BERGERON: Andrew Johnson's Civil War (2011)

Posted: 5/22/2013
Reviewed By: Andrew Prymak

Andrew Johnson's Civil War and Reconstruction by Paul H. Bergeron. University of Tennessee Press, 2012. Cloth, ISBN: 1572339608. $24.95.

Few Presidents have witnessed as drastic a historiographical shift as Andrew Johnson. Hailed in the early twentieth-century as both a defender of the Constitution and a steadfast barrier to Congressional Republicans, Johnson transformed in the wake of midcentury changes in the discipline and society. As a result, historians increasingly described Johnson as an inflexible racist who sought to thwart meaningful change in the postbellum South. Paul Bergeron, however, argues that there is more to Johnson and his career than this lasting characterization. While not denying Johnson’s more sinister traits, Bergeron contends that historians need to evaluate the man and his career through other lenses in addition to those centering upon his racism and stubbornness. Bergeron thus importantly attempts to place Johnson within the political power struggles of his time. Arguing that Johnson’s career emerged from wartime and postbellum challenges to his leadership, Bergeron believes that Johnson was a leader who does not deserve the blanket mark of "failure" historians so commonly label him with. Instead, Bergeron attempts to contextualize Johnson’s decisions from the perspective of the president himself.

Bergeron begins with an extended, fruitful look into Johnson’s career as wartime governor of Tennessee. Here, as elsewhere, the narrative centers on power struggles. While attempting to reconstruct the state, Johnson deftly navigated a diverse group of individuals, ranging from Union military officers, Confederates, and opposing unionists, who sought to encroach upon his authority. Johnson, having pushed through policies such as emancipation and a more stringent oath of allegiance, convincingly emerged from these frays unruffled and a rising political star. Indeed, Johnson’s notoriety, his staunch unionist background, and his Democratic connections led to Lincoln actively seeking Johnson as his running mate. 

The period immediately following Lincoln’s death in 1865 was the apogee of Johnson’s presidency. Bergeron contends that Johnson effectively exerted executive control while Congress was not in session and produced a semblance of order in the South. Moreover, the author’s focus upon the emerging power struggle within this period between the Congress and the president is both welcome and consistently sustained throughout the narrative. The author, nonetheless, could better contextualize why Republicans of disparate factions increasingly questioned the president; something that this focus upon Johnson’s perspective sometimes diminishes.

The remainder of Johnson’s administration through impeachment was a battle over the terms of Reconstruction and an attempt by the executive to influence events that were increasingly under the sway of Congress. Following the critical vetoes of early 1866, Johnson battled Congress over issues such as the control of Reconstruction, the status of the Confederate states, and issues of federal power while further alienating Republican support. Johnson continued to thwart congressional Republicans as best he could the following year by exercising both his control as commander in chief of the military along with the veto. It was these actions that prompted the battles over impeachment, but Johnson emerged from this believing himself vindicated and celebrating what Bergeron terms “a victorious defeat.”  Johnson, Bergeron emphasizes, did not face the embarrassment of leaving office and had protected the office of the president though at great cost to his political capital.

This portrayal of the president greatly benefits from the author’s background as editor of the Andrew Johnson papers. His intricate knowledge of this voluminous source, as evidenced by the endnotes, makes this book a fantastic primer to scholars on the lasting value of these presidential papers. Furthermore, the Johnson papers combined with accounts from cabinet officials like Gideon Wells and William Seward along with the diaries of Johnson’s secretary provide an intimate sense of what it was like in the administration; something of value to lay readers as well as scholars. The narrative pointedly proceeds through political intrigue while not losing sight of its historiographical purpose, thus giving a sense of the increasing pressure that Johnson and his associates undoubtedly experienced from 1865 into 1869.

Reconstruction scholars will also appreciate the emphasis upon Johnson’s perspective in better explaining why he made certain decisions that belie the political acumen that he displayed during his antebellum and wartime career. Much of this coalesces around the president’s Democratic origins and his partisan thinking. The author, for instance, contends that many Republicans would never have accepted Johnson even if the blunders of 1866 had not occurred, as he sought to prevent Republicans from achieving “complete ascendancy in the national government” through his use and protection of executive authority (134). Bergeron most importantly explains how the president’s Democratic background contributed to his sometimes sloppy attempts to form new political coalitions in 1866 and 1868.

Yet given the desire to further contextualize Johnson as possessing traits other than racism and obstructionism, the analysis instead sometimes transfers a similar one-dimensional perspective onto the Republicans whom the president battled. While not surprising given the focus on Johnson’s understandings of politics, the Republicans often appear as little more than mere foils for President Johnson. What is more, the author draws the vast majority of his sources on the Republican opposition from published collections of Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner. More attention needs to be devoted to other radicals but, most pointedly, analysis needs to include sources from moderate Republicans as well. Bergeron specifically addresses the moderates in the context of the key vetoes of early 1866 and the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, but these key individuals fade from the narrative at other points. Indeed, this latter group illustrates the competing motivations behind opposition to the policies of Johnson be they over partisanship, power, or ideology; competing motivations that Johnson failed to appreciate in coming to label the entire Republican opposition as "radical."

In conclusion, this book is a necessary, though perhaps overstated, balance to the prevailing interpretation of Johnson as a racist, flawed, obstructionist president who was a complete failure. Even though this work will be unlikely to overturn that interpretation, Paul Bergeron has written a book that Reconstruction scholars must engage with for many years.


Andrew Prymak is a Ph. D. Candidate in History at The Pennsylvania State University.

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