Is the Trump phenom unprecedented in U.S. history? The short answer comes from the Good Book, Ecclesiastes, to be exact. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Andrew Johnson’s administration, considered by those in the know to be one of the two or three worst presidents in American history, bears a remarkably similar resemblance to the current administration.
On February 22, 1866, ten months after ascending to the presidency when his predecessor decided to catch a show at Ford’s Theatre, Andrew Johnson delivered an impromptu speech in front of the White House. It was the 134th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, and less than a year since the end of the bloodiest war in the United States history.
It was the perfect moment to deliver a short, unifying message of hope. Instead Andrew Johnson pontificated for an hour referring to himself 200 times. Asking his audience, “Who, I ask, has suffered more for the Union than I have?”
Sound familiar? During the 2016, Gold Star father, Khizr Khan argued Trump had “sacrificed nothing” for his country. Trump’s egocentric and nonsensical response provided the nation insight into how he sees himself. "I think I've made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I've created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I've had tremendous success. I think I've done a lot."
Like Trump, Johnson was essentially a man without a party. Though a Democrat, Lincoln recruited Johnson in 1864 hoping, correctly, the mixed ticket would help his reelection odds. After Lincoln’s assassination, Republicans didn’t trust Johnson because he was a Democrat, while Democrats didn’t trust him because he had aligned himself with Lincoln. He was a man untethered, loyal only to himself.
Johnson firmly believed conspiracies were attempting to end his presidency. At the George Washington birthday speech, he expounded on conspiracy theories he believed as dangerous as the euphemistic “separation” the Union was recovering from. “There is an attempt to concentrate the power of the Government in the hands of a few, and thereby bring about a consolidation, which is equally dangerous and objectionable with separation.”
Johnson’s repeatedly lays blame on dark shadowy figures within the Federal Government. “Whether by assassination or not, there are individuals in this Government, I doubt not, who want to destroy our institutions and change the character of the Government. Are they not satisfied with the blood which has been shed?”
His paranoia was on display when, during the Washington birthday speech Johnson accused Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens and abolitionist, Wendell Phillips of plotting Johnson’s assassination.
In Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Douglass describes meeting Johnson at the 1864 Inauguration. “The first expression which came to his [Johnson’s] face, and which I think was the true index of his heart, was one of bitter contempt and aversion. Seeing that I observed him, he tried to assume a more friendly appearance; but it was too late; it was useless to close the door when all within had been seen. His first glance was the frown of the man, the second was the bland and sickly smile of the demagogue.”
Johnson fought Presidential Reconstruction, to the joy of Southern whites, and Northern industrialists benefitting from unregulated cheap labor. In 1866, Johnson vetoed a bill expanding the nascent Freedmen's Bureau, formed in 1865 by act of Congress, at the behest of Lincoln. In addition, Johnson twice vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the nation’s first act to define citizenship and affirm that all citizens are equally protected by the law. Congress overrode the Civil Rights bill veto, but not the Freedman Bureau, falling two votes short of the two-thirds majority needed in the Senate.
Days before the votes for the two bills, the majority Congressional Republicans were confident the President was on their side. His vetoes came out without warning, shocking the party in power. When Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights act, he argued that the bill conferred citizenship on the freedmen at a time when 11 out of 36 states were unrepresented in the Congress. He also argued Johnson also argued the bill discriminated in favor of African-Americans and against whites. It is important to recall that those 11 states who were unrepresented in the vote were so because they had ceded from the Union four years earlier.
The similarities between Johnson and Trump are difficult to miss. And, the similarities may also not bode well. In 1868, the House of Representatives successfully impeached Johnson where a two-thirds majority voted in favor. The Senate trial, however is another story. Requiring a two-thirds majority to convict, the action failed by just a single vote. For Johnson, nothing had changed, and the racist, probably corrupt President remained in power until Ulysses S. Grant defeated Horatio Seymour, in November of that year.
Impeaching a president is only the first step. Removing a president is rare, as in, it has never been done. No matter how incompetent, self-aggrandizing, racist, corrupt, or treasonous the President appears to be. Is it possible? Absolutely. Will the current Congress find the Mueller conclusions compelling enough, impossible to ignore or denounce? Only time will tell.
Political Journalist (Washington, DC)