Annette Gordon-Reed got a lot of attention the last time she wrote about a president long-rumored to have fathered a child with an enslaved woman. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family earned her a Pulitzer and the National Book Award for her examination of the most famous enslaved family in America.
Gordon-Reed’s new book, Andrew Johnson, won’t attract the same attention, or accolades. In her book on Jefferson and the Hemings family, she may have been cold in her examination of the third president, but she warmed in her retelling of the lives of the Hemingses. No one in this slim volume on Lincoln’s successor gets much human sympathy. Not even the slave girl who may have borne his children.
It’s clear Gordon-Reed does not like Andy Johnson. She dedicates the book “To Vernon E. Jordan, Jr….for standing against everything Andrew Johnson stood for”. Her feelings are understandable. Johnson did more to preserve White Supremacy in post-Civil War America than any other single individual, but the absence of even a human foil to the racist president left me wondering why she could not have made more of the conflict Fred Douglas had with him.
Andrew Johnson was a very poor working boy who grew up in a southern society that despised anyone who earned his leaving by the work of his own hands. The young Johnson did the work that planters felt was beneath their slaves.
Johnson hated the elite for their contempt of him, but when he became our accidental president just a month after he drunkenly took the Vice Presidential inaugural oath, he used his position to court the favor of the former leaders of the rebellion. His goal as president was to preserve White Supremacy in the post-war world. His Reconstruction was the rebuilding of a power structure to contain African American aspirations and limit freed slaves to a status below that of citizen.
On his own terms, Johnson was a successful president. White rule in the South would last seven more decades, built on the foundation he laid.