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The last Jeffersonian

Andrew Johnson: A Biography - Hans L. Trefousse

Take any list of the worst presidents in American history, and Andrew Johnson’s name will feature prominently at the top of it. On one level, this is hardly surprising. Succeeding as he did the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he faced the formidable challenge of restoring the peace after the bloodiest and most divisive conflict in American history. Given the task at hand and laboring as he did in the shadow of the martyred president, criticism was inevitable. Yet as Hans Trefousse shows in this book, Johnson’s own rigid adherence to his beliefs prevented the sort of compromising that might have smoothed the path toward his goals and forestalled the impeachment that forever distinguishes his term in office.


The irony in Trefousse’s account is that such rigidity was uncharacteristic in his youth. As a budding politician in antebellum Tennessee, Johnson often shifted positions as he sought to define his political identity to voters. His impoverished background, however, served as the foundation for his unwavering support for the rights of the poor, and his admiration of Andrew Jackson ensured that the would be identified with the Democratic Party. Trefousse makes the interesting case that Johnson was in many respects an adherent not as much to Jacksonian Democracy but to the Old Republican ideas of Thomas Jefferson. Such views would put him increasingly at odds with the industrializing nation that emerged in his lifetime, yet this proved less of an issue in his home state than it would when he became president later on.


As an ambitious border-state politician, the outbreak of the Civil War posed the greatest challenge of his career, and in terms of those ambitions he made what would turn out to be the correct choice. But Trefousse makes it clear that Johnson decision to stay with the union did not entail any reconsideration of his views on race. This became an issue once he became president, as he supported generous terms that left the freedmen in a legal position little different from slavery. Johnson’s stubborn commitment to his views alienated the Republicans in Congress, empowering the Radicals among their ranks to push for impeachment. Trefousse shows the impeachment as a rushed affair, with a trial quickly demonstrated the hollowness of the prosecution’s case. Johnson’s victory proved a Pyrrhic one, though, as he found himself reduced to irrelevance in the aftermath of his acquittal. Hungering for a return to a national stage, he saw his election to the Senate in 1875 as a vindication by the people, albeit one cut short by a series of strokes that killed him soon afterward.


Trefousse’s book serves as a solid account of the political career of America’s 17th president. Having written biographies of some of the other key figures in the impeachment controversy, he brings considerable insight to bear on the central act of Johnson’s political career, showing it as a far messier and more muddled affair than might otherwise appear to be the case. Yet his description of Johnson’s pre-presidential career suffers from an absence of similar insight, and provides little more than a chronicle of his career and achievements. Nonetheless, his book stands as the best biography available of this controversial figure, one that makes a convincing argument that his place in history was ultimately defined by his inability to practice that central skill of a successful politician – the art of compromise.