Guest Essayist: Gary Porter

Only five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, ending the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in a theater in Washington, D.C. John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate supporter, shot the president who succumbed to his wounds the next day. President Andrew Johnson took Lincoln’s place, and was less supportive of Lincoln’s anti-slavery policies, diluting the abolition of slavery Lincoln envisioned. Johnson was in favor of policies that further disenfranchised free blacks, setting political policies that would weaken the nation’s unity.

Imagine if President Donald Trump were to choose Senator Bernie Sanders as his running mate in November 2020. Would that shock you?

Americans of 1864 must have been shocked to see President Abraham Lincoln, leader of the Republican Party, choose Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, as his running mate.

Nothing in the Constitution prohibited it, of course, and once before, America had witnessed a President and Vice from different parties. In 1796 it was accidental; this time it was on purpose.

Andrew Johnson was probably the most politically-qualified VP Lincoln could have chosen. Though totally unschooled, Johnson was the consummate politician. He started political life at age 21 as a Greenville, Tennessee alderman in 1829 and would hold elective office almost continuously for the next thirty-five years, serving as a state legislator, Congressman, two-term Governor of Tennessee and finally Senator from Tennessee.[1] When the Civil War began and Tennessee left the Union, Johnson chose to leave his state rather than break with the Union. Lincoln promptly appointed him Military Governor of Tennessee.

Heading into the 1864 election, the Democratic Party was bitterly split between War Democrats and Peace Democrats. Wars tend to do that. They tend to force people into one camp or the other. To bridge the gap and hopefully unify the party, Democrats found a compromise:  nominate pro-war General George B. McClellan for president and anti-war Representative George H. Pendleton for Vice President. The ticket gathered early support.

Lincoln thought a similar “compromise ticket” was needed. Running once again with Vice President Hannibal Hamlin was out. Hamlin was nice enough, a perfect gentleman who even volunteered for a brief stint in his Maine militia unit during the war, but Hamlin had not played a very prominent role in Lincoln’s administration during the first term. Hamlin had to go. Johnson was in.

To complicate electoral matters further, a group of disenchanted “Radical Republicans” who thought Lincoln too moderate formed the Radical Democracy Party a month before the Republican Convention and nominated their own candidates. They nominated Senator John C. Fremont from California for President and General John Cochrane from New York for Vice President. Two Johns on one ticket, two Georges on another and two men on a third whose first names began with “A.” Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

Choosing, finally, to not play the spoiler, Fremont withdrew his nomination barely two months before the election. Under the slogan “Don’t change horses in the middle of a stream,” Republicans were able to sweep the Lincoln/Johnson ticket to victory. The two men easily defeated “the two Georges” by a wide margin of 212 to 21 electoral votes.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln uttered some of his most memorable lines ever:

the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.” With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

And then disaster hit. A little over a month after he delivered these memorable lines, Lincoln was shot in the head by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on the night of April 14 while enjoying a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Lincoln died the following day.  Booth’s conspiracy had planned to take out not only Lincoln, but his Vice President, and Secretary of State William Seward as well.  Seward was critically injured, but survived. Johnson also survived when assassin George Atzerodt got drunk and had a change of heart. The following day, two and a half hours after Lincoln drew his last breath, Johnson was installed as the seventeenth President of the United States.

Booth was quickly tracked down by Union troops and killed while attempting to escape. The rest of the conspirators were soon captured and the ringleaders hanged, including Mary Surratt, the first woman ever executed by the U.S. government.

Faced with the unenviable task of Reconstruction after a devastating war, Johnson’s administration started well, but quickly went downhill. The Radical Republicans were out for southern blood and Johnson did not share their thirst.

Although Lincoln is well-known for his wartime violations of the U.S. Constitution, Johnson is best known for sticking to it.

To show Johnson’s affinity for strict constructionism, there is this story: As a U.S. Representative, Johnson had voted against a bill to give federal aid to Ireland in the midst of a famine. In a debate during his subsequent run for Governor of Tennessee, his opponent criticized this vote. Johnson responded that people, not government, had the responsibility of helping their fellow men in need. He then pulled from his pocket a receipt for the $50 he had sent to the hungry Irish. “How much did you give, sir?” His opponent had to confess he had given nothing. The audience went wild. Johnson later credited this exchange with helping him win the election.

Johnson recognized the legitimacy of the Thirteenth Amendment, but he did not believe blacks deserved the right to vote. He vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which would give citizenship and extend civil rights to all regardless of race, but Congress overrode the veto. When the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act was challenged, the Fourteenth Amendment was proposed and Johnson opposed that as well. The Radical Republicans then passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867. Johnson vetoed it and the Republicans overrode his veto. Republicans then threatened reluctant southern states with a continuance of their military governance unless they ratified the Amendment. An unnamed Republican at the time called this “ratification at the point of a bayonet.” Johnson’s reluctance to support the Radical Republican agenda did not endear him to them.

The “straw that broke the camel’s back” came when Johnson tried to remove Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War despite the Tenure of Office Act which ostensibly, and unconstitutionally in Johnson’s view, prevented such action. Johnson fired Stanton. Threatened with impeachment, Johnson replied, “Let them impeach and be damned.” Congress promptly did just that – impeach, that is. After the House impeachment, the Senate trial resulted in acquittal. Johnson retained his office by a single vote, but still gained the notoriety of being the first United States President to be impeached.

The events surrounding President Lincoln’s assignation on April 15, 1865 changed the political landscape following the Civil War making it a significant date to learn about in America’s history.

Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people.   CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at gary@constitutionleadership.org, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).

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[1] After failing to be reelected President, Johnson was even elected Senator from Tennessee once again in 1875.

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