Exploring the failures of the Andrew Johnson presidency

Historian Annette Gordon-Reed at the New York Historical Society. Her new biography of Johnson touches on race and his role in putting the nation back together after the Civil War.
Historian Annette Gordon-Reed at the New York Historical Society. Her new biography of Johnson touches on race and his role in putting the nation back together after the Civil War.
Posted: February 08, 2011

The issue of race relations has been a fixture in the life of Annette Gordon-Reed for as long as she can remember.

"When you grow up in the South, the issue of race is permanent," said Gordon-Reed, who was raised in Texas during the peak of the civil-rights movement and went on to become a leading historian of slavery in the United States.

Gordon-Reed's personal awareness of the nation's history of racial tension, combined with her interest in the birth of the United States, has found its way into her career as a writer and as a professor of law and history. Two of her books have dealt with the African American Hemings family, who were both slaves and blood relations of Thomas Jefferson. Gordon-Reed won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in History for her 2008 book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.

Gordon-Reed's latest book, Andrew Johnson: The American Presidents Series / The 17th President, 1865-1869 (Times Books, $23), touches on issues of race as she examines Johnson's role in putting the nation back together after the Civil War.

Gordon-Reed will talk about the book Tuesday night at the Free Library's Central Library, 1901 Vine St. General admission for the Gordon-Reed event is $15, $7 for students.

In one sense, Andrew Johnson's life was a tale of success. He rose from illiterate tailor's apprentice to become president of the United States. "One of the things that I wanted to come across in this book was that he was a person of tenacity and perseverance," Gordon-Reed said in a phone interview from her home in New York. "It's a very American story. It's hard to imagine that a person of his standing would rise to the highest office in the land, but he did."

But his life was also a story of failure. Focusing on Johnson's presidency, Gordon-Reed aims to show how ill-suited Johnson was both to succeed Abraham Lincoln, one of America's greatest presidents, and to heal a nation that the Civil War had torn apart. She argues that by attempting to reconcile with Southern whites, Johnson abandoned millions of newly freed slaves and lost the trust of congressional leaders.

"Johnson is considered one of the worst presidents," Gordon-Reed said. "The interesting thing is that he was a talented man."

Gordon-Reed said that it was hard to assess how the United States would have fared if Johnson had never become president. She speculated, however, that the economic conditions of African Americans would be very different today.

"It takes generations to build wealth and economic stability," she said. "All of this was delayed for a very long time."

This is Gordon-Reed's fifth book. In addition to the volume on the Hemings family, she is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997); Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir (2001); and Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History (2002).

Gordon-Reed said the process of writing Andrew Johnson was different from writing her Jefferson/Hemings biographies, because Johnson left few written records. In contrast, Jefferson left about 17,000 letters.

"It's hard to get at the essence of the man," she said. "The issues of the day are more interesting than he is as a person."

Now that she is finished with the Johnson biography, Gordon-Reed is at work on another book about the Hemings family, two volumes of a Jefferson biography, and a collaborative book about Jefferson's intellectual development.

"I have the next 10 years planned out for me," she said.


Contact staff writer Dana Vogel at 215-854-2737 or dvogel@phillynews.com.

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