As President of the United States, he is ranked at or near the bottom by most historians, a dramatic contrast to the man whose untimely death elevated
As foremost black abolitionist, as well as vigorous advocate for freedom and civil rights for African Americans before, during, and after the Civil War, he is almost universally acclaimed as the greatest figure of the day in that long struggle. Born enslaved, often hungry and clad in rags, he was once hired out to a so called “slave-breaker” who frequently whipped him savagely. But, like Abraham Lincoln, he proved himself a remarkable autodidact who not only taught himself to read but managed to obtain a solid education that was to shape a clearly sophisticated intellect. He escaped to freedom, and distinguished himself as orator, author, and activist. Lincoln welcomed him at the White House. He lived long enough to see much of the dreams of his youth realized, as well as many of his hopes for the future dashed. He was Frederick Douglass.
At first glance, it seemed a bit odd and even unsettling to find these two men juxtaposed in The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson , but it was that very peculiarity that drew me to this kind of dual biography by Robert S. Levine, a scholar of African American literature who has long focused on the writings of Frederick Douglass. But back to that first glance: it seemed to me that the more elegant contrast would have been of Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, since the latter was the true heir to Lincoln’s (apparent) moderate stances on reconciliation with the south that also promoted the well-being of the formerly enslaved—which at times put Grant uncomfortably at odds with both Johnson and his eventual opponents who controlled Congress, the Radical Republicans, who were hell-bent on punishing states once in rebellion while insisting upon nothing less than a social revolution that mandated equality for blacks in every arena. Meanwhile, while Johnson was president of the United States in 1865, Douglass himself had neither basic civil rights nor the right to vote in the next election.
Still, with gifted prose, a fast-paced narrative, and a talent for analysis that one-ups a number of credentialed historians of this era, Levine sets out to demonstrate that Johnson’s real rival in his tumultuous tenure was neither Grant nor a recalcitrant Congress, but rather Douglass who—much like Martin Luther King a full century later—unshakably occupied the moral high ground. In this, he mostly succeeds.
The outline to his story of Johnson is a mostly familiar one, yet punctuated by some keen insights into the man overlooked in other studies. Johnson, who (also like Lincoln) grew from poverty to prominence, was a Democrat who served as governor of Tennessee and later as member of Congress. A staunch Unionist, he was the only sitting senator from a seceding state who did not resign his seat. Lincoln made him Military Governor of Tennessee soon after it was reoccupied, and in 1864 he replaced Hannibal Hamlin as Lincoln’s running mate on the Republican Party’s rechristened “National Union” ticket in an election Lincoln felt certain he would lose. Johnson showed up drunk on inauguration day—sparking an unresolved controversy over whether the cause was recreation or self-medication—which tarnished his reputation in some quarters. Still, there were some among the Radical Republicans who wished that Johnson was the president and not Lincoln. Johnson, a former slaveowner who had first emancipated his own human property and later Tennessee’s entire enslaved population, had an abiding hatred for the plantation elites who had long scorned men of humble beginnings like himself, and a deep anger towards those who had severed the bonds of union with the United States. He seemed to many in Congress like the better agent to wreak revenge upon the conquered south for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to war than the conciliatory Lincoln, who was willing to welcome seceded states back into the fold if a mere ten percent of its male population took loyalty oaths to the union.
The inauguration with an inebriated Johnson in attendance took place on March 4, 1865. On April 9, Lee surrendered at Appomattox. On April 15, Lincoln was dead and Johnson was president. Quietly—very quietly indeed—some Radical Republicans rejoiced. Lincoln had led them through the war, but now Johnson would be the better man to make the kind of unforgiving peace they had in mind. Moreover, Johnson—who had styled himself as “Moses” to African Americans in Tennessee as he preemptively (and illegally) freed them statewide in 1864—seemed like the ideal candidate to lead their crusade to foster a new reality for the defeated south that would crush the Confederates while promoting civil equality for their formerly chattel property. In all this, they were to be proved mistaken.
Meanwhile, Douglass brooded—and entertained hopes for Johnson not unlike those of his white allies in Congress. While there’s no evidence that he celebrated Lincoln’s untimely demise, Levine brilliantly reveals that Douglass’s appraisal of Lincoln evolved over time, that his own idolatry for the president was a creature of his later reflections, long after the fact, when he came to fully appreciate in retrospect not only what Lincoln had truly achieved but how deeply the promise of Reconstruction was irrevocably derailed by his successor. In their time, they had forged a strong relationship and even a bond of sorts, but Douglass consistently had doubts about Lincoln’s real commitment to the cause of African American freedom and civil liberties. Douglass took seriously Lincoln’s onetime declaration that “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it,” and he was suitably horrified by what that implied. Like some in Congress, Douglass was deluded by the fantasy of what Johnson’s accession might mean for the road ahead. This serves both as a strong caution and timely reminder to all of us in the field that it is critical to evaluate not only what was said or written by any individual in the past, but when it was said or written.
The author’s analysis of Johnson proves fascinating. Levine maintains that Johnson’s contempt for the elites who once disdained him was genuine, but that this was counterbalanced by his secret longing for their acceptance. And he reveled in freeing and enabling the enslaved, but only paternalistically and only ever on his own terms. If he could not be Moses, he would be Pharaoh. Levine also argues that whatever his flaws—and they were manifold—Johnson’s vision of his role as president in Reconstruction mirrored Lincoln’s. Lincoln believed that Reconstruction must flow primarily from the executive branch, not the legislative, and he intended to direct it as such. Lincoln’s specific plans died with him, but Johnson had his own ideas. This suggests that it is just as likely there would have been a clash between Lincoln and the Congress had he lived, although knowing what we know of Lincoln we might speculate at more positive results.
Levine breaks no new ground in his coverage of the failed impeachment, which the narrative treats without the kind of scrutiny found, for instance, in Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, by David O. Stewart. But there is the advantage of added nuance in this account because it is enriched by the presence of Douglass as spectator and sometime commentator. And here is Levine’s real achievement: it is through Douglass’s eyes that we can vividly see the righteous cause of emancipation won, obtained at least partially with the blood of United States Colored Troops (USCT), a constitutional amendment passed forever prohibiting human chattel slavery, and subsequent amendments guaranteeing civil rights, equality, and the right to vote for African Americans. And through those same eyes we witness the disillusion and disgust as the accidental president turns against everything Douglass holds dear. Those elite slaveholders who led rebellion, championing a proud slave republic, have their political rights restored and later show up as governors and members of Congress. The promise of Reconstruction is derailed, replaced by “Redemption” as unreconstructed ex-Confederates recapture the statehouses, black codes are enacted, African Americans and their white allies are terrorized and murdered. Constitutional amendments turn moot. The formerly enslaved, once considered three-fifths of a person, are now counted as full citizens but despite the 15th Amendment denied the vote at the point of a gun, so representation for the former slave states that engineered the war effectively increases after rejoining the union. That union has been restored with the sacrifice of more than six hundred thousand lives, and while slavery is abolished Douglass grows old observing the reconciliation of white men on both sides of the Mason-Dixon along with an embrace of the “Lost Cause” ideology that sees the start of a process that enshrines repression and leads to the erasure of African Americans from Civil War history.
That Levine is a professor of literature rather than of history is perhaps why the story he relates has a more emotional impact upon the reader than it might have if rendered by those with roots in our own discipline. The scholarship is by no means lacking, as evidenced by the ample citations in the thick section of notes at the end of the volume, but thankfully he eschews the dry, academic tone that tends to dominate the history field. This is a work equally attractive to a popular or scholarly audience, something that should be both celebrated and emulated. As an added bonus, he includes as appendix Douglass’s 1867 speech, “Sources of Danger to the Republic,” which argues for constitutional reforms that nicely echo down to our own times. Among other things, Douglass boldly calls for eliminating the position of vice president to avoid accidental presidencies (such as that of Andrew Johnson!) and for curbing executive authority. It is well worth the read and unfortunately not easy to access elsewhere except through a paywall. The Failed Promise is an apt title: the optimism at the dawn of Reconstruction holds so much appeal because we know all too well the tragedy of its outcome. To get a sense of how it began, as well as how it went so wrong, I recommend this book.
Here’s a link to a rare free online transcript of Frederick Douglass’s 1867 speech: “Sources of Danger to the Republic”
I reviewed Stewart’s book here: Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, by David O. Stewart