Strange New Respect for Abe

Peter Wood

                The Bicentennial is almost upon us and we haven’t prepared a thing. I refer of course to December 29, the bicentennial of the birth of Andrew Johnson, the third worst U.S. president ever, by U.S. News and World Report’s averaging of polls of professional historians. He stands behind James Buchanan and Warren Harding in that reckoning. In twelve polls from 1948 t0 2005, Johnson took bottom honors only once, in a 2002 Sienna ranking.   This seems a disservice to the president who opposed the 14th Amendment, who arguably deserves a worse rating. But lately, things have been going the other way for the seventeenth president of the United States. His standing, for no apparent reason, is going up. The New York Times recently (October 29) convened a panel of historians who tried to elevate Johnson to only the 19th worst of the 43 presidents, which puts him in the middle of the pack, behind such soporific figures as Gerald Ford (18th worst) and Zachary Taylor (15th worst). Has Johnson done something recently to improve his standing?

One way of accounting for the strange turbulence in the New York Times rankings by academic historians is the dislocating effect of Bush hatred on campus. In his recent book, Save the World on Your Own Time, Stanley Fish ponders the best way for humanities teachers to pursue the question, “Is George W. Bush the worst president in our history?” (Fish’s answer is that professors should “academicize” the question by focusing on the American obsession with ranking.) History professors may not be taking their cues from campus radio stations playing Funk Vigilante’s power rock version of “Worst President Ever” or the Folk Brothers’ ballad of the same title. But the songs reflect a shared culture of loathing for Bush which seems to have unhinged scholarly judgment.

                Why the sudden rise in the historical estimate of Johnson’s performance as chief executive?   Are we more forgiving on the matter of his showing up drunk for his inauguration? Has No Child Left Behind taught us kindness towards a man who never had the opportunity to attend school and only learned reading, writing, and arithmetic as an adult when his wife Eliza took him in hand? Or is elevating Johnson a way of diminishing the stigma of impeachment—a symbolic gesture on behalf of president #42? 

                Johnson, of course, was not all bad. As military governor of Tennessee in 1864, he liberated the slaves in Tennessee. As president, he did prevent a wave of Northern retribution against the supporters of the Confederacy that would have deepened the wounds of the Civil War. He consummated the purchase of Alaska from Tsar Alexander and he helped the Mexicans liberate themselves from the French puppet emperor Maximilian by stationing U.S. troops at the border.  But he also helped set into place the system of racial oppression that followed Emancipation in most of the southern states. His veto of the Civil Rights Bill in 1866, his support of the Black Codes that reduced the rights of Freedmen, and his personal racism ("This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men”) would seem to set him apart from ordinary mediocrity. 

                And thus it comes as a real question why, of a sudden, after languishing for decades near the very bottom of the list of presidents in the eyes of academic historians, Johnson has suddenly been boosted into the low middle ranks?   Maybe an early bicentennial present? Maybe. But it seems more likely that academic historians are in the midst of an unannounced rethinking of the criteria by which we assess our political leadership. The New York Times panel apparently regarded failure to prevent a crisis as a more grievous fault than institutionalizing bad policy. Hence, the hapless Buchanan, who dithered while secession brewed, ranks as all-time-worst. Franklin Pierce is second-worst, because his signing of the egregious Kansas-Nebraska Act “spawned the Republican Party.” Yes, the Times says “spawned” and really does fault Pierce for this unhappy consequence, not for his role in setting the country on the path to the Civil War. Van Buren is third worst, for the sin of enforcing the Indian Removal Act passed by his predecessor, Andrew Jackson.   Richard Nixon and George W. Bush come in as “a dead heat,” but the Times oddly explains Bush’s low standing among historians only by observing that he has been “criticized for his failure to deal with the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the US financial market.” Herbert Hoover and Warren Harding come next—Hoover for having the bad luck of being president when the market crashed and Harding because, after he died, it was found that some of his cronies were corrupt.

                  There seems something odd here. No one would propose Harding and Hoover as among our better presidents, but to sink them into opprobrium well below Andrew Johnson seems wildly out of proportion. Harding caused no particular harm; Hoover was a highly capable administrator who as head of the American Relief Administration had saved millions of lives in Europe after World War I. He came into office at the beginning of a worldwide depression that neither he nor any other world leader could stop. By comparison, Johnson helped to create a system that blunted the force of emancipation and imposed racial debilities on blacks for generations to come. 

                Be that as it may, the Andrew Johnson Bicentennial is a real event. A year ago, Green County, Tennessee kicked off a year-long celebration, “Andrew Johnson: From Tailor to President,” complete with a “Wreaths across America” program and a special ceremony on Johnson’s 199th birthday. (Video here.) Tusculum College put on an exhibit, “Andrew Johnson; Heritage, Legacy and Our Constitution.”  In September, the U.S. Army Band played at a National Constitution Day event focusing on “the fascinating history of Andrew Johnson.” Tusculum College held a Johnson symposium, featuring Columbia University historian Eric Foner. 

                In October, North Carolina got in on the festivities with a commemoration of “one of America’s most debated and least understood presidents.” And Greenville held a Johnson Bicentennial art show with “signed and numbered pen and ink giclees, sculpture, pottery, engraved and stained glass, collectable dolls, quilts, and a chess set.” It was held in conjunction with the annual “Greene County Partnership’s Aussie Fall Fest Chillin’ and Grillin’ event.”  I think old Andy would have bust his buttons. 

                Events continued though November and this month, culminating in a scheduled “Presidential Wreath Laying” at Johnson’s grave on December 29, his 200th Birthday. 

                Most of us, I suppose, will dignify Johnson’s bicentennial by attending to other holiday matters, thankful that a grim epoch in the history of the nation has been laid to rest.   No one can say what the presidency of Barack Obama will bring. Like Hoover, he begins his term under the shadow of an international financial crisis. But regardless of what it will bring, his election has already expunged whatever traces remained of Andrew Johnson’s fateful legacy. 

                In that sense, Johnson’s bicentennial is indeed an event worth a bit of attention.   The tailor who stitched together second-class citizenship for the Freedmen is now truly laid to rest. Time for some chillin’ and grillin’? December 29? Well, at least the chillin’ part. 

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