Was Andrew Johnson The Right Choice For Veep?

on June 9, 2014 in American Civil War, General History, People and Biographies
Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson
17th President of the United States

150 years ago this weekend saw the national convention of the “National Union Party” in Baltimore. An alliance of Republicans (excepting the disgruntled Radicals who had nominated John Fremont about a week before in Cleveland) and War Democrats, the National Union Party’s major task was not renominating Abraham Lincoln. That master politician had sewn up his renomination long before, so that act was merely ceremonial.

Instead, the main duty was making the different party factions with a replacement for Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, and the choice made was Andrew Johnson, the Unionist Senator and Military Governor or Tennessee. Ever since my teens, I’ve puzzled over whether Johnson was the best choice.

I understand Lincoln’s reasoning behind Johnson, who was perhaps the only man in the country with appeal to both War Democrats (Johnson was one of them) and Radical Republicans, the latter approving of Johnson’s hardline approach to running occupied Tennessee.¬† Yet as a politician, Johnson had little to recommend him beyond a talent for invective.

Of course, vice presidents were basically cyphers until the last couple of decades. If lucky a vice president might be called upon for advice, but the role of veep as chief lieutenant is a creation of only the last few decades. I also doubt Lincoln was thinking at all of Johnson as his successor, since his health was basically sound.

Even so, one of those little rules of American Presidential contests — that a veep can’t help, but only hurt your chances at election — was as true in 1864 as it is today. I doubt Johnson’s place as literally the only man in America who was easily passable to everyone from Radicals to border state Republican conservatives who were softer on the war than any War Democrat was that vital. There were other ways to appease the disaffected, something Lincoln well knew. His choice of Johnson reflects how secondary the choice was in the first place.

It was Johnson’s lack of political skill that ultimately got him impeached and damn near removed from office, as he clumsily upset the Radicals over Reconstruction, so whenever that convention or Johnson come up I wonder about whether there might have been someone better. Perhaps a border state Republican, one whose political skills ran deeper than merely smearing the opposition?

Yet at the same time, Johnson accidentally stumbledupon  one measure that effectively derailed the Radical agenda for wreaking vengeance on the South: by the time the Radicals tamed Johnson with impeachment and then got Grant into office, Johnson had already demobilized most of the wartime army, largely as a budget-cutting measure. The Radicals could pass as many vindictive laws or enact measures to build up a voting base of landed, emancipated slaves as they wished, but without bayonets on the ground to repress popular white resentment such actions would go nowhere.

The result I think was certainly not the worst thing that could have happened, but not very constructive either. The Radical agenda was partially enacted, more in spirit than in fact, and as such was neither clement or severe, but somewhere in between. Like most half-measures, Reconstruction as it actually played out failed to achieve very much one way or the other, and with it a lot of social and political problems came to fester in America over the course of the next century, all of them going back to that choice of Andrew Johnson and whether someone else might have been able to have deflect more of Radical wrath.

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