Time Modifies History’s Judgments

By Frank Blechman

Today is PRESIDENT’S Day, the combined observation of the birthdays of two of American’s best-regarded chief executives, George Washington (born February 22, 1732) and Abraham Lincoln (born April 12,1804). I had planned to write about their virtues, the lessons to be learned from the challenges they faced and the solutions they pioneered. That, however, will have to wait for another day. It appears that the only topic of conversation these days is impeachment of the immediate past president, Donald Trump (born June 14, 1946).

I have to reveal that I approach this topic with a little history of my own. Fifty years ago, I lived in Greeneville, Tennessee, the hometown of Andrew Johnson (born December 29, 1805), the first president ever to be impeached. While not beloved as a standard bearer for all of East Tennessee, in Greeneville Andrew Johnson was regarded as honorable if misunderstood. His home and tailor shop were preserved by the National Park Service. Tours emphasized his rise from poverty to success in business and politics; his firm beliefs in fundamental principles and his resistance to pressures to amend or abandon them. As the only Southern members of the U.S. Senate who did not resign his seat at the outbreak of the Civil War, Johnson cited his reverence for the Constitution as the basis for his support of the Union. Regarded as a traitor by some in his home state, he served as military governor of Tennessee (1862-63), and as Lincoln’s Vice President on the 1864 ‘Union’ ticket.

After Lincoln’s assassination elevated Johnson to the presidency, he tried to carry out a compassionate reunifying reconstruction policy, as he interpreted Lincoln’s intent. Republican leaders in Congress initially tried to work with him, but chafed when he opposed and then obstructed their plans for a much more active reconstruction, one that would punish Southern leaders of the insurrection and empower newly freed slaves. These “radical” Republicans ultimately set a trap, passing a law (the Tenure in Office Act, subsequently ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) preventing Johnson from replacing cabinet members not of his choosing. He tried to rid himself of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in defiance of the Act. Impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate in 1868, Johnson left Washington loathed and embittered. Welcomed home to East Tennessee, he was reelected to the US Senate in 1875. He died of a stroke only five months into that term, and was buried on a hilltop in Greeneville, with his head resting on a copy of the constitution.

Living there 100 years after Johnson’s pivotal conflict with Congress, I drank in the hometown version of the story. That story (largely accepted by John Kennedy in his Profiles in Courage chapter on the impeachment) said that the radical Republicans wanted policies so severe that they might have triggered another outbreak of war; only Johnson’s moderation in the face of their extremism prevented renewed violence. Johnson, and the senators who voted not to impeach, were the heroes.

Most historians today take a much dimmer view of Andrew Johnson than the one I learned in his hometown. Stubborn to the point of obstinacy, given to drink, erratic and abusive, Johnson is now held in low regard for his blanket pardons of Southern traitors, his refusal to recognize freed slaves as citizens, and his begrudging acceptance of the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution.

General Ulysses Grant, who succeeded Johnson as the 18th president and was regarded for much of the last 100 years as a drunk who ran a corrupt administration, has now arrived in a much better revisionist light, in part for his fight to win freed slaves the rights of citizenship, and his successful efforts to crush to Ku Klux Klan.

History is almost always more complicated than any single perspective of events. That’s why it takes time, often several generations, to sort through views to eventually render a somewhat settled judgement. Even then, no judgment is final. Today, many of us, including myself, look at the record of the 45th President and wonder if it is the worst ever…. Try as we might, we cannot take the long view in the heat of the moment. With my old friend Andrew Johnson in mind, we will all do well remember that.

My lesson from all this, if I needed one, is that history is almost always more complicated than any single perspective of events. That’s why it takes time, often several generations, to sort through views to eventually render a somewhat settled judgement. Even then, no judgment is final.

Today, many of us, including myself, look at the record of the 45th President and wonder if it is the worst ever.** Regardless of the Senate’s refusal to convict Trump, many Trump supporters will continue to view him as a crusading hero and martyr, while his opponents will view him as a liar, fraud, and autocrat. Many further legal and political actions will take place in the years to come that will be part of history’s catalog. Try as we might, we cannot take the long view in the heat of the moment. With my old friend Andrew Johnson in mind, we will all do well remember that.

** Personally, I still think the 15th President of the United States, James Buchanan, wins the prize as the worst president ever. Both his actions and inactions brought us the US Civil War. Whereas however bad Trump tried to be, his incompetence reduced his effectiveness and thereby his long-term impact on our country.



Categories: elections, Issues, National, politics

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