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 By William Haupt III | The Center Square

“The Constitution is my guide. I am sworn to uphold the Constitution as ‘I’ – Andrew Johnson – understands it and interprets it. Let them impeach me and be damned.”

– Andrew Johnson

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, concerned over expanding slavery in the west, accepted the presidential nomination from the anti-slavery Republican Party, and won with a mandate. But by the time he arrived in Washington, seven southern states seceded and formed the Confederacy. In April 1861, when he sent supplies to U.S. Fort Sumter in South Carolina, now part of the Confederacy, they were fired upon, and a fierce battle ensued. This marked the beginning of the U.S. Civil War.

According to Binghamton historian David Hacker, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, it ended the deadliest military conflict in U.S. history. Fought from South Pennsylvania to North Florida, over 10,500 battles took place. Approximately 750,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians were lost during this fierce conflict of brother against brother. Almost 3% of our nation’s population made the ultimate sacrifice to end slavery on U.S. soil for future generations.

After the war, to unify the nation, Lincoln chose Southern Democrat Andrew Johnson as vice president in the 1864 election. Johnson had sojourned incognito through the war, which hid his socio-political dark side. But he revealed his true colors after Lincoln was murdered with his loyal Confederate stripes.

“I refuse to enforce policies or laws I don’t personally believe are appropriate.”

– Andrew Johnson

Johnson told the Republican Congress he’d not follow plans to assimilate freed slaves into society. He quickly re-politicized Southern Democrats by granting amnesty to Confederates. He allowed the South to write new constitutions with no regard for former slaves. He abrogated the policies of the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency the Republican Congress created to protect emancipated slaves.

Johnson allowed Democrats to manage Reconstruction without Republican oversight and ignored the Tenure of Office Act. He refused to sign the Republican Civil Rights Act of 1866 and he vetoed the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Outraged Republicans impeached him on Feb. 24, 1868.

“We had to stop Johnson from destroying all we had done to end slavery!”

– Thaddeus Stevens

During Johnson’s high profile impeachment trial, northern Democrats defended Johnson’s actions with all voting against conviction. Consequently Johnson survived impeachment by one vote. And this one act of defiance by Senate Democrats in 1868 denied blacks of equal rights for a century.

And worse: It enabled southern Democrats to replace the evils of slavery with baneful segregation.

Historians question Lincoln picking a running mate who could undermine his objectives if given a chance. Southern Democrats were critical of Lincoln’s first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, who they claimed had black ancestors. Lincoln, desperate to reunite the nation, chose Democrat Johnson since he claimed to support the Union. But while Lincoln was thinking about America, Johnson only cared about party politics.

“This will be a country of white men of God as long as I am president.”

– Andrew Johnson

History reveals “knowledge is king.” That is why decades after abolitionist Lincoln and Republicans won a torrid battle to emancipate enslaved Americans, those with a common core education, never learned why we needed to fight that battle for another 100 years; and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And many of them are blaming the wrong people for the wrong reasons for today’s radical racial unrest. While most are aware of Lincoln’s legacy of ending slavery, few are cognizant of his one fateful decision to pick racist Andrew Johnson as his VP,  thinking that would unify the nation?

Despite political polarization, historians downplay the role of Civil War partisanship. Yet the war was not just about ending slavery, it was about defending political ideologies. The Democrats saw Lincoln and other abolitionist Republicans as a threat to their base, which supported slavery. Both northern and southern Democrats feared these new “Radical Republicans” since public opinion was on their side. So they unanimously supported the shameless Johnson up to the final role call.

Black Pulitzer Prize wining author Annette Reed describes Johnson as a president at an epic time in history who was loyal to his party rather than to his county when it needed unity. She points out the opportunity he had to make a positive lasting mark on history if he had worked with Congress and followed the agenda Lincoln and the Republicans had approved instead of trying to reenergize his party.

“The sovereignty of the States is the language of the Confederacy.”

– Andrew Johnson

Political author David Goldfield reminds us the Republican Party was founded to end slavery by the North and slavery was a southern institution and part of their way of life. And the Democratic Party was the “defender of southern life.” After the Civil War, it was the Democrats’ opposition to Republican Reconstruction legislation that solidified their hold on the South for decades after the war. Goldfield said, “Every statue honoring Confederate heroes you see in the U.S. was erected by the Democrats.”

Matthew 6:24 tells us, “No man can serve two masters.” There is a time and place for politics and a nation in need of leadership is not the time. During the two Great Wars, Americans set politics aside and formed united fronts to battle enemies abroad to fight for liberty and bring peace to a troubled world. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush united a politically divided nation with support from Congress to retaliate for the 2,977 lives lost. After the Civil War, our nation faced its greatest challenge in history, and Andrew Johnson’s failure to set politics aside and govern haunts us today.

Johnson believed the South never seceded because secession was illegal. Therefore they had never left the United States. He believed since the conflict ended, the country should go back to how it was before, only without slavery. In his eyes, Blacks were not citizens and would remain under the dominion of southern Democrats. This allowed him to justify not protecting their civil rights. He alone is responsible for every radical racial issue we currently have in America today.

A century later with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the nation moved closer to Lincoln’s aspirations. This greatly enhanced Lincoln’s legacy, although it was not yet fully achieved. We can only ponder how the course of race relations might have been dramatically altered if Lincoln had a northern abolitionist Republican VP instead of a racist southern Democrat as his running mate.

With an election on the horizon, and both candidates aging, like the election of 1864, when we vote this year it’s paramount we recall Lincoln’s miscue that gave us Andrew Johnson. Lincoln’s error in judgment damaged his legacy, and deprived America of completing his vision and the mission of the Republican Party to end racism in America forever. Will we vote for a VP that was a successful governor and proven leader? Or elect one with no leadership experience and no governing record? We can’t afford to make the same costly mistake today that Lincoln made.

“Being vice President is one instance where the man makes the office and the office doesn’t make the man.”

– Harry S. Truman


Contributing Columnist William Haupt III is a retired professional journalist, author, and citizen legislator in California for over 40 years. He got his start working to approve California Proposition 13.

Author: Frances Rice