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Andrew Johnson: A Biography (1989)

por Hans L. Trefousse

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1426148,869 (3.3)19
Politically shrewd but fatally unable to adapt to new political realities, Andrew Johnson presided, disastrously, over the tumultuous first years of Reconstruction. In this provocative account, Hans Trefousse gives us "a brilliant, compassionate portrait of a dynamic era of social change and national healing, and of the tragic failure of an American leader" (Library Journal).… (mais)
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leather The Easton Edition
  wulff | Oct 22, 2020 |
Take any list of the worst presidents in American history, and Andrew Johnson's name will feature prominently at the top of it. On one level, this is hardly surprising. Succeeding as he did the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he faced the formidable challenge of restoring the peace after the bloodiest and most divisive conflict in American history. Given the task at hand and laboring as he did in the shadow of the martyred president, criticism was inevitable. Yet as Hans Trefousse shows in this book, Johnson's own rigid adherence to his beliefs prevented the sort of compromising that might have smoothed the path toward his goals and forestalled the impeachment that forever distinguishes his term in office.

The irony in Trefousse's account is that such rigidity was uncharacteristic in his youth. As a budding politician in antebellum Tennessee, Johnson often shifted positions as he sought to define his political identity to voters. His impoverished background, however, served as the foundation for his unwavering support for the rights of the poor, and his admiration of Andrew Jackson ensured that the would be identified with the Democratic Party. Trefousse makes the interesting case that Johnson was in many respects an adherent not as much to Jacksonian Democracy but to the Old Republican ideas of Thomas Jefferson. Such views would put him increasingly at odds with the industrializing nation that emerged in his lifetime, yet this proved less of an issue in his home state than it would when he became president later on.

As an ambitious border-state politician, the outbreak of the Civil War posed the greatest challenge of Johnson's career, and in terms of his ambitions he made what would turn out to be the correct choice. But Trefousse makes it clear that Johnson decision to stay with the union did not entail any reconsideration of his views on race. This became an issue once he became president, as he supported generous terms of reunification that left the freedmen in a legal position little different from slavery. Johnson's stubborn commitment to his views alienated the Republicans in Congress, empowering the Radicals among their ranks to push for impeachment. Trefousse shows the impeachment as a rushed affair, as the trial quickly demonstrated the hollowness of the prosecution's case. Johnson's victory proved a Pyrrhic one, though, as he found himself reduced to irrelevance in the aftermath of his acquittal. Hungering for a return to a national stage, he saw his election to the Senate in 1875 as a vindication by the people, albeit one cut short by a series of strokes that killed him soon afterward.

Trefousse's book serves as a solid account of the political career of America's 17th president. Having written biographies of some of the other key figures in the impeachment controversy, he brings considerable insight to bear on the central act of Johnson's political career, showing it as a far messier and more muddled affair than might otherwise appear to be the case. Yet his description of Johnson's pre-presidential career suffers from an absence of similar insight, and provides little more than a chronicle of his career and achievements. Nonetheless, his book stands as the best biography available of this controversial figure, one that makes a convincing argument that his place in history was ultimately defined by his inability to practice that central skill of a successful politician — the art of compromise. ( )
  MacDad | Mar 27, 2020 |
This biography ties together what has been for me a lot of frustration in trying to understand, if that is even possible fully, Andrew Johnson’s role in the failures of reconstruction. My earlier readings regarding reconstruction had not revealed enough of Johnson, the man, to allow me to move beyond this momentous time in history. I am always returning to this period seeking to understand better. In his brief Preface, Trefousse credits a mass of newly accessible documentation from the University of Tennessee as inspiration for this “reassessment” of Johnson’s life. Sixty-two pages of notes offer more than ample references to sources. ( )
  danatdtms | Jan 17, 2020 |
Andrew Johnson was a self-made man who was placed into a difficult position by his place in time. This enigmatic man was the only Southern Senator who remained loyal to the Union at the time the Civil War began. He believed whole-heartedly in the Union and the Constitution and throughout his life fought to preserve them. But he was a contradiction. He was a Democrat that served as Lincoln's (a Republican) Vice President, he was a white supremacist that was concerned about freed men of color, he was a politician who lost only two elections - one early one late in career - but was always looking for vindication by the people.

Johnson was a stubborn man who appeared to believe that he was always right when it came to political matters and here lies his difficulties. Since he was a Democrat in a Republican administration per se, he had little support for his plans for the Reconstruction of the nation at the end of the war and after Lincoln's assassination. He used the Presidential veto 29 times and was overridden 15. His personal feelings for other politicians frequently got in the way of vital legislation. However, he held ground in his belief of the powers of the Constitution and was vindicated at his impeachment proceedings by acquittal.

I still think I need more details concerning the impeachment process, so another book is in order for that historical event. As a President I don['t think that he was great, but he wasn't as bad IMHO, as history makes him out. ( )
  cyderry | Feb 1, 2012 |
Andrew Johnson is one of the more intriguing characters in US history - at least for me. He was a Democrat, albeit a Unionist Democrat, that served as Vice President under Republican Abraham Lincoln. He professed to be concerned for black freedmen to the point of even referring to himself as their "Moses", yet repeated expressed white supremacist views and implemented Reconstruction policies seemingly without regard for the effect on freedmen in the South. He's the first US president to be impeached, with precident-setting results for executive-legislative relations ever since. My hope with Hans Trefousse's Andrew Johnson: A Biography - the first full biography of Johnson I've read - was to better understand this complex man, especially where he impacted post-Civil War events.

Johnson is presented here as the classic self-made man - humble beginnings, self assurance and hard work leading to material success, the desire to excel in politics to validate his success. He presented himself as a populist and Jacksonian Democrat his whole political career, and in fact on many occasions was able to translate that persona into real support from the people, at least some segments of the populace. Yet the same determination that led to his success turned into sheer pig-headedness when the country needed the president and Congress to put the nation back together again after the Civil War. While more than one factor was in play, it's clear that without some compromise, the southern states were given latitude to put a de facto slave culture back in place.

Trefousse's work is a functional biography - it presents the man and attempts to understand him - but it was a bit of a long slog. Frankly, the first half of the book was rather dry and throughout the whole book, I never felt I really got Andrew Johnson in the way other authors have made other presidents come alive. The second half of the book certainly picked up more interest, with all the drama associated with the conflict between Johnson and those with more radical ideas about how to reconstruct the Union. I suppose part of my reaction to the book came from my dislike of the man presented here and the things he stood for. However inappropriate that might be for historical study, it certainly made it hard for me to connect with the work. ( )
1 vote drneutron | Jun 25, 2010 |
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When Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth president of the United States, was born,  on December 29, 1808, his native Raleigh was still a raw settlement.
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Politically shrewd but fatally unable to adapt to new political realities, Andrew Johnson presided, disastrously, over the tumultuous first years of Reconstruction. In this provocative account, Hans Trefousse gives us "a brilliant, compassionate portrait of a dynamic era of social change and national healing, and of the tragic failure of an American leader" (Library Journal).

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