- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2007


By Howard Means

Harcourt, $25, 286 pages


Howard Means’ “The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days that Changed the Nation” takes its title from Herman Melville’s “The Martyr,” a poem about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the mourning of the Unionists (“There is sobbing of the strong / And a pall upon the land”) and their demands for vengeance. Older readers might remember the repeated lines “Beware the People weeping / When they bare the iron hand” from grade school.

Melville captured popular expectations when he wrote of the changeover from Lincoln to Vice President Andrew Johnson, “They have killed him, the Forgiver— / The Avenger takes his place.”

Johnson’s vengeful public persona was heavily influenced by the life and presidency of Andrew Jackson. It made sense: Jackson’s influence on Tennessee was practically the only one that mattered when Johnson entered the political arena there. Both men were often referred to as the more informal “Andy” — today, they might be called “Drew.”

Both were both prickly and liked to scrap. Both stumped for populist ideas. The crucial difference was that Johnson’s resentments consumed his politics.

Popular historian Howard Means writes that “Johnson’s was a lifelong fight against the swells, the bluebloods, the pocket liners and influence wielders and schemers.”

During his first term in Congress, the future president denounced all his would-be social betters as an “illegitimate, swaggering, bastard, scrub aristocracy.” He struck back at them throughout his career with blistering rhetoric (one of the articles of his impeachment was for “intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues”) and legislation.

Some of Johnson’s proposals were the sort of vaguely progressive things that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today, direct election of senators, for instance. Some made sense in a country still spreading across the continent — the Homestead Act was Johnson’s crowning legislative achievement.

And some of his ideas were just kooky: Johnson wanted to limit all federal employees to eight years of service so everyone could have his turn. He opposed prisoner work details on the grounds they took work from non-criminals.

Johnson identified with poor laborers because he sprang from the same dusty environment they did, and he molded himself into a success. Lacking for money, his widowed mother apprenticed Andy to a “mudsill” tailor when he was 10 years old. He was so good at it that he eventually amassed a fortune and property, including several slaves.

He learned to read and write with the assistance of his wife, Eliza, and he decided to run for office. Johnson was elected mayor of Greeneville, in East Tennessee, at the age of 26.

His ascension through state and then federal politics was impressive: alderman, mayor, state representative, governor, senator. The voters of Tennessee liked Johnson for his principles and plainspokenness — he called himself not a “pseudo, hermaphroditish Valandingham [Democrat] but a Jacksonian Democrat” — and for his unusual physical courage.

As governor of Tennessee, Johnson had been scheduled to speak on a matter that brought people’s blood to boil. He received several death threats. The governor appeared anyway, and here is his jaw-dropping opening:

“Fellow-citizens, it is proper when freemen assemble for the discussion of important public interests, that every thing should be done decently and in order. I have been informed that part of the business to be transacted on the present occasion is the assassination of the individual who now has the honor of addressing you. I beg respectfully to propose that this be the first business in order. Therefore, if any man has come here to-night for the purpose indicated, I do not say to him, ‘Let him speak,’ but ‘let him shoot.’”

He stood there for half a minute, surveying the crowd with his right hand on his pistol. Nobody tried anything, so the governor said, “Gentlemen, it appears that I have been misinformed.” He holstered his gun and continued with his speech.

Mr. Means writes of a later assassin who also chickened out, “Perhaps that’s why George Atzerodt drank away his chance to assassinate Johnson … He might have known that if he ever got face to face with the vice president, he wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

As the Civil War opened, Johnson was the only Southern senator to buck the tide of secession. His impassioned speeches kept his state in until Tennesseans balked at sending troops to fight fellow Southerners. When the state did leave the Union, it did so against a sizable minority. It was more easily “captured” than some states, but guerillas continued to agitate and armies continued to march across it and war over it.

Lincoln installed Johnson as the military governor in Nashville, and Johnson did what he could to cope with famine, disease, overcrowding, disloyalty and Baghdad-level civilian violence. During one particularly close call with Confederate forces, Johnson warned his staff, “I am not a military man but anyone who talks of surrender I will shoot!”

All of which made Johnson prime vice presidential material. When President Lincoln ran for re-election, he ran not as a Republican but as the National Union Party candidate, and he wanted to prove the new party wasn’t just the GOP in drag. Lincoln, a Northern Republican and moderate opponent of slavery, and Johnson, a Southern Democrat who owned slaves but hated most rich slave owners. It was the ultimate balanced ticket.

As Mr. Means shows in this extremely readable history of the country’s response to Lincoln’s assassination and Johnson’s first days as president, the ticket looked best on paper. At the swearing-in ceremony, the vice president arrived drunk and rambled on for 17 long minutes about his lowly birth and the wellspring of power in a democracy — that is, poor people like Andrew Johnson.

The war was all but won by the time Johnson took office, and he made a lousy peacetime president. He promised vengeance against the Southern aristocrats he blamed for starting the war but then came to view the radical Republicans as the new elite to resent and resist. He campaigned against them in the 1866 midterm elections and, when that failed, he continued to push their buttons. They first tried to rein him in — keeping him from purging his administration of Republicans — and then impeached him. He escaped removal by one vote in the Senate.

“The Avenger Takes His Place” makes much of the irony that Johnson was vilified and almost thrown out of office for pursuing a course that Lincoln had laid down by “let[ting] the South up easy.” Johnson had very few people executed following the Civil War, issuing first qualified and then blanket pardons. Even Confederate president Jefferson Davis avoided the noose.

Johnson also put Southern states on the long and winding road to normalization and quarreled with Congress when the House and Senate refused to seat politicians elected by those new governments. Improbably, history has remembered our 17th president badly for playing the part of “the Forgiver.”

Jeremy Lott, Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of “In Defense of Hypocrisy,” is writing a book about the vice presidents.

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