Echoes

Donald Trump has a portrait of Andrew Jackson in his Oval Office and likes to photographed with it in the background. Someone seems to have told him he is the second coming of the seventh president. Today, though, Trump brings to mind another Andrew, also from Tennessee and also a raving white supremacist: Andrew Johnson, the 17th president and the first to be impeached. 

Trump got to the White House with the aid of Vladimir Putin, Johnson courtesy of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. Lincoln, a Republican, chose Johnson, a Democrat, to be his second term vice president.

The Republicans, lately self-slimed with Trumpian depravity, were the good guys then, especially radicals like Thaddeus Stevens who wanted not only to free the nation’s involuntary African immigrants but extend them full rights as citizens, including (if they were men) the vote.

The Democrats were the party of slavery. The southern ones seceded to preserve their “peculiar institution” unmolested by Republicans. Of the northern variety, some were pro-rebellion “copperheads”; Johnson and others stayed loyal to the Union.

Lincoln, worried in 1864 with both re-election and an unfinished war, thought Johnson would balance a unity ticket. Then, within weeks of his second inauguration and the South’s surrender, he was shot dead, leaving an accidental president to manage the peace.

“Andrew Johnson,” Barbara Wineapple writes in The Impeachers, her engrossing new account of his presidency, “was not a statesmen.” 

He was a resentful man “with a need to be recognised, with an obsession to be right, and, when seeking revenge on enemies — or perceived enemies — he had to humiliate, harass and hound them. Heedless of consequences, he baited Congress and bullied men, believing his enemies were enemies of the people.” Sound familiar?

Congress outlawed slavery shortly before Lincoln died. In his successor’s view, it simply remained to pardon the rebel states, readmit their representatives to Congress and let them make up their own minds about what rights, if any, to grant their former chattels.  “This is a white man’s government,” he said. He would have liked Trump’s cabinet meetings.

Unrepentant southerners picked up the signal. Atrocities against freedmen and northern sympathisers surged, with outright massacres in Memphis and New Orleans.  Johnson raged when a factfinder came back with facts. “One reason why the southern people are so slow in accommodating themselves to the new order of things,” General Carl Schurz reported after witnessing the killing, “is that they confidently expect soon to be permitted to regulate matters according to their own notions.”

Johnson repeatedly vetoed bills to protect and empower the emancipated in a rebuilt South. When his vetoes were overridden, he would insist that the resulting laws were unconstitutional.  Helping black people, he believed, would only make them a permanent drain on white wealth. As does Trump today, he fiercely opposed the fourteenth amendment’s grant of citizenship to any person born on American soil.

His efforts to purge the executive branch of perceived enemies (shades of Trump’s deep state paranoia)  led Congress to pass the Tenure of Office Act limiting his ability to sack Senate-approved appointees unilaterally. When, in a deliberate provocation, he axed a Lincoln holdover, the Republican-controlled Congress saw an opening.

Even though Johnson’s first term was nearly done and he had no chance of a second, and in spite of their having failed in three previous tries, the House impeachers persisted. What they had needed and thought they now had was a straightforward breach of the law amounting to whatever the founders meant by “high crimes and misdemeanours” — and from which to hang their broader, political, beef with Johnson: abuse of power. 

In the ensuing Senate trial, Johnson survived by a single vote. There is reason to believe it was bought.

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