Was Andrew Johnson the Worst U.S. President?

Hon. Andrew JohnsonThe National Constitution Center asked that question yesterday, the anniversary of Johnson’s birth in 1808. Nothing in the linked piece changed my mind. In fact, was there one decision that Johnson made while president that most would agree was a positive contribution? Nothing comes to mind, but I’m open to suggestions.

As they say where I’m from, “bless his heart.”

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8 Replies to “Was Andrew Johnson the Worst U.S. President?”

  1. It may depend on what standard/criteria one uses to determine “worst.” If it means a lack of competence, then Buchanan, Harding, and maybe Carter might be in the running (then again, Johnson didn’t seem to have that going for him, either). If it means making decisions that negatively affected the nation, it’s hard for me to come up with someone worse than Johnson–maybe Buchanan, but I’m inclined to think if he had against secession he would have just started the war a month or so earlier. While James’ post above makes several good points supporting the notion that one man alone can’t be blamed for the legacy of racial oppression and sectional polarization, you could argue that Johnson’s conduct as president aggravated them to a harsher, deeper, and more violent level than might have been the case.

  2. When asking whether Andrew Johnson was the worst President, we should apply the same standards to others. We should also ask what did we get out of the Civil War and why so little.

    First, for a war fought to free the slaves, the Civil War accomplished very little. For example, Grant as a General expended a massive number of lives to win the Civil War but as President, like the rest of the North, was not ready to truly free the slaves both legally and economically. Instead, the former slaves for the most part remained in the South as tenant farmers little different than slaves.

    Second, for a war fought to redefine this county, the Civil War accomplished very little. All we got was the Gilded Age.

    The North, including the Republican Party, placed their economic interests far ahead of freeing the slaves. The Northern banking, textile, and shipping interest were linked with and made large profits from cotton. The Midwest agricultural interests in states like Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa certainly did not want to let the shipping port of New Orleans become part of another nation.

    The treatment of the Irish immigrants should give us a hint of public attitudes towards minorities. Some of the worst mistreatment of the Irish (such as “No Irish Need Apply” signs) were in Boston which was ground zero for the Abolitionist.

    What legal freedom the slaves got was taken away by the Supreme Court. In the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 a Supreme Court composed solely of Republican appointees found that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (not much different from the Civil Rights Act of the 1960 guaranteeing access to public accommodations) was unconstitutional because of the lack of a state action. In Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 a Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees adopted the “separate but equal” principle. The dissent from each was the Southerner, Justice John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky.

    Some good books to read are:
    * Clash of Extremes, The Economic Origins the Civil War by Marc Egnal (Hill and Wang, 2009),
    * Cotton, Race, and the Making of America, The Human Costs of Economic Power by Gene Dattel (Ivan R. Dee, 2009), and
    * Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery by Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank (Ballantine Books, 2005).

  3. I would have to go with James Buchanan as the worst U. S. President. He is the only president to leave office with fewer states loyal to the federal government than when he took office!

  4. From what I’ve heard, Paul H. Bergeron’s Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction takes somewhat more sympathetic view of the president (without excusing his racism) but I haven’t read it yet–I might if I get the chance. Bergeron is a respected Johnson scholar, though, so if you ever get the chance, you may want to check it out and see what you make of his assessment.

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