The trial of Andrew Johnson in 1868 took place before a packed gallery in the Senate in Washington, DC, with 1,000 tickets for admission handed out each day and throngs of people gathering to hear testimony for and against the president’s removal from office. It was an astonishing sight: not only was a presidency that had begun full of promise three years earlier ending in impeachment, but many of the people doing the impeaching had been among those who had most wanted Johnson to succeed.
The story of those three years – a tale of missed opportunities, failed efforts to please all sides and timidity in a moment that demanded courage – haunts US history. It will particularly loom over Joe Biden should the Democratic candidate win the presidential election on 3 November.
The build-up to the Johnson era began with Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in 1860 and the subsequent secession of southern, slave-owning states from the union. Johnson was then a legislator in Tennessee, arguing for loyalty to the union, and when it seceded in 1861 – the last state to join the Confederacy – he remained in Washington as civil war broke out.
Lincoln rewarded Johnson by making him military governor of Tennessee after it was retaken from the Confederacy in 1862, in which role he turned the state into a laboratory for political and civil reconstruction.
Lincoln was a Republican, the party founded to stop the spread of slavery, and rooted in the north; Johnson was a Democrat, the party associated with slave-owning interests in the south. This, and his record during the war, made him a natural running mate for Lincoln when he stood for re-election in 1864 on a unity ticket.
After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Johnson became president and Republicans in Congress believed he could finish what Lincoln had started. Even the so-called Radical Republicans, who demanded the immediate and total eradication of slavery, were keen. “Johnson, we have faith in you,” Ohio senator Benjamin Wade told him. “By the gods, there will be no trouble now in running this government.”
In his 1865 State of the Union address, Johnson duly affirmed that government must defer to the people – “from them it must derive its courage, strength and wisdom” – but, for precisely this reason, it must be “strong in its power of resistance to the establishment of inequalities”. It was recognition of the task before him: to reunite a country, yes, but also to vanquish the injustices that divided it.
In practice, however, Johnson opted for quick-fix reconciliation over deep reform. He opposed political rights for emancipated slaves, called for the pardoning of former Confederate leaders, vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill giving aid to former slaves, opposed the Fourteenth Amendment granting them citizenship and equality under the law, and tried to sideline Congress in an effort to oust Edwin M Stanton, his secretary of war, who disagreed with his reconstruction policies. So the Radical Republicans, who once believed they could work with Johnson, moved to have him impeached.
The political realities of 1865 and 2020 are drastically different. But certain parallels make Johnson’s presidency a parable and a warning to Biden. The country has not just fought a civil war, but once again it is deeply divided. If he wins, Biden will be inaugurated following a Trump campaign that has fanned the flames of culture war and racial tension. There may be violence in the streets.
He will inherit an economic crisis, with millions of Americans out of work (and many, consequently, without homes or healthcare). The West Coast is on fire, and environmental crises are going to get worse, not better, if left unaddressed.
Biden will face a choice. He can try to tend to the feelings and desires of dissatisfied Trump voters and those they send to Congress. He can try to play to the moderate middle. Or, he can try to implement some of the changes – on issues such as criminal justice, healthcare or the environment – for which so many are clamouring.
Biden can try to build something better than what we had before Trump; introducing a Green New Deal worthy of the name, for example, or an expanded Affordable Care Act that leaves fewer Americans without health insurance. He can make his administration the one that tackles institutional racism, from police brutality to segregated neighbourhoods. In other words, Biden can try to reconstruct the republic.
Johnson narrowly escaped a shortened presidency. Just enough Republicans broke ranks – fearing impeachment would destabilise the fragile postwar country – for him to avoid removal, and he served out his term until 1869. But he did so in ignominy, and has gone down as one of the worst US presidents in history – a title for which there is no shortage of competition.
Here is why: Johnson inherited a divided country and though, as his first State of the Union speech showed, he recognised the need to confront those divisions, in practice, the urge to smooth over differences rather than grapple with them got the better of him.
His compromises in the name of unity did not achieve a more united union – as anyone observing the US’s post-Civil War history can see – because he compromised with the very forces that pulled the country apart in the first place.
It must be hoped that Biden, another former senator and vice-president, will not have to learn that lesson the hard way. If history teaches us anything, it is that in moments like this, when a country stands at a crossroads, it can be far riskier to take the seemingly safer path.