Editor's note: This article was
originally published in The Charger in the Winter of 2001.
“The History of mankind,” said the old
Scotsman Thomas Carlyle, “is a history of its great men; to find out
these, clean the dirt from them, and place them on their proper
pedestal is the true function of a historian.”
When it comes to Andrew Johnson,
17th President of the United States, you would need the largest
caterpillar bulldozer to move the dirt piled on him by historians.
The picture painted by historians is very unjust to Johnson.
Lincoln delivers his second inaugural address, March 4, 1865.
A little more than a month later, Andrew Johnson would be
Andrew Johnson was first an
American and second a Southerner. He had been the Governor of
Tennessee and was a Tennessee Senator when the Civil War broke out.
Many of his Southern Senate colleagues were packing to return South
after the election of Abraham Lincoln, when on December 18, 1860
Johnson told the Senate that whatever were the fears and grievances
of the slave States, the one place their redress was within the
Union itself. “If this doctrine of secession is to be carried out upon
the mere whim of a State,’ he declared, “this government is at an
end.” Then he burst forth into an eloquent apostrophe:
I intend to stand by the
Constitution as it is, insisting upon a compliance with all its
guaranties. I intend to stand by it as the sheet-anchor of the
Government; and I trust and hope, though it seems to be now in the
very vortex of ruin, though it seems to be running between Charybdis
and Scylla, the rock on the one hand and the whirlpool on the other,
that it will be preserved, and will remain a beacon to guide, and an
example to be imitated by all the nations of the earth. Yes, I
intend to hold on to it as the chief ark of our safety, as the
palladium of our civil and our religious liberty. I intend to cling
to it as the ship-wrecked mariner clings to the last plank, when the
night and the tempest close around him. It is the last hope of human
The only grievance advanced by the
South, Johnson continued, was that Lincoln had been elected. But
Johnson intended to maintain his place in the Senate, to “put down
Mr. Lincoln and drive back his advances upon the Southern
institutions, if he designs to make any.”
In the Senate, the South could
check-mate Lincoln completely. “Let South Carolina and her Senators
come back, and on the 4th of March we shall have a majority of six
in this body against him. Lincoln cannot make his Cabinet . . .
unless the Senate will permit him. He cannot send a foreign
minister, or even a consul, abroad, if the Senate be unwilling. He
cannot even appoint a first-class postmaster. . .
“I voted against him,” Johnson
“I spoke against him; I spent money to defeat him; but still I love
my country; I love the Constitution; I intend to insist upon its
guaranties. There, and there alone I intend to plant myself.”
Concluding, he expressed again his abiding faith, his unshaken
confidence, in man’s capacity to govern himself. He would stand by
the Republic, and he entreated “every man throughout the nation who
is a Patriot” to come forward, and rally around the altar of our
common country, . . . that the Constitution shall be saved and the
2, 1861 two days before Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th
President of United States, Andrew Johnson rose again to address the
Senate on succession from the Union:
Were I President of the United
States, I would do as Thomas Jefferson did in 1806 with Aaron Burr,
who was charged with treason. I would have them arrested and tried
for treason; and if convicted, by the Eternal God, I would see that
he suffer the penalty of law at the hands of the executioner.
A Southern senator who was chairman
of the Senate at the time, ordered the galleries be cleared and that
Johnson risked arrest for such talk. Johnson screamed out, “arrest
and be damned.”
A strange twist to this story
happened seven years later. Andrew Johnson the 17th President did
not execute these traitors but pardoned all of them in one his last
acts as President of the United States.