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on July 21, 2011
I was looking forward to the release of this book because, while I knew a bit about Johnson's presidency, I wanted a nice, concise biography that covered the important points of his life, pre- and post-presidency. I wasn't looking for a full-length biography and I didn't want excessive analysis; just the basics. I had read a few other books from this series, and those had met that criteria.

Sadly, that's not what Gordon-Reed provided. This book is pretty much a nightmare. Her thesis is that Johnson was racist and stubborn, and no matter what he did or said as the sectional conflict intensified, when push came to shove, his racism and stubbornness would prevail. I agree with this line of thinking. However, the author spent so much time making this point that she eschewed the important details of his life. She referenced the Reconstruction Acts and the fact that Johnson vetoed them, only to see Congress override his vetoes. But what was in those Acts? If these books are supposed to be introductory biographies, the writers can't assume that the readers know the specifics of major legislation. She admits that an assessment of Johnson necessarily must focus on Reconstruction, yet she really didn't get into the specifics about Reconstruction.

A typical page in this book would include a sentence vaguely mentioning something Johnson did, followed by two paragraphs explaining why this action was racist, complete with some attempt at using a modern example as a basis for comparison. After 140-some pages, I don't feel like I know much more about Johnson; I only feel like Gordon-Reed considered Johnson a racist. Well, so do I, but I wish she had taken up much less of the precious few pages in this book telling us her opinion. Write a basic, short bio of Johnson, and then publish a journal article that expresses your views as to why he was racist and should have been impeached.

Now that I'm done with the book, I feel the need to find another Johnson bio that gets into more detail without requiring 500 pages. That's what I've gotten from this series in the past, but not here.
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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.
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on May 27, 2012
The author is a prize winning Harvard professor who has presented a well written account of yet another very bad nineteenth century president. Unfortunately, she makes no attempt to be objective, judging Johnson through the single prism of racism. Also, the fact that the book was dedicated to Democratic Party hack Vernon Jordan did not endear me. In any event, I ranked Johnson as one of the five worst presidents before I read this book and have not changed my mind. However, I would have liked the change to at least consider it, and this book did not provide that opportunity.
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on February 16, 2011
I enjoyed reading this biography, which is another entry in the presidential biography series started by Arthur Schlesinger and now edited by Sean Wilentz. Gordon-Reed weaves a highly readable narrative from Johnson's improbable rise in local Tennessee politics to his emergence on the national stage as a vocal and courageous opponent of secession, Tennessee war governor, Lincoln's Vice President running mate in 1864, and president in his own right after Lincoln's assassination. Johnson was the first U.S. president to be impeached, and Gordon-Reed spends a good amount of time on the subject.

The book does start abruptly and subjectively, with Gordon-Reed casting Johnson in a negative light. Despite his opposition to secession and initially harsh criticism of Southern planters and rebels in his first days as President, Johnson soon quarreled with "radical Republicans" over Reconstruction in the South and began first to welcome southerners of all persuasions, including those formerly active in the Confederate forces and government, back into the good races of Congress and State offices, and then to oppose attempts by Congress to expand democratic rights to the new freedmen. While Johnson stated most of his objections to Congressional Reconstruction on state's rights, Gordon-Reed points out he also vetoed congressional legislation to award voting rights to African Americans in the District of Columbia, which Congress had Constitutional authority over.

But through much of the book Gordon-Reed handles her subject with more even-handedness. One of the regrettable aspects of Johnson's life is he apparently did not write much and appeared to have few confidants. His wife was often ill or simply very private, and as a result was not able to provide much of a public role during Johnson's time in Washington. Johnson also came into controversy after his impeachment for his role during the trial and executions of Lincoln's assassins as critics maintained he failed to give attention to pleas that the only female conspirator tried for Lincoln's death (Mary Surratt) be spared. After his years in the White House, Johnson was selected by Tennessee to fill a seat in the U.S. Senate, but Johnson died before being able to take up his new duties.

For Gordon-Reed, Johnson's short but memorable tenure is most notable for the missed opportunity it represented in establishing the rights of African Americans and re-establishing, in Lincoln's words, a new era of freedom. Instead, African-Americans, particularly in the South were largely excluded from public and political life and continued to suffer violence through 100 years of Jim Crow policies. Still, not even eight years of U.S. Grant as President, who was much more favorably inclined to African Americans than Johnson, was enough to rally the nation to Lincoln's call at Gettysburg.
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on July 30, 2012
I have been reading presidential biographies, in order, to help understand American presidential history. I did not know a ton about Andrew Johnson prior to reading this book, other than I knew that he was the first president to have ever been impeached. I recently read Lincoln's biography, and had a little insight as to why he was chosen, and where he came from. This book helped fill in the blanks, somewhat.

When I pick up a biography, the last thing I want to read in opening comments is that the subject matter of the book is the worst ever. This is how this one starts: Andrew Johnson was one of the worst presidents in history. This might be true - but I really expect a bit more objectivity from the author.

The author starts from the premise that Johnson was a white supremacist. Great. So were most whites in this era. It can be argued that Lincoln fit this mold as well.

Johnson's presidency was covered in approximately 2 (maybe 3) chapters. Although I understand that Reconstruction was THE issue, surely, there was more to his administration. I felt like even THE issue was glossed over.

Johnson lived for many years after his presidency. What was he doing? You won't know from this book, until the very end, and he was elected to the US Senate. What issues were argued? You won't know from reading this book.

I guess the book just lacked detail, that I would have liked to have seen. It seemed to be more of an expression as to why Johnson stunk. He probably did. But I like to know why, and I just thought this book was too short.
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on July 6, 2015
This is an extremely well written and informative book. To be sure, the author is no fan of Andrew Johnson. Yet, she tries to provide a balanced rendering and give Johnson as much credit as feasible. Johnson's story is actually pretty amazing....born dirt poor to an indifferent an unsettled wilderness...he is the poster child of opportunity and fulfillment of the American Dream. He rose to prominance thru hard work, determination, and of course luck. Although Johnson governed a state that demonstrated strong southern sympathies, he was a fierce defender of the Union, often a great personal peril. He also fought tirelessly for the rights of the poor and long as they were white males. And there is the rub. The author weaves Johnson's inherent racism throughtout the narrative. This aspect of his personality would have horrible effects on post civil war America. Just as Lincolin was exactly the perfect man for his times, Johnson was excactly the wrong man for his times. The author provides insight, context and perspective into this controversail American.
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on September 13, 2013
Annette Gordon-Reed got a lot of attention the last time she wrote about a president long-rumored to have fathered a child with an enslaved woman. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family earned her a Pulitzer and the National Book Award for her examination of the most famous enslaved family in America.

Gordon-Reed's new book, Andrew Johnson, won't attract the same attention, or accolades. In her book on Jefferson and the Hemings family, she may have been cold in her examination of the third president, but she warmed in her retelling of the lives of the Hemingses. No one in this slim volume on Lincoln's successor gets much human sympathy. Not even the slave girl who may have borne his children.

It's clear Gordon-Reed does not like Andy Johnson. She dedicates the book "To Vernon E. Jordan, Jr....for standing against everything Andrew Johnson stood for". Her feelings are understandable. Johnson did more to preserve White Supremacy in post-Civil War America than any other single individual, but the absence of even a human foil to the racist president left me wondering why she could not have made more of the conflict Fred Douglas had with him.

Andrew Johnson was a very poor working boy who grew up in a southern society that despised anyone who earned his leaving by the work of his own hands. The young Johnson did the work that planters felt was beneath their slaves.

Johnson hated the elite for their contempt of him, but when he became our accidental president just a month after he drunkenly took the Vice Presidential inaugural oath, he used his position to court the favor of the former leaders of the rebellion. His goal as president was to preserve White Supremacy in the post-war world. His Reconstruction was the rebuilding of a power structure to contain African American aspirations and limit freed slaves to a status below that of citizen.

On his own terms, Johnson was a successful president. White rule in the South would last seven more decades, built on the foundation he laid.
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on June 4, 2011
I'll start off by clearly stating that I am in no way a historian. In fact, I've been attempting to remedy my lack of historical knowledge by stepping through presidential biographies one-by-one in sequence. In doing so, I've read several other books in the "American Presidents Series", edited by Arthurs Schlesinger, jr. These have been my go-to books for "less consequential" presidents between the founding fathers and the civil war. Specifically, on those presidents that I didn't feel like reading an 800+ page book. I've always found the books in this series to be even-handed and factual, so I was happy to pre-order this one on the kindle. I wish I had waited.

I would highly recommend kindle users to download the free sample before purchasing this book. Perhaps it's just what you want.

After purchasing/reading this book, I had to come back to read reviews and confirm that I wasn't the only one who found this book particularly slanted. I'm glad that I'm not the only one calling out the author/publisher on this one. The author may be absolutely correct in her assessment of Andrew Johnson, but it certainly doesn't fit within the "just the facts" American Presidents Series. I don't know who to blame for this, but I wonder if the editors were taken by surprise when the manuscript was submitted and didn't wish to push back the release date for a president that not many people care about. I wouldn't be surprised if a major edit is done for subsequent editions of this book. In the meantime, my recommendation would be to re-title the book with a sub-title so it reads "Andrew Johnson: The Racist President".
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on April 9, 2016
anyone who reads gordon-reed's book should also read robert turner's 'the jefferson-hemings controversy' which deals directly with gordon-reed's significant altering of historic documents to materially change their meaning + to support her theories
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on January 31, 2014
I read all the Biographies of the Presidents by way of the Presidential series. If you are going to do it, read John Hancock first because he was the first Continental Congress President. You will find as you read these how the lives of each President intertwined with the next. The job is a lineage.
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