Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. To take the reins of power at this tumultuous moment required a man of compassion, discernment, and discipline. Was Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, that man? Allen Guelzo of Princeton University has the answer.
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It was April 1865. The Civil War was finally over. An exhausted, bloodied nation breathed a deep sigh of relief…
Then, suddenly, shockingly, President Abraham Lincoln was dead, felled by an assassin’s bullet while watching a play.
To take the reins of power at this tumultuous moment required a great man, a man of compassion, discernment, and discipline. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s vice president, was not that man.
This is not to say he didn’t have virtues. He did. He just didn’t have the stuff it took to meet the moment.
Born into abject poverty on December 29, 1808, Johnson was apprenticed — “sold” would be more accurate — to a tailor at the age of 10. Legally bound to serve until he was 21, he ran away after five years. He eventually settled in Greeneville, Tennessee, where he set up his own tailor’s shop and prospered.
In 1834, he was elected mayor of Greeneville. From there, he climbed steadily up the political ladder; the state legislature in 1835, the US Congress in 1843, Governor in 1853, and the Senate in 1857. He was still serving as U.S. Senator for Tennessee in 1861 when the Civil War broke out.
Although Johnson was a Democrat and a slaveowner himself, when Tennessee left the Union to join the break-away Confederacy and defend legalized slavery, Johnson denounced his state’s secession on the floor of the Senate.
“I will not give up this Government,” he thundered in December 1860. “No; I intend to stand by it, and I entreat every man throughout the nation who is a patriot…to come forward, that the Constitution shall be saved, and the Union preserved.”
After Union military forces occupied large parts of Tennessee in 1862, Lincoln tagged Johnson as the state’s provisional military governor. It was a shrewd move on the president’s part: it demonstrated to Southerners and Democrats that they were welcomed as full partners with Lincoln’s Republican party in restoring the Union.
Johnson himself joined hands with Lincoln’s policies by freeing his own slaves in 1863.
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