Johnson’s Battles with Congress Strengthened Office of the President

This sepia-toned photograph of Andrew Johnson, signed as president, sold for $3,346 at a June 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On the night President Abraham Lincoln was shot, John Wilkes Booth and his little band of assassins had also planned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth’s fantasy theory was that decapitating the North’s leadership would cause enough chaos to bring the Civil War to an end. Seward survived a brutal stabbing and Johnson’s assigned assassin, George Atzerodt, got cold feet at the last minute. Johnson had gone to bed at the Kirkwood hotel unharmed.

Awakened by a friend, Johnson rushed to Lincoln’s bedside until the president was declared dead. Johnson then returned to the hotel, where he was sworn in as the 17th president by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. The members of his Cabinet assembled in the hotel parlor, where he told them: “I feel incompetent to perform duties so important and responsible as those which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me.”

Despite Johnson’s humble tone, he was actually a fearless, even reckless, fighter for what he believed in. As a result, he became embroiled in the bitterest intra-governmental conflict the nation had ever seen. Like Lincoln, he favored a “mild reconstruction,” in effect turning state governments over to white citizens, with only the main leaders of the Confederacy excluded. However, the Radical Republican leaders demanded “radical reconstruction,” enfranchising former slaves and barring most former Confederates from government.

Initially, Republicans were pleased with Johnson, mistaking him as weak and easier to control than Lincoln. They were confident he would support their plans for severe treatment of the defeated South. “By the Gods! There will be no trouble now in running the government,” declared Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio. Two years later, this same man, now president pro tempore of the Senate, was so confident the Senate had the votes to evict Johnson from the White House that he had already written an inaugural speech and chosen his Cabinet!

But now, by the time Congress finally met in December 1865, the former states of the Confederacy had elected governors and state legislators. And although they approved the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, they had also passed “Black Codes” binding ex-slaves to working the land. In his first annual message to Congress, Johnson railed against this situation, warning Congress of the dire consequences. But Northern Republicans had no intention of welcoming back Democrats from states that had seceded. Instead, they passed new legislation to reinstate military governments throughput the South. Then they established the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist the 4 million freed slaves.

Johnson promptly vetoed everything Congress had passed.

Republicans were not strong enough to override a presidential veto until early 1867, when they passed into law even more harsh Reconstruction Acts, with military governments replacing civil governments set up by Southern Democrats. Johnson warned they were fostering hatred and creating a state of permanent unrest. Radical Republicans answered by slashing back at Johnson and passing the Tenure of Office Act. This total rebuke now forbade the president of the United States from removing ANY federal official without the express consent of the U.S. Senate.

This was tantamount to a declaration of war and Johnson answered by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The House quickly voted to impeach the president on 11 counts. The Senate trial lasted two months and the final tally was 35 guilty and 19 not guilty … one short of conviction. Johnson served out his term, but his political career was over. His fortitude in the face of overwhelming Congressional pressure strengthened the office of the president and helped preserve the separation of powers intended by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Not bad for a former illiterate tailor who never spent a single day in a formal schoolroom.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Jefferson Davis was a Genuine War Hero When He Arrived in the Senate

Jefferson Davis’ arrival in Washington, D.C., as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi was like a coronation.

By Jim O’Neal

Thirteen-year-old Jefferson Davis was tired of school. He returned home from Wilkinson Academy, a few miles from the family cotton plantation, put his books on a table, and told his father he would not return. Samuel Davis shrugged and told his youngest son that he would now have to work with his hands rather than his brain. At dawn the next day, he gave young Jeff a large, thin cloth bag, took him to the cotton field and put him in a long line with the family slaves picking cotton.

Three days later, he was back at Wilkinson, happily reading and taking notes with his bandaged hands.

By 16, Jefferson had mastered Latin and Greek, was well read in history and literature, and eager to study law at the University of Virginia. Instead, he spent four years at West Point, graduated in the bottom third of his class and then entered the Army. He was 20 years old and fighting in both the Black Hawk War and the Mexican-American War.

Jefferson Davis’ arrival in Washington, D.C., as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi was like a coronation. A true war hero at age 36, he was recognized by everyone and warmly greeted by all he met. After all, Jeff Davis was the first genuine war hero in the Senate in its entire 58 years!

His rise to prominence occurred as one generation of leaders died or retired – Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster – and a younger one was set to take over, led by Stephen Douglas (39), Andrew Johnson (39), Alexander Stephens (35), Salmon P. Chase (39) and William Seward (35).

Jeff Davis began to give important speeches in the Senate and everyone sensed he had a future in politics.

The Senate proved comfortable and prestigious, providing an intimate venue to discuss and debate the great issues of the time. Yet despite all the exciting opportunities facing the young nation, the hard fact was that slavery was a pernicious issue lurking in the shadows. It was like a cancer that seemed to grow more lethal after every “compromise” designed to resolve it.

An example was the fateful Compromise of 1850, intended to resolve the four-year controversy over the status of the new territories that accrued to the U.S. after the war with Mexico. California was admitted as a free state, and Texas had slaves, but had to surrender its claim to New Mexico. Utah and New Mexico were granted popular sovereignty (self-determination) and there was a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law (destined to be revoked by the Dred Scott reversal).

Jeff Davis felt so strongly that slavery was a 200-year tradition (to be decided by individual states) and detested the 1850 Compromise so much that he resigned his Senate seat to run for governor of Mississippi, confident this would enhance his national visibility, send a strong message to the North and bolster any wavering Southerners. The strategy failed when he lost the election, leaving him with no political office.

Davis bounced back into the Senate by one vote and new President Franklin Pierce (1852) selected him to be Secretary of War, a powerful position to resist the continuous threat from the North to impose their will on the South by any means necessary. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act just roiled the opposing forces and thoughts of secession were like dry kindling waiting for the proverbial spark. First was President James Buchanan (1856), a Democrat who seemed helpless or resigned to the inevitability of war.

As abolition forces gained momentum and the South grew even more resolute that they would not concede a principle that states’ rights trumped Federal aggression, it was only a question of how or what set of events would tip the nation into a civil war. The answer was in plain sight.

In the critical election year of 1860, though still hopeful of a peaceful settlement on slavery, Davis told an audience that if Republicans won the White House, the Union would have to be dissolved. “I love and venerate the Union of these states,” he said, “but I love liberty and Mississippi more.” When asked if Mississippi should secede if another state did, he roared, “I answer yes!” And if the U.S. Army tried to suppress it? Davis answered even more vehemently. “I will meet force with force!”

Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860.

The slavery issue was simply not resolvable by anything but force. Few foresaw how much force would be needed and the enormous carnage and loss of life involved. War always seems to be much more than anticipated. The 20th century would really amp it up and the 21st century has gotten off to a rocky start, as well.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Things Didn’t Turn Out Well for Russia After Tsar Gave Up Alaska

A portfolio of 12 signed prints by Ansel Adams, including Mount McKinley, Alaska, 1948, realized $37,500 at an October 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Russia offered to sell Alaska to the United States in 1859 since they were concerned that the British would simply take it and add it to their Canadian portfolio. But the looming Civil War prevented any binding agreement. After harmony in the U.S. was restored, Secretary of State William Seward was quick to pounce.

In 1867, the United States paid $7.2 million to Tsar Alexander II in a mildly controversial transaction dubbed “Seward’s Folly” and “Polar Bear Park.” Once gold was discovered in the Yukon, followed by the Klondike Gold Rush, most skeptics’ doubts were dispelled.

Earlier, in 1861, Alexander II had issued an Emancipation for Russia’s 20 million serfs (non-free workers), but it was not for purely humanitarian reasons. This was a further attempt to modernize a Russia that was falling behind the industrializing nations of the West. To assume their perceived rightful place, they adopted wide-ranging reforms across political, social, economic and military areas.

The effects were mixed at best and Emancipation did very little to improve Russian agricultural productivity or the serfs’ well-being. However, Alexander refused to consider any real constitutional reform and maintained a conviction of his divine right to rule as an absolute monarch … which he did until his assassination in 1881 by the terrorist group Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”).

His successor, Alexander III, was willing to embrace industrial reform, but also created a police state, suppressed protest and made trade unions illegal. He also scrapped the concept of a Duma (representative council) and increased military capability. Politically, however, the regime’s unwillingness to reform would ultimately ensure its complete destruction in a Soviet revolution.

The polar bears had a better fate, as Alaska became a full-fledged U.S. state in 1959.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].