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Excellent, devastating assessment of one of our worst presidents
on February 24, 2011
Andrew Johnson's historical fortunes have risen and fallen by reference to two currents of thought in American political culture -- one having to do with issues of slavery and race, and the other having to do with our assessment of the Presidenty, its independence, and its powers. When people pay no attention to issues of slavery and race, and when people generally favor the Presidency, then Johnson becomes a tough, brave, defiant defender of the American Presidency from a hostile, ideologically-warped Congress. When we do pay attention to the critical issues of race and the legacy of slavery, and we have doubts about the Presidency in light of the adventures of imperial Presidents, Johnson takes a beating.
As well he should.
Annette Gordon-Reed's fine, concise book is a strong contribution to an uneven series. She seeks not to trash Johnson but to understand him, and she does so not by applying a warped twenty-first-century ethical/moral measure to him but by assessing him by reference to his era. The resulting assessment of Johnson and the damage that his Presidency did to posterity is devastating. In particular, she does something in this book that is truly remarkable, and that I have not previously seen in any assessment of Johnson to date -- she recognizes that Johnson and the man whom he succeeded as President, Abraham Lincoln, had many things in common as well as many differences. She draws out this comparison with care and thoughtfulness, showing that two men born in southern/border states in straitened circumstances, with meager education, rising through their own unaided efforts, and living in regions characterized by white hostility to blacks, somehow turned out miles, even light-years apart.
Those reviewers who have sought to trash the book here have misrepresented its content, its style, and its research. This book is a companion to the great, standard life of Johnson by the late, great Hans Trefousse. I knew him as a colleague, and I also know Prof. Gordon-Reed as a colleague. Based on that knowledge, I can say without doubt that Prof. Trefousse would have welcomed this new book by Prof. Gordon-Reed -- not least for its warm and generous tribute to a great scholar now, sadly, no longer with us.