Before 1998 “Andrew Johnson” used to be the answer to the question “Who was the only U.S. president to be impeached?” But Andrew Johnson, the self-educated tailor, deserves to be remembered more for his ideas, especially his defense of the Constitution in a troubled time.
Johnson was born in poverty in North Carolina in 1808 and moved to Greenville, Tennessee, as a teenager when he heard the town needed a tailor. He established a strong business there and at age 26 won election to the state legislature, where he spent several terms. He strongly supported fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson (president 1829–1837), and eventually won election to the U.S. House and Senate. In Congress, Johnson became a constitutional watchdog on federal spending and special subsidies to favored groups. The protective tariff he called “a system of humbug,” and he wanted entrepreneurs, not the federal government, to build the nation’s canals and railroads. He often tried to get a law passed for across-the-board pay cuts for federal employees, whom he resented because they lived comfortably in Washington from the tax dollars of hard-working artisans, farmers, and laborers.
Charity, Johnson argued, begins with people, not government. This issue came up when he ran for governor of Tennessee in 1853. Gustavus Henry, the Whig candidate, attacked Johnson vigorously in a public debate for voting against a bill to give federal aid to Ireland. The severe potato famine, Henry insisted, called for American help. Johnson responded that people, not government, had the responsibility of helping their fellow men in need. Any politician could be generous with other people’s money, which was forcibly collected in taxes. He then took from his pocket a receipt for the $50 he had sent to the hungry Irish. “How much did you give, sir?” he challenged Henry, who had given nothing. The audience, according to the Memphis Appeal, gave Johnson “prolonged and deafening applause.” Such adherence to the Constitution, Johnson believed, helped him narrowly win the governor’s chair that year.
When the Civil War began, Governor Johnson left Tennessee rather than break with the union. That loyalty endeared him to President Lincoln, who asked the Democrat Johnson to be his vice-presidential candidate in the 1864 election. The Lincoln-Johnson campaign won, and when Lincoln was assassinated Johnson became president for four turbulent years.
As president, Johnson was not a consistent devotee of liberty. He believed that blacks were not as capable as whites, and he was reluctant to give blacks full voting rights. But when the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery) became law, Johnson, as a strict constitutionalist, “fully recognized the obligation to protect and defend that class of our people whenever and wherever it shall become necessary, and to the full extent compatible with the Constitution of the United States.”
Johnson found himself caught in the middle. On one hand were southern racists, who passed Black Codes that denied basic civil liberties to former slaves. On the other were Radical Republicans who not only wanted full voting rights for blacks, but sometimes special privileges as well. For example, Republicans had set up the Freedmen’s Bureau during the war to help freed blacks get food, clothing, and other necessities of life. After the war, the Freedmen’s Bureau expanded its efforts to help blacks get land and education as well. In 1866 Congress voted to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau and expand its scope.
Johnson, however, vetoed the bill. In a nutshell, his view was this: Civil liberties for blacks, yes; special legislation, no. “In time of war,” Johnson said, “it was eminently proper that we should provide for those who were passing suddenly from a condition of bondage to a state of freedom. But this bill proposes to make the Freedmen’s Bureau . . . a permanent branch of the public administration, with its powers greatly enlarged.” These powers “in my opinion are not warranted by the Constitution.”
Johnson built his case around the provisions in the bill that put the government in the business of establishing schools for blacks and of taking land from plantation owners to give to former slaves without due process of law. On the first point, Johnson noted that Congress “has never founded schools for any class of our own people, not even for the orphans of those who have fallen in the defense of the Union, but has left the care of education to the much more competent and efficient control of the States, of communities, of private associations, and of individuals.”
The president hoped that blacks would be protected in their civil liberties and would thereby use their freedom to gain skills and work their way up in society. “The idea on which the slaves were assisted to freedom was that on becoming free they would be a self-sustaining population.” He added that “any legislation that shall imply that they are not expected to attain a self-sustaining condition must have a tendency injurious alike to their character and their prospects.”
Granted, Johnson was overly optimistic that his southern brethren would allow blacks sufficient civil liberties to compete for jobs and establish fair contracts. But, as in the earlier case of charity to the Irish, he believed that compassionate people, not a government program, were the solution to the problem. They would build the schools and train the newly freed slaves. He was ever faithful to the Constitution when he said that establishing schools was a state, not a federal, function and that the federal government should not favor “one class or color of our people more than another.”
Interestingly, Johnson’s vision of self-help for blacks somewhat paralleled that of black leader Booker T. Washington, who agreed that caring people, not bureaucrats at the Freedmen’s Bureau, needed to take the lead in promoting black education. In the spirit of Johnson’s veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Washington set up Tuskegee Institute, with help from whites, as a black-operated college. Blacks and whites also worked together to set up Fisk College and Meharry Medical College in Nashville. In fact, dozens of private black colleges were established in the years immediately after emancipation. Black literacy skyrocketed from 20 percent in 1870 to 83 percent in 1930, a period marred by forced segregation. That increased literacy was the tool that blacks used to win their struggle to have their rights recognized in the coming decades.
Andrew Johnson’s arguments are still cogent today. The Constitution does not guarantee special privileges for any class of citizens.