A fair-minded, toned-down portrait of a deeply problematic president who could not rise to the country’s challenge after the Civil War.
While Abraham Lincoln is often considered our greatest president, the man who inherited the post after his assassination is often voted the worst. In this succinct study typical of the publisher’s informative, tidily composed series, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Gordon-Reed (History and Law/Harvard Univ.; The Hemingses of Monticello) carefully walks through the conflicts of Andrew Johnson’s career, culminating in his near impeachment in 1868. What compelled Johnson to block all measures of Reconstruction in the South and rehabilitate the very Southern planters and slave-owners who had earlier wrecked the Union? The author considers the measure of Johnson’s character, forged in the years of his family’s poverty after the early death of his father in Raleigh, N.C. Forced by his mother’s reduced circumstances into apprenticeship to a tailor, Johnson escaped and eventually set up shop as a tailor in Greenville, Tenn., married and grew somewhat prosperous, despite the lack of any formal education. It was during those early years, when he had “brushed up close to the nightmare of dependency and social degradation,” a state shared by the enslaved African Americans at the time, that Johnson developed his obsession with the wrongs of the poor whites at the hands of the planter class—and at the expense of blacks. A fiery debater, Johnson duly acceded to positions of alderman, mayor, congressman, governor and senator as a Tennessee Democrat. A staunch Unionist (despite his pro-slavery stance) and proponent of the Homestead Act, Johnson also made a lot of enemies. His ability to serve as a military governor (appointed by Lincoln) to a state in rebellion from the Union underscored his character’s ample contradictions, foretelling the executive trials ahead.
Gordon-Reed incorporates views by Johnson’s other biographers to create a fleshed-out, many-sided portrait.