to win a political issue, without feeling an indignation that will not down. For instance, his super-mildness in the Alta Vela incident, one of the rottenest tricks of the radical crowd.

When one really contemplates the matter for which Johnson’s ousting from the White House was sought, one wonders if the radicals in Congress had gone raving mad. The impeachment articles, with a single exception, revolved about Johnson’s alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act, in that he had discharged Edwin M. Stanton from his cabinet, when it became apparent to him that Stanton had betrayed him, and was colloguing with his enemies, though the constitutional adviser of the president himself! Stanton was the especial pet of the radical coterie of Stevens, Sumner, Morton, Chandler and Wade. They were unwilling to allow the president to have his cabinet advisers men friendly to him, and were determined that he should not discharge even a traitor in his camp. Johnson was never lacking in courage, and he determined to bring the matter to a test, in the courts. He discharged Stanton and Stanton refused to go. Immediately impeachment proceedings followed, so mad were the “Black Republican” radicals. And Johnson escaped being ousted by only a single vote.

The verdict of history, however, is far different. The Supreme Court could take no immediate cognizance of the controversy, because congress carefully passed laws removing from its jurisdiction all possible test cases, and the court of that day, observing the popular temper, was not overly anxious to assert its own rights. But last year, in a case brought by an ousted Oregon postmaster, named Meyers, the court went through the entire history of the matter and its decision adds an unusual historical judgment to the merits of the controversy which came so close to sustaining Johnson’s impeachment. “The power to appoint,” said the court, “carries with it the power to remove.” It went further, and was specific. “The tenure of office act, insofar as it attempted to prevent the president from removing a member of his cabinet, was invalid.” The efforts of Congress in its reconstruction legislation were really, an attempt to “redistribute the powers of the government and to minimize the president” and to “paralyze the executive arm.” In other words, Andy Johnson, the poor Greeneville tailor, was right in the matter and the radical Congress was all wrong.

The Union, the Constitution, and the common people; these were the abiding lights to Andrew Johnson; these were the three hymns of his life. And, well it is, and most I appropriate, that on the granite shaft above his body, is graven: “His Faith in the People Never Wavered.” It was no mere gesture that Johnson was buried, his head resting on his worn copy of the United States Constitution, and his body swathed in the Stars and Stripes.

Judge Winston’s book is well worth reading. In itself it is excellent, and it is about a much misunderstood, and really great man. Whether Johnson was marplot or martyr has long been debated. But the truth is at last coming to light.


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