When Frederick Douglass Met Andrew Johnson

But Douglass was quick to see what Johnson was up to. Before the end of his first year in office, Johnson had announced a proclamation o...


But Douglass was quick to see what Johnson was up to. Before the end of his first year in office, Johnson had announced a proclamation of amnesty for the former Confederates, allowing landowners in the South who had personally requested him to retain their property. Instead of referring to Reconstruction, he insisted on the term “restoration”. In the South, emboldened white mobs descended on blacks, perpetrating the massacres of 1866 in Memphis and New Orleans. Douglass, as part of a black American delegation that came to the White House to advocate for black suffrage, told Johnson: “You liberate your enemies and deprive your friends of the right to vote. “

The stubborn, thin-skinned Johnson has responded to criticism by becoming indignant and defensive, even bordering on “rampaging,” Levine writes. If it had not been for growing opposition, he continues, “a more benign and pragmatic Johnson could have emerged.”

The proposal is not convincing, to put it mildly. Levine makes much of the fact that in 1865 Johnson privately voiced a plan for limited black suffrage. Yet at the same time, Johnson publicly insisted that too radical a vote would spark “a race war.” And whatever Johnson may have said, what he made couldn’t be clearer. He used his power to undermine Reconstruction every moment, presiding over what historian Annette Gordon-Reed has called a “slow-motion genocide.”

Levine nimbly charts the path to Johnson’s eventual impeachment – including a bizarre job offer Johnson unofficially offered Douglass to become commissioner of the Freedmen’s Office, an agency Johnson appeared to be doing all in his power. to alter or even destroy.

But when Johnson was ultimately impeached, it wasn’t for his subversion of Reconstruction; it was because he had not obtained congressional approval before firing his secretary of war. The articles of impeachment were “harshly legalistic,” almost all of which focused on violations of the tenure law, passed by Congress the previous year. Republicans were trying to portray Johnson as an offender while carefully avoiding the issue of race. This fixation on technicalities, says Levine, “allowed Congress to impeach Johnson not for hurting hundreds of thousands of blacks in the South, but for firing a white man.”

Considering how endemic racism was in North and South, there were undoubtedly practical reasons for this, but Levine makes it clear how Douglass, as he did throughout the Civil War, continued to trying to draw attention to the larger moral picture. Even before impeachment, Douglass was telling the public how Johnson exploited “flaws” in the Constitution that allowed a “bad, wicked president” to assume “royal powers.” After the trial, Douglass explained that Johnson should have been removed from his post for attempting to bring black Americans back into “a condition only less miserable than the slavery from which the War for the Union had saved them.” The Tenure of Office Act indictment had buried Johnson’s disgrace under a heap of legalistic bickering.

The impeachers may have tried to be pragmatic, but playing it safe didn’t work; Johnson won with one voice. Like one of his biographers, Hans Trefousse, once Put the: “If you dismiss for reasons that aren’t the real reasons, you really can’t win.”

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