On Oct. 24, 1864, Andrew Johnson, a candidate for vice president of the United States, spoke to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of African Americans in Nashville, Tennessee, his home state.
Johnson promised “freedom, full, broad, and unconditional,” to every man in Tennessee. He promised Black women they would no longer be “dragged into concubinage… to satisfy the brutal lusts of slaveholders and overseers.”
When members of the audience begged Johnson to be their Moses, he replied, “humble and unworthy as I am, if no other better man shall be found, I will indeed be your Moses, and lead you through the Red Sea of war and bondage, to a fairer future of liberty and peace.”
Six months later, following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson became president of the United States. In April 1868, the House of Representatives impeached him. The “demented Moses of Tennessee,” a Black clergyman declared, deserved conviction for promising to lead African Americans and oppressing them instead.
Johnson to Douglass
In “The Failed Promise,” Robert Levine, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of “The Lives of Frederick Douglass,” recounts the events that led to disillusionment with Johnson, his impeachment and acquittal, and fading hopes for an egalitarian, multiracial Reconstruction.
To illuminate his themes, Levine highlights the evolving perspectives of Johnson and Douglass, the nation’s premier Black leader.
“The Failed Promise” explains why Johnson, who is now reviled as a racist and one of the worst presidents in American history, was initially, if warily, embraced by Douglass, other prominent African Americans, and Radical Republicans.
During the Civil War, we learn, Johnson, a southern anomaly, told white Tennesseans that “slavery was a cancer on our society,” praised the bravery of African American troops, asked “What right have you to use Black labor without compensation?” and vowed to punish Confederate traitors. Early in his presidency, Johnson indicated he favored a plan for limited Black suffrage that was similar to a proposal made by Lincoln.
Made an about-face
Soon, however, Johnson made an abrupt about face. He pardoned almost every former Confederate who pledged loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. He announced he would admit Confederate states to the Union as soon as they ratified the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery – and leave to them decisions about security, property, the right to labor and vote.
Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation and an extension on the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
His “racism emerged in its baldest form,” Levine notes, in a Message to Congress in 1867, in which he predicted that Radical Republican policies would “Africanize half of our country”; Blacks, Johnson added, could not govern themselves, let alone others, because they had a tendency “to relapse into barbarism” and regard “every white man who has any respect for the rights of his own race as an enemy.”
By then, Frederick Douglass had concluded that Johnson was anything but a Moses. In a White House meeting with the president in February 1866, Douglass characteristically spoke truth to power: “You enfranchise your enemies and disenfranchise your friends.” That December, Douglass implied that Johnson’s decisions contributed to the death of Black people; the president was a “usurper, a political criminal… an embarrassment.”
‘A race problem’
Douglass supported impeachment and was sorely disappointed that the Senate came one vote short of conviction. He recognized, however, that one man was not responsible for the fact that although slavery had been abolished in the United States, “its asserted spirit remains.”
Shortly before he died, Douglass inscribed a copy of his autobiography with these words: “Not a Negro problem, not a race problem, but a national problem; whether the American people will ultimately administer equal justice to all the varieties of the human race in this Republic.”
America would remain a slave culture, he implied, until Americans truly confronted their past.
The record of race relations in the 20th and 21st centuries, Levine concludes, “sadly confirms Douglass’s status as one of the nation’s prophets.”
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.