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The second worst president

By Brice Walker
web posted September 1, 2003

Three weeks ago, I wrote about the Very Worst President in American history, Woodrow Wilson. It is difficult to fully the awfulness of Wilson in a single article. I did not mention, for example, that Wilson not only viewed blacks, Jews and Japanese with contempt as inferior races, but that he also looked down on Italians as lesser creatures.

Wilson was immune not only to the genius of Japanese culture and Jewish intellectual achievements, but even the stunning brilliance of Leonardo di Vinci, Dante, Michelangelo and Verdi. Well, it is safe to say that this "scholar" president was not actually a renaissance man.

Who was the second worst president? FDR, who surrendered a hundred million innocent souls to the tender mercies of Stalin, would be a good bet. FDR gave us permanent federal incentives to be poor; he appointed former Ku Klux Klan members to be Attorney General and to be Supreme Court justices.

FDR not only created a weird zoology of federal programs, but he exacerbated the Depression. Roosevelt and Hitler gained office within weeks of each other. Hitler ended the Great Depression in Germany very quickly, but FDR had actually lowered the standard of living in America by 1936 -- only a global war could end the economic disaster which FDR inherited, exploited and deepened.

FDR, who, as MacArthur famously quipped "never told the truth, when a lie would do just as well." FDR, who ran for office four times, presuming that he was more indispensable to the nation than, say, Washington or Jefferson, must surely rate high of the list of the worst.

Andrew Johnson
Johnson

There is one character, however, who I place lower -- or, if you will, higher -- than FDR in the list of dreadful presidents: Andrew Johnson. History books almost always portray Johnson as some noble friend of Father Abraham who valiantly stood up for the defeated South.

In fact, there is little reason to believe that Lincoln had anything but contempt for Johnson, who showed up for work as President of the Senate so drunk that he had to be escorted off the floor. Johnson was almost defiantly ignorant.

Abraham Lincoln himself has become a controversial figure for some good reasons. He was unquestionably brilliant and determined, qualities essential for any great leader. Lincoln did not support emancipation, but he also stated early in his career: "There is not a time in my life in which I have not understood slavery to be fundamentally wrong."

Lincoln was deliberately chosen as the least anti-slavery Republican (a fact conveniently ignored by leftist historians who wish to blend the Republican Party and Democrat Party into two equally cynical bands of crooks). This decision was to make him someone who could win the election by specifically appealing to those voters in the southern parts of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois who were mildly opposed to slavery, but not enough to fight a war of liberation.

Slavery itself, however, was doomed to extinction. All of the northern states ended slavery years before the Civil War began, and slavery made no sense at all in many of the remaining "slave" states. Missouri, which was rapidly being transformed by migration of German immigrants, was going to abolish slavery soon. Delaware, a northern state with Quaker influences much more than a southern state, was also inevitably going to abolish slavery.

If gradual emancipation may, in retrospect, have been the best solution to the evil of slavery, certainly the very worst avenue was that taken by Andrew Johnson. He supported the Union, but opposed emancipation. In 1865, it was academic whether war was necessary to free enslaved blacks in America. The only sensible course was to insure that the emancipation partially effected by executive order and soon to be effected by constitutional amendment was real emancipation.

There are grand myths about politics in the post-bellum South. The general image is of rapacious carpetbaggers and scallywags descending like vultures on a prostrate South, conniving to place illiterate freed slaves in positions of power.

No one has much interest in dispelling those myths. Conservatives, like me, have long respected the confederate, rather than the federal, nature of those who withdrew from the Union. Confederacy, contrary to much propaganda otherwise, work very well. This form of government also provides natural checks upon both central and local governments.

Democrats have had an interest in demonizing "carpetbaggers" because the virtual totalitarian political system that dominated the South from 1876 to about 1976 is the only reason that the Democrat Party survived. Only two men -- FDR and Lyndon Johnson -- have won the presidency as Democrats since the advent of the two current major parties (Carter, in 1976, had a majority only if miscast ballots are excluded).

Democrats have no interest in rectifying history, because the actual role of Democrats in oppressing blacks is so odious, so absolute and so clear that the overwhelming support that blacks give to Democrats would seem almost as bizarre as Jews in 1960 voting for the Nazi Party had there been no world war or Holocaust.

Republicans see the black vote as completely unwinnable (and a shrinking percentage of the vote) while conservative Southerners have turned increasingly toward the Republican Party and away from the party of their fathers. Defending the actions of "radical Republicans" like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner gains Republicans nothing and risks alienating white southerners.

Truth, however, should have some champion. Thaddeus Stevens was a noble figure in American politics -- as noble as Andrew Johnson was base. He supported more than emancipation; he supported the acceptance of black Americans as no different than any other American or any other human. When Stevens died, loathed even in his own time, he was by choice buried in a cemetery for blacks only, so that even in death he could display his belief in the fundamental equality of the races of man.

The objection that Stevens and the other so-called "radical Republicans" had was that blacks were being systematically denied genuine freedom to correspond to their putative freedom. The black leaders in the South were almost all conciliatory and peaceful. Many had been educated at Ivy League schools, and none seemed stupid or ignorant.

The South, as long as blacks were able to participate in government, became an extraordinarily balanced political system. Both political parties had almost exactly the same amount of partisan power. Elections for Congress were more competitive than at any other time -- before or since -- in American history.

Johnson did all he could to sabotage this. Lands which Lincoln had given slaves as confiscated contraband from plantation owners, Johnson took back. Johnson not only did not oppose Jim Crow in the South, but he proposed a Federal Black Slave Code for federal territories. As late as 1865, Johnson expressed to California Senator John Conness that he never opposed slavery.

During the 1860 Presidential Election, which was a four party race, Andrew Johnson supported J.C. Breckenridge, the most extreme pro-slavery of the four candidates (none of whom, including Lincoln, supported emancipation). Frederick Douglass noted that when Johnson was inaugurated as Vice President, he displayed a visceral dislike of blacks.

The impeachment, and near removal, of Andrew Johnson as President is uniformly presented as a travesty of justice just barely averted by a brave Republican senator from Kansas. Until Lincoln, most federal power was properly seen as residing in Congress, which in turn reflected the state governments and the people, respectively.

Congress passed laws which Johnson ignored. The Union had fought a war, and Johnson was refraining from protecting those freed slaves who had often chosen to fight for the Union. While it is possible to respect Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee, who favored confederated rather than federal power, who opposed slavery personally, and who comported himself always with honor and decency, Johnson was the antithesis of these noble Confederates.

He favored the Union in war. He also favored slavery. He ignored his oath of office, which, as president was to enforce faithfully those laws that Congress passed (whether he agreed with them or not).

America paid a heavy price for his failures. Blacks were not socialists in 1865. Black leaders, in fact, urged blacks to gain useful and marketable skills, to master language as brilliant writers and orators like Frederick Douglass had done, and to be good citizens of a good country.

Andrew Johnson, lionized as a martyr by Democrats, allowed the honorable and important principle of states' rights to be prostituted to the vile purposes of crooked, one-party government, racial terrorism, and a backward South. He prevented the Democrat Party from undergoing the painful, but essential, catharsis that its whole-hearted opposition to equality and emancipation -- which was manifest as much in northern Democrats as southern Democrats.

Black Americans had every chance to blend happily into a nation that absorbed Chinese, Greek, Irish, Jewish, Swedish, Russian and Polish immigrants. This could only happen, however, if blacks were given precisely equal legal and political rights in the South -- not more than equal and not less than equal.

Andrew Johnson, who stood at the pivotal period of early Reconstruction, could have made this possibility a reality, to the greater good of all Americans. This narrow, drunken, spiteful man did just the opposite. He kept the Civil War running from then until this very day. Andrew Johnson is the second worst president America has ever produced.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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  • The very worst president by Bruce Walker (August 11, 2003)
    Last week Bruce Walker dreamed that Douglas MacArthur had served as president. This week he wishes that the man who beat Charles Evans Hughes had never sat in the big chair
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