Worst Presidents: Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)

He survived impeachment after opposing Reconstruction initiatives including the 14th amendment.

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Slideshow: Worst Presidents

Andrew Johnson has risen in scholarly dis-esteem since the publication of Arthur Schlesinger's 1948 poll probably because the post-Civil War Reconstruction has enjoyed a thorough scholarly face-lift, and Johnson is now scorned for having resisted Radical Republican policies aimed at securing the rights and well-being of the newly emancipated African-Americans.

Before he was president, historian Woodrow Wilson did a lastingly thorough job of sullying Reconstruction, depicting it as a vindictive program that hurt even repentant southerners while benefiting northern opportunists, the so-called Carpetbaggers, and cynical white southerners, or Scalawags, who exploited alliances with blacks for political gain.

A native North Carolinian of humble origins, Johnson worked as a tailor and eventually settled in Tennessee, where he entered politics as a populist Jackson Democrat. He was elected to several high offices, including U.S. senator.

Though no abolitionist, he was a staunch supporter of the Union and the only southerner to retain his seat in the Senate after secession. For his loyalty, Lincoln appointed him military governor of Tennessee, where he set about suppressing Confederates and championing black suffrage. (Tennessee became the first southern state to end slavery by state law.) Lincoln selected him as his running mate in 1864, and Johnson became the 17th president only a month after being sworn in as vice president.

Unfortunately, his subsequent battles with Radical Republicans in Congress over a host of Reconstruction measures revealed political ineptitude and an astonishing indifference toward the plight of the newly freed African-Americans. In addition to vetoing renewal of the Freedman's Bureau and the first civil rights bill, he encouraged opposition to the 14th Amendment.

An increasingly nasty power struggle—in which Congress wrongly attempted to strip him of certain constitutionally delegated powers—resulted in the first presidential impeachment and a near conviction. Failing to be renominated, he returned to Tennessee and was again elected to the U.S. Senate.

History's current verdict may prove to be overly harsh, but it is fair to say that Johnson did turn a blind eye to those southerners who tried to undo what the Civil War had accomplished.