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Andrew Johnson: A Biography

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Politically shrewd but fatally unable to adapt to new political realities, Andrew Johnson presided, disastrously, over the tumultuous first years of Reconstruction. In this provocative account, Hans Trefousse gives us "a brilliant, compassionate portrait of a dynamic era of social change and national healing, and of the tragic failure of an American leader" (Library Journa Politically shrewd but fatally unable to adapt to new political realities, Andrew Johnson presided, disastrously, over the tumultuous first years of Reconstruction. In this provocative account, Hans Trefousse gives us "a brilliant, compassionate portrait of a dynamic era of social change and national healing, and of the tragic failure of an American leader" (Library Journal).


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Politically shrewd but fatally unable to adapt to new political realities, Andrew Johnson presided, disastrously, over the tumultuous first years of Reconstruction. In this provocative account, Hans Trefousse gives us "a brilliant, compassionate portrait of a dynamic era of social change and national healing, and of the tragic failure of an American leader" (Library Journa Politically shrewd but fatally unable to adapt to new political realities, Andrew Johnson presided, disastrously, over the tumultuous first years of Reconstruction. In this provocative account, Hans Trefousse gives us "a brilliant, compassionate portrait of a dynamic era of social change and national healing, and of the tragic failure of an American leader" (Library Journal).

30 review for Andrew Johnson: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    KC

    I knew nothing about Johnson and what I learned sickened me. He was a racist idiot. The book itself was fine. It started off well but got a bit bogged down and by the end I hated the man so much I just wanted to finish it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    http://bestpresidentialbios.com/2014/... “Andrew Johnson: A Biography” by Hans Trefousse was published in 1989. Trefousse was a historian, author and professor at Brooklyn College for several decades. He was considered a dean of the Reconstruction era and authored nearly a dozen books (including a biography of former president Rutherford B. Hayes). Trefousse died in 2010 at the age of eighty-eight. Trefousse’s biography of Johnson is a comprehensive but not burdensome examination of the former pre http://bestpresidentialbios.com/2014/... “Andrew Johnson: A Biography” by Hans Trefousse was published in 1989. Trefousse was a historian, author and professor at Brooklyn College for several decades. He was considered a dean of the Reconstruction era and authored nearly a dozen books (including a biography of former president Rutherford B. Hayes). Trefousse died in 2010 at the age of eighty-eight. Trefousse’s biography of Johnson is a comprehensive but not burdensome examination of the former president’s life. Unfortunately, the author seems to focus on Johnson’s presidency at the expense of the more inspirational (and potentially more interesting) story of his purposeville escape from poverty (and lack of education) as a child. Johnson’s historic impeachment by the House of Representatives in 1868 – and his subsequent acquittal by the Senate – receives significant, but not unwarranted, attention. And happily, Trefousse’s biography is easy to read and almost always resists the temptation to overwhelm the reader with more detail than is needed. Despite the likely temptation to paint Johnson as an despicable human and detestable politician, Trefousse’s coverage of Johnson is thoughtful and well balanced. Although the author seems to frequently sympathize with his subject, he is never reluctant to criticize or castigate Johnson for his numerous failings. Also accruing to the reader’s benefit, Trefousse often begins chapters by foreshadowing important future events and usually finishes chapters by summarizing Johnson’s predicament-de-jour. Unfortunately, Johnson seems a difficult person for a biographer to review. He was neither a great person nor a successful president. Little seems to have been recorded of his life which would allow an author to paint a dynamic, colorful and consistently interesting portrait of the man…or else the author simply ignored material which could have provided Johnson with much-needed vitality and charm. In few of the nearly four-hundred pages did Johnson’s personality (to the extent it existed) leap off the page. By the biography’s end, Johnson remains enigmatic. His family – almost always hidden in the background where Johnson himself kept them – remains unfamiliar. And the compelling story of Johnson’s rise from pauper to president – in many ways similar to that of Andrew Jackson and even Lincoln – is never fully explored. In addition, Trefousse assumes reader is already acquainted with this era of American history. Rarely does he provide historical context outside the bubble in which Johnson lived and acted. Many of the characters in the story of Johnson’s presidency are familiar (particularly the cabinet which was largely retained from the Lincoln presidency) but otherwise much of the political landscape will be unfamiliar terrain for most. Overall, Hans Trefousse’s “Andrew Johnson: A Biography” may well be one of the best and most thorough books of Johnson’s life. Rarely entertaining, it is generally informative and occasionally insightful. While it serves its basic purpose well, few readers will come away dazzled or amazed. Whether that is Andrew Johnson’s fault – or the author’s – is open to debate. Overall rating: 3½ stars

  3. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

    Yikes. Seventeenth in my reading of the US Presidents, the 17th US President is a doozy, and not in the good way. The single greatest question I had in this book is why, Lincoln, why did you let this guy become your VP?! That's not a totally fair question, of course. I don't think Lincoln or the Union party really considered the issue of Johnson ascending to the presidency. But following the incredible president and man that Lincoln was, and his consummate political skill, we have Johnson, who w Yikes. Seventeenth in my reading of the US Presidents, the 17th US President is a doozy, and not in the good way. The single greatest question I had in this book is why, Lincoln, why did you let this guy become your VP?! That's not a totally fair question, of course. I don't think Lincoln or the Union party really considered the issue of Johnson ascending to the presidency. But following the incredible president and man that Lincoln was, and his consummate political skill, we have Johnson, who was an arrogant, amateur blowhard by comparison. The book itself is readable, well-researched, reasonably detailed, and one of the more unbiased bios I have read. In general I have commented on these biographies that it's difficult not to make the subject a protagonist, but Trefousse does a remarkable job giving us a man on paper, and refusing either to censor or viciously decry the actions of the man. He does say several times that it is impossible to ignore the fact that Johnson was a particularly disgusting racist (and this after reading bios of Tyler, who had a "slavery ambassador" to England and Franklin Pierce, who almost cheered Lincoln's death!). Johnson is particularly awful in his disingenuousness. At what point claiming he would be the black man's "Moses", he had the gall to say that the government should offer nothing to freedmen that it had not to the 'white man'. His actions in 1865 and his undermining of reconstruction can be seen as nothing but damning, something that helped the rise of the KKK, helped to empower former Confederate leaders, and led inevitably to the death and torture of thousands and thousands of human beings. It's hard to take his constitutional values all that kindly when faced with the consequences of his actions (which he was proud of). Let me say again that Trefousse dis a heroic job of pulling me back from single-minded, white-hot hate for this dumpster fire of a president. I did get a little lost in the listing of congressional names occasionally, but Trefousse does a good job of showing that despite being awful, the impeachment was mostly a political facade. It's hard to say exactly why it failed by a single vote - Johnson tading favors with key politicians, the possibility of the radical Ben Wade becoming president, or an actual stand for the president's innocence. Johnson had so badly miscalculated his political moves up to that point that he could have been voted out simply because of opposition to his administration, and the fact that he was innocent of federal crime doesn't mean he didn't kind of deserve to face some consequence for his impolitic behavior. It's a tragedy that the only US Senator to refuse to secede with his state was such a bad president and person. Talk about the potential in a story. Instead, Trefousse says "his boost to Southern conservatives by undermining Reconstruction was his legacy to the nation, one that would trouble the country for generations to come." Indeed - a legacy that we still pay for today. The fact that the more radical visions for Reconstruction would have had disastrous results is really beside the point - a strong president would have moderated those feelings while still providing an effective plan for readmitting states who were effectively responsible for the deaths of 600,000 Americans. Instead, Johnson chose his own path, with essentially no winners except leaders of the secession. It is unfortunate that Johnson was the man to follow Lincoln. Trefousse mentions in his conclusion that historical judgments are rarely fixed in place, and that Johnson's memory has waxed and waned some, but from the distance we now have, it is hard for a modern audience to 1) stomach the man's views or 2) buy his (often racist) excuses. This book, though, is a good read for those who can handle it, and it certainly gives us an image of the man - if not a very flattering one. With the strength of hindsight, I can firmly say that the people have not vindicated his actions as president, no matter how much he thought they would.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

    Historical judgments are rarely fixed in place, as Hans Trefousse suggests at the end of this look at the life of America's first impeached president. But there is little to find appealing in the character of the clearly racist Andrew Johnson, despite his own opinions of himself. Still, his ideas were supported by the times in which he lived, and he had enough political skill to push his way to the top, time after time. Trefousse maintains a fair assessment throughout the book, and offers a vivi Historical judgments are rarely fixed in place, as Hans Trefousse suggests at the end of this look at the life of America's first impeached president. But there is little to find appealing in the character of the clearly racist Andrew Johnson, despite his own opinions of himself. Still, his ideas were supported by the times in which he lived, and he had enough political skill to push his way to the top, time after time. Trefousse maintains a fair assessment throughout the book, and offers a vivid picture of life in early-nineteenth century Tennessee, mid-century Washington D.C., and the family and other personal relationships of president #17. Perhaps Lincoln's biggest mistake, Johnson today is known for mishandling Reconstruction, and as the main character of this book, appears to be both hero and villain. I found myself angry several times during this endeavor, and while the credit for that goes mostly to the subject, I give the author praise for calming me again; reeling me back in.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mark Roth

    This book was an interesting biography of America's 17th president, although it did not paint as complete a picture of the subject as I would have liked. While it does cover the whole of Andrew Johnson's life, it often skims over details that I would have been interested in understanding in more depth. As most high school history classes teach, Johnson inherited the presidency after Lincoln was assassinated, and he was the first president to be impeached after a show-down with Congress over South This book was an interesting biography of America's 17th president, although it did not paint as complete a picture of the subject as I would have liked. While it does cover the whole of Andrew Johnson's life, it often skims over details that I would have been interested in understanding in more depth. As most high school history classes teach, Johnson inherited the presidency after Lincoln was assassinated, and he was the first president to be impeached after a show-down with Congress over Southern Reconstruction in the wake of the Civil War. The author does a good job of filling in the context of those basic facts by exploring Johnson's life and times and his personal political views. The author effectively paints Johnson's political views as stubbornly consistent throughout his life. This is a challenge, given that Johnson was never an orthodox party adherent; on the surface, Johnson started out pro-Southern, became a Unionist during the Civil War, but then acted in a strongly pro-South manner during the struggle with Congress over Reconstruction. However, the author does a good job of showing that Johnson's world-view, while overly simplistic, was essentially consistent the whole time; he was always pro-Union, but he subscribed to the old Jeffersonian/Jacksonian interpretation of the Constitution, and that interpretation guided his actions, regardless of which party they happened to be in conflict with at the time. That having been said, the author does mention several incidents where Johnson's actions were not consistent with his political views, such as his agreeing to appoint pro-Northern military governors for Southern states to ensure that moderates in the Senate would vote for acquittal at his impeachment trial. I would have liked to have seen more analysis of Johnson's frame of mind during this type of incident, to better understand why someone who was so stubbornly consistent was willing to bend his principles in some situations but not others. The author succeeded so well at expressing Johnson's life story from Johnson's own perspective that he actually made me sympathize with his views -- at least, in some ways. He seems to have been honestly driven by his belief that it was illegal for the Southern states to secede from the Union in the first place, so they needed to be treated as still-present members of the Union rather than "let back in" under Congress's terms. Unfortunately, he was also a racist and out of touch with the needs of the country during his administration. In all, this was a good portrait of Andrew Johnson. I learned a lot by reading it, and would recommend it to others interested in American's 17th president and his life and times.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Scott Cox

    Andrew Johnson, 17th president of the United States, attained to the highest office upon the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Johnson’s legacy? He is perhaps best known as being the first American President to be impeached by Congress. However, his greater legacy, according to biographer Hans Trefousse, was that "Johnson was a child of his time, but he failed to grow with it" (p.379) and Johnson "had achieved at least in the long run what he wanted, the continued existence of viable S Andrew Johnson, 17th president of the United States, attained to the highest office upon the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Johnson’s legacy? He is perhaps best known as being the first American President to be impeached by Congress. However, his greater legacy, according to biographer Hans Trefousse, was that "Johnson was a child of his time, but he failed to grow with it" (p.379) and Johnson "had achieved at least in the long run what he wanted, the continued existence of viable Southern state governments within the Union and the maintenance of white supremacy. His boost to Southern conservatives by undermining Reconstruction was his legacy to the nation, one that would trouble the country for generations to come" (p.352). This is a sad legacy for someone who had similarities to President Lincoln: both had been born/raised in poverty, and both hailed from Southern border states. But here the comparison ends, and the contrasts begin. Unlike Lincoln, the “Tailor President” (reflecting his trade) never empathized with those born under slavery. And unlike Lincoln who failed to win most of his political elections prior to running for President, Johnson was quite successful in running for offices in his home state of Tennessee. Interestingly, Lincoln liked Johnson, though Johnson remained a steadfast “Jacksonian Democrat” his entire life. He was an acceptable Vice President running mate for Lincoln in 1864 in part because he was a “war Democrat,” in fact Johnson was the only Southern Senator who remained in Congress as a Unionist during the Civil War. However after Lincoln’s death, Johnson pursued his personal agenda: a firm belief in states-rights, opposition to African-American suffrage, and draconian Jacksonian economics. This is in large part why Andrew Johnson was impeached by congress during the volatile era of Reconstruction. His acquittal was only due to lack of any evidence for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors" (p.283), and not because of his popularity with Congress. Like John Quincy Adams, after his presidency Andrew Johnson returned to Washington to serve in Congress in the few remaining years prior to his death in 1875.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Elyse

    I had many misconceptions about Andrew Johnson. I thought he couldn't be as bad as historians describe him, but yes he was. He wrecked Reconstruction and set back the implementation of civil rights for the next 100 years. He freely stated that white people were superior to black people. His presidential impeachment was out-voted and he remained in office for his full term. I thought he was thrown out. Once I thought about it, if that had happened his vice-president would have become president. An I had many misconceptions about Andrew Johnson. I thought he couldn't be as bad as historians describe him, but yes he was. He wrecked Reconstruction and set back the implementation of civil rights for the next 100 years. He freely stated that white people were superior to black people. His presidential impeachment was out-voted and he remained in office for his full term. I thought he was thrown out. Once I thought about it, if that had happened his vice-president would have become president. And I know the next president, Grant, wasn't his VP. I just hadn't thought it through. I would have liked to know more about his wife. She was described as an invalid. She was rarely with Johnson in Washington. And when she was there she remained in her room during White House functions. Was her illness physical or mental or both? The author doesn't say. This book took me a long time to read. This is not the fault of the author. He did not include unnecessary detail. I just repeatedly took breaks because it was obvious Johnson was making very bad decisions and it made me sad. This book was quite the eyeopener.

  8. 5 out of 5

    David Hill

    Andrew Johnson is one of those presidents nobody knows anything about, except possibly that he was impeached. His is an interesting story - never had a day of school, started as a tailor, worked his way up the political ladder, even went back to the US Senate after his presidency. A lifelong Democrat yet Lincoln's VP; drunk on his inauguration as VP and with two alcoholic sons but not alcoholic himself. An able politician, but generally agreed as a disaster for Reconstruction. The book is thoroug Andrew Johnson is one of those presidents nobody knows anything about, except possibly that he was impeached. His is an interesting story - never had a day of school, started as a tailor, worked his way up the political ladder, even went back to the US Senate after his presidency. A lifelong Democrat yet Lincoln's VP; drunk on his inauguration as VP and with two alcoholic sons but not alcoholic himself. An able politician, but generally agreed as a disaster for Reconstruction. The book is thorough and easy to read; old-school biography (well noted and with an index but no bibliography), not too dry. Trefousse seems to treat his subject fairly.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ed

    Who was Andrew Johnson? And what was that impeachment about? Trefousse has written a well researched and very readable biography that shows how Johnson, as a rigidly ideological Jacksonian, could both split with the South during the Civil War and favor the South after the war. It also vividly conveys how political tensions led to an impeachment on flimsy grounds and how political forces prevented Johnson from being convicted. More broadly the book gave me a much better sense of the incredible co Who was Andrew Johnson? And what was that impeachment about? Trefousse has written a well researched and very readable biography that shows how Johnson, as a rigidly ideological Jacksonian, could both split with the South during the Civil War and favor the South after the war. It also vividly conveys how political tensions led to an impeachment on flimsy grounds and how political forces prevented Johnson from being convicted. More broadly the book gave me a much better sense of the incredible complexity of the issues facing the country during reconstruction.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

    Professor Hans L. Trefousse who is an expert in the Civil War and Reconstruction Era gives an interesting interpretation on our 17th president and the third one who succeeded to the White House upon the death of a president. I'm sure Johnson himself never figured on getting to the White House, but once there was going to do things his way. It almost got him kicked out. Trefouuse maintains that if by successful presidency means accomplishing your goals than Johnson might be great considering he left Professor Hans L. Trefousse who is an expert in the Civil War and Reconstruction Era gives an interesting interpretation on our 17th president and the third one who succeeded to the White House upon the death of a president. I'm sure Johnson himself never figured on getting to the White House, but once there was going to do things his way. It almost got him kicked out. Trefouuse maintains that if by successful presidency means accomplishing your goals than Johnson might be great considering he left the White House accomplishing his main goal. That goal was the maintaining of white supremacy in the defeated south. His opposition to radical reconstruction led to the construction of a racist segregationist society that lasted for another century. Johnson certainly did what he set out to do. Johnson was born into the poorest of circumstances in North Carolina in 1808. He never spent one day in a school room, but was apprenticed out to a tailor shop and learned the trade. As a teen he was dissatisfied with the treatment he got from the tailor he was apprenticed to and crossed the state line and ran away to Tennessee. He opened his own tailor shop and met Eliza McCardle who was the local school teacher. She taught him to read and write and married him. She also encouraged him to go into politics because he had a gift for oratory. Said gift got him elected to town office in Greeneville, Tennessee including becoming its mayor. Johnson then went to the State Legislature and in 1842 there was a nice new district carved in Eastern Tennessee that looked good for him. Johnson was a Democrat and a follower of Andrew Jackson, but Tennessee by this point had a strong Whig Party. Johnson was a strong vote getter and he was elected to five two year terms in the House of Representatives. After that it was Governor of Tennessee 1853-1857 and Senator from Tennessee 1857-1862. A remarkable Horatio Alger like story. In the House and Senate there was one bill he pushed and finally it was passed during the beginning years of the Lincoln administration. Johnson was the guy who pushed the Homestead Act which allowed the opening of the West. Yeoman farmers such as the kind who were the core of his constituency could go west and settle on plots of land, 40 acres worth. It was a crusade with him and he deserves a lot of credit. And he was the only Senator from a state that seceded to keep his seat in the Senate. A year later Lincoln made him a civilian military governor responsible for setting civilian authority in the state after the Union army took over. He was one hated man by then. In 1864 as part of a Unity ticket Abraham Lincoln dumped his Vice President Hannibal Hamlin and chose Johnson as his running mate. He was elected Vice President and within 5 weeks of his inauguration had another inauguration as president after Lincoln was assassinated. Johnson came from the poorest of the poor and inherited their hopes and dreams and prejudices. He saw black enfranchisement and education up from slavery as a threat to the folks who were his folks and the core of his constituency. The radical Republicans in Congress who wanted change in our society clashed and Johnson lacked the tact and finesse to come any kind of compromise. In 1868 they tried to impeach him on specious constitutional grounds involving something called the Tenure of Office Act where Congress claimed the right to remove officials it had confirmed. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who was in league with the Congressional radicals. They failed in the Senate by one vote. By that time Johnson had only a few months left anyway. He tried and failed to get the Democratic nomination for president. In 1875 the Tennessee Legislature sent Johnson back to the Senate, but he died after only a few months service. To rise as he did from as humble origins as he had makes Andrew Johnson a remarkable man. But sad he could not overcome his prejudices and see a broader and grander picture of America that Lincoln did.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Brian Willis

    Rising from extreme poverty, Johnson ascended to the Presidency upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He is mainly remembered for that factoid, his disastrous bungling of post-Civil War Reconstruction, but mainly for the fact that he was the first President to be impeached (mainly because, King John style, he lacked the political finesse to keep Congress happy). His life isn't particularly interesting. He was clearly a racist by any evaluation of the term. His Presidency was clearly a disast Rising from extreme poverty, Johnson ascended to the Presidency upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He is mainly remembered for that factoid, his disastrous bungling of post-Civil War Reconstruction, but mainly for the fact that he was the first President to be impeached (mainly because, King John style, he lacked the political finesse to keep Congress happy). His life isn't particularly interesting. He was clearly a racist by any evaluation of the term. His Presidency was clearly a disaster. He was disgracefully drunk at his Vice Presidential Inauguration (this book, which claims he was not an alcoholic, would probably have a different analysis by a more recent biographer). This is the best current full biography of the subject. If you are reading POTUS full biographies for them all, this is the one. Just know that it is not the most interesting life story, and the event for which is most famous during his political career, the impeachment, is covered with a couple of exceptional book length treatments in the last decade. But if you have to scratch that itch for a complete bio, this book remains the most recent, readable, straightforward.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Lee Adams

    This was one of the surprise best presidential biographies - not because Johnson was a great president. Actually, quite the opposite. Johnson's upbringing, being completely illiterate until after his marriage, his homeless, penniless wanderings to try and find a place in the world and happening on becoming a tailor to bring himself out of destitution all the way to rising to the presidency. It is a fascinating story of success. To rise in the political ranks and ultimately become Lincoln's 2nd v This was one of the surprise best presidential biographies - not because Johnson was a great president. Actually, quite the opposite. Johnson's upbringing, being completely illiterate until after his marriage, his homeless, penniless wanderings to try and find a place in the world and happening on becoming a tailor to bring himself out of destitution all the way to rising to the presidency. It is a fascinating story of success. To rise in the political ranks and ultimately become Lincoln's 2nd vice president, he undoubtedly hid his abhorrent racist views until he reached the presidency and was tasked with reconstruction. It was then when his true character was unmasked and why he is considered one of the worst presidents in US history.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Adam Shain

    Flawed president whose impact of bad decisions can still be seen today.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Gabriel Riekhof

    Among the most influential years in American history, the years immediately following the Civil War dictated the conditions surrounding the defeated South’s re-entrance into the Union – including a large population of African Americans recently freed from chains. Facing a battle for equality, stringent policies looking out for the interest of this population could pay huge dividends for generations to come. Unfortunately for them, their best chance at this ideal outcome was lost alongside Americ Among the most influential years in American history, the years immediately following the Civil War dictated the conditions surrounding the defeated South’s re-entrance into the Union – including a large population of African Americans recently freed from chains. Facing a battle for equality, stringent policies looking out for the interest of this population could pay huge dividends for generations to come. Unfortunately for them, their best chance at this ideal outcome was lost alongside America’s favorite President in the balcony of Ford’s Theatre in April of 1865. Instead, slaveholding Andrew Johnson would be the one to lead them as President into their futures as freed people. Although the “Democratic Nashville Union newspaper once declared in 1843 that Johnson was, ‘Just the man for a crisis,’” by 1866 it would become abundantly clear to everyone on the Union’s side in America that Johnson was creating, not diffusing, a crisis that would cripple America indefinitely. “Andrew Johnson” by Hans Trefousse details the life of Johnson from birth in North Carolina, to his business affairs in Tennessee, through his political career culminating in ascension to the highest office in the land. The pages in this chapter of American history detail a president dedicated to his conservative roots and to his idols, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson. Jackson and Jefferson’s examples instilled steadfastly conservative values in a stubborn Johnson that would lead to him being one of very few pro-southern Unionists, thus making him a living oxymoron. Trefousse makes clear that Johnson’s seemingly contradictory policies of Union support before Appomattox and expedited Confederate re-entry after are logical results of Johnson’s guiding principle: that America is stronger as one Union. While Johnson’s dedication to his beliefs are surprisingly admirable, his lack of foresight into how his policies would affect African-Americans, particularly in the south, was appalling. Trefousse argues that it wasn’t just a misunderstanding, but outright apathy for the plight of recently freed slaves that led to a veto of the Freedman’s bill and a persistent effort to disrupt Congress’s wishes to take advantage of a Northern victory. Unfortunately for the nation, he saw Congress’s agenda as nothing more than claiming spoils of war, while in reality, it was an attempt to settle the questions that led to war in the first place. While this time period should have been a dramatic shift in treatment and policy towards African-Americans, Johnson ensured that while slavery could no longer exist, blatant white supremacy certainly could. Even more disheartening is Trefousse’s opinion and supporting evidence that the former Confederacy was even resigned to their fates and the consequential support of African Americans until Johnson’s lenient policies encouraged them to dig in once again, as if Lee had never surrendered. Covering a President that followed a seemingly counter-intuitive political course, Trefousse had a difficult task in writing this work. Despite that caveat, in my opinion, he fell short. The book covers Johnson’s life in a wide breadth but lacks the depth on any one issue, particularly his impeachment, that should leave any reader satisfied. Even worse, his work lacks the creation of historical context behind each event that makes it meaningful to the reader, as other great non-fiction writers seem to manage (see, Chernow, Kearns-Goodwin, McCullough, etc.). Finishing this book was a relief, so much so that I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone without a vast prior understanding of Civil War politics and the Johnson administration.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    Take any list of the worst presidents in American history, and Andrew Johnson's name will feature prominently at the top of it. On one level, this is hardly surprising. Succeeding as he did the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he faced the formidable challenge of restoring the peace after the bloodiest and most divisive conflict in American history. Given the task at hand and laboring as he did in the shadow of the martyred president, criticism was inevitable. Yet as Hans Trefousse shows in this bo Take any list of the worst presidents in American history, and Andrew Johnson's name will feature prominently at the top of it. On one level, this is hardly surprising. Succeeding as he did the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he faced the formidable challenge of restoring the peace after the bloodiest and most divisive conflict in American history. Given the task at hand and laboring as he did in the shadow of the martyred president, criticism was inevitable. Yet as Hans Trefousse shows in this book, Johnson's own rigid adherence to his beliefs prevented the sort of compromising that might have smoothed the path toward his goals and forestalled the impeachment that forever distinguishes his term in office. The irony in Trefousse's account is that such rigidity was uncharacteristic in his youth. As a budding politician in antebellum Tennessee, Johnson often shifted positions as he sought to define his political identity to voters. His impoverished background, however, served as the foundation for his unwavering support for the rights of the poor, and his admiration of Andrew Jackson ensured that the would be identified with the Democratic Party. Trefousse makes the interesting case that Johnson was in many respects an adherent not as much to Jacksonian Democracy but to the Old Republican ideas of Thomas Jefferson. Such views would put him increasingly at odds with the industrializing nation that emerged in his lifetime, yet this proved less of an issue in his home state than it would when he became president later on. As an ambitious border-state politician, the outbreak of the Civil War posed the greatest challenge of Johnson's career, and in terms of his ambitions he made what would turn out to be the correct choice. But Trefousse makes it clear that Johnson decision to stay with the union did not entail any reconsideration of his views on race. This became an issue once he became president, as he supported generous terms of reunification that left the freedmen in a legal position little different from slavery. Johnson's stubborn commitment to his views alienated the Republicans in Congress, empowering the Radicals among their ranks to push for impeachment. Trefousse shows the impeachment as a rushed affair, as the trial quickly demonstrated the hollowness of the prosecution's case. Johnson's victory proved a Pyrrhic one, though, as he found himself reduced to irrelevance in the aftermath of his acquittal. Hungering for a return to a national stage, he saw his election to the Senate in 1875 as a vindication by the people, albeit one cut short by a series of strokes that killed him soon afterward. Trefousse's book serves as a solid account of the political career of America's 17th president. Having written biographies of some of the other key figures in the impeachment controversy, he brings considerable insight to bear on the central act of Johnson's political career, showing it as a far messier and more muddled affair than might otherwise appear to be the case. Yet his description of Johnson's pre-presidential career suffers from an absence of similar insight, and provides little more than a chronicle of his career and achievements. Nonetheless, his book stands as the best biography available of this controversial figure, one that makes a convincing argument that his place in history was ultimately defined by his inability to practice that central skill of a successful politician — the art of compromise.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Clem

    A well written book about the man whom most consider one of the worst U.S. Presidents in history. It’s quite shocking, yet not surprising, that sandwiched between the abominations of Andrew Johnson and 15th president, James Buchannan, was the man who most consider the best president ever - Abraham Lincoln. Not surprising because it clearly illustrates what a calamitous time it was for the United States. After the conclusion of the Civil War, Lincoln begins his second term, and is shortly assass A well written book about the man whom most consider one of the worst U.S. Presidents in history. It’s quite shocking, yet not surprising, that sandwiched between the abominations of Andrew Johnson and 15th president, James Buchannan, was the man who most consider the best president ever - Abraham Lincoln. Not surprising because it clearly illustrates what a calamitous time it was for the United States. After the conclusion of the Civil War, Lincoln begins his second term, and is shortly assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer. Enter Vice-President Andrew Johnson. Sadly, he manages to erase the progress made by his predecessor, and then barely survives a conviction after impeachment amongst other difficulties. This book is broken into two halves. The first half details everything up to when Johnson becomes President, and the second half after the fact. I found this book to be very engaging, yet mostly devoid of feeling or emotion. It seems to stress only the facts, yet Hans Trefousse knows when enough is enough, and I never felt overwhelmed with useless details. This is not a mud-slinging effort, but the author seems to echo the consensus of most historians in that he doesn’t portray Andrew Johnson in a favorable light. He poses the question, on more than one occasion, how much quicker reforms around reconstruction and equal rights among the races could have happened had it not been for Johnson’s apathetic attitude concerning the recently freed negro race. That’s not to say things could have ever expected to be perfect. One shouldn’t suffer from the delusion that recently freed slaves in the South could ever expect to be immediately loved and respected by their former masters after two centuries of subjugation, but Johnson certainly never seemed to want to make any progress. As a native Tennessean, he grew up around slavery, and the only thing that made him Lincoln’s running mate in 1864, was that he was a devout Unionist – even throughout the Civil War. One really must speculate exactly why. It’s never quite clear, and one is forced to believe that Johnson did so with the (correct) realization that such a stand would further his political career later in life. Such attitudes are what led him to be the first president to ever be impeached, although there were other unrelated offenses that compounded the event. On the surface, Johnson really didn’t seem to care, and he was only spared conviction by the senate by one vote. The immediate future seemed to be rather kind to him, as he was elected to the senate a mere four years after his failed bid to be re-nominated for a second term as president. I really enjoyed this book and found it to be about the perfect length (about 375 pages). I felt as though I never really admired the man while I was reading the book, yet felt the author painted the best possible picture of him. It’s truly sad that Abraham Lincoln’s life had to be taken away from him when the country still desperately needed his leadership. One wonders just how much better things may have turned out a century and a half later, when race relations still have a long way to go in one of the most prosperous nations that the world has ever known.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jimyanni

    This well-written biography gave me a lot to think about; it provided a vastly different perspective on Johnson than I have ever had growing up. What I was taught growing up (in the North, at that) was that Johnson's difficulties that led to his impeachment were due to his feeling that the post-Civil War reconstruction needed to show more mercy and sympathy for the south than Congress wanted, that Lincoln would have agreed with his attitude and that Congress was being unnecessarily harsh in thei This well-written biography gave me a lot to think about; it provided a vastly different perspective on Johnson than I have ever had growing up. What I was taught growing up (in the North, at that) was that Johnson's difficulties that led to his impeachment were due to his feeling that the post-Civil War reconstruction needed to show more mercy and sympathy for the south than Congress wanted, that Lincoln would have agreed with his attitude and that Congress was being unnecessarily harsh in their treatment of the former rebels. This bio, while not COMPLETELY repudiating that concept, definitely shows that Johnson was far too inclined to return to the status quo ante, that he was prepared to allow the south to return to the fold with virtually no restrictions, which would certainly have negated the entirety of the sacrifices made during the Civil War. He was incontestably racist, opposed to any enfranchising of the freed slaves, and would have pardoned almost all of the former leaders of the Confederacy, leaving them free to return to political power in a South that would have continued to be a problem. While Lincoln, had he survived, might well have moderated the Reconstruction policies of the Congress, he would have been very unlikely to have gone as far as Johnson in that regard. On the other hand, it is true that the charges of "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" necessary for his impeachment were almost certainly not legitimate; none of his actions that so enraged the Congress came close to meeting those standards. He was impeached for being politically out of step with the Congress; the fact that their political views were, by historical perspective, more justified than his doesn't make his disagreement with them "High Crimes and Misdemeanors". And actually, he had one very good argument for his attitudes, even if it would have been unwise for the country to accede to his perspective: he maintained that the entire war had been fought over the argument that the south had no right to secede, that therefore, since the north won, the south was still a part of the union; to suggest that they needed to jump through any hoops in order to be accepted "back" into the union was to concede that they had, in fact, left it, and to do so was to concede that they had the power to do so. He maintained, with a certain logic, that since all of that blood had been shed to preserve the union, it was a waste of that sacrifice to then treat the south as a conquered nation, when the entire point had been that they were NOT in fact a separate nation but always and forever a part of the union. It seems certain that, had his argument held, the rift in the union would never have been healed, (not even as imperfectly as it did) but the logic is hard to dispute. All told, a very interesting and informative biography of a very difficult and complex man.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Regina Lindsey

    Andrew Johnson by Hans L. Trefousse 3 stars The work may have been more aptly titled The Paradox of Andrew Johsnon. Trefousse does a good job of showing the complexities and contradictions that make up Johnson. At one point in his career it was observed, " No man has labored more earnestly in the cause of the Government than he has. His name is inseparably connected with the history of this mighty struggle for the maintenance of the Union and free government." (pg 179). Is that how you think of Jo Andrew Johnson by Hans L. Trefousse 3 stars The work may have been more aptly titled The Paradox of Andrew Johsnon. Trefousse does a good job of showing the complexities and contradictions that make up Johnson. At one point in his career it was observed, " No man has labored more earnestly in the cause of the Government than he has. His name is inseparably connected with the history of this mighty struggle for the maintenance of the Union and free government." (pg 179). Is that how you think of Johnson? No, I didn't think so. Rather, the stigma of being the first president to be impeached casts a long shadow over his career. More than that, while Johnson was willing to anger his party and join the Lincoln ticket in order to stand for the Union, his inability to grow past deeply held prejudice and southern loyalties prevented him from managing the Reconstruction. Trefousse did several things very well. The strongest point of the work is in showing what led to Lincoln, a Republican, selecting this uncompromising, blustery, and inflexible Democrat from a rebel state as his vice president for his second term. The book is a good general overview of Johnson and the difficulties surrounding Reconstruction. However, the book was lacking in a couple of areas. This is probably due to the brevity of the work. Some of his arguments for Johson's actions didn't make sense. The most obvious example is the proposed rationale for why Jonson didn't relieve Stanton of his cabinet post earlier in the administration. There were also interesting stances held by Jonson that I would have liked more background on. An example is Johsnon's stance on separation of church and state. He appears to be the father of the modern definition. Overall, if you are unfamiliar with Johnson and want a book to start with this is a good choice.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    For those looking for a thorough and fair book on Andrew Johnson this is the place to start. His tumultuous career from building himself from nothing to achieving the presidency proves to be a fascinating story. The look at rural Tennessee politics through the state machines of centered in Nashville provides a fascinating contradiction of times to today. Quick thinking and stump speaking were the tools of the politicians and Andrew Johnson proved to be a master. Johnson may have been on of the mo For those looking for a thorough and fair book on Andrew Johnson this is the place to start. His tumultuous career from building himself from nothing to achieving the presidency proves to be a fascinating story. The look at rural Tennessee politics through the state machines of centered in Nashville provides a fascinating contradiction of times to today. Quick thinking and stump speaking were the tools of the politicians and Andrew Johnson proved to be a master. Johnson may have been on of the most conservative presidents in our history favoring the reduction in government and keeping government out of all aspects of life and trade. His viewpoints provided a strong counter to the internal improvements crowd of the time and he went so far as to even oppose government funded roads. His strong sense of union left him in a position to be an obvious candidate for the vice presidency despite his previous breaking with party lines. As Lincolns vice president he would serve a function of representing the south's interest. Before his ascension to that position he had been the military governor of Tennessee and worked tirelessly to bring the state back into the union and ensure that it would be loyal afterwards despite accusations of his forming a dictatorship. Johnson served as president between two strong factions that Lincoln had kept balanced out. Johnson did not have Lincoln's political savvy and it led to his impeachment but not conviction. While he was unable to run again for the presidency he was able to stay active in politics and served his party well. Andrew Johnson is a great political enigma and one that is often ignored. This is a highly recommended biography to learn more about a man who is not studied often.

  20. 4 out of 5

    James Ruley

    I think it is safe to say that any president following Lincoln had a Herculean task: both stepping into the shoes of a consummate political leader and leading the United States through reconstruction following the Civil War. Trefousse’s biography, while conscious of the immense challenges facing Johnson, does a good job explaining how Johnson’s decisions as president were consistent with his political ideals. This work did not make me like Johnson, or really even respect his political views, but I think it is safe to say that any president following Lincoln had a Herculean task: both stepping into the shoes of a consummate political leader and leading the United States through reconstruction following the Civil War. Trefousse’s biography, while conscious of the immense challenges facing Johnson, does a good job explaining how Johnson’s decisions as president were consistent with his political ideals. This work did not make me like Johnson, or really even respect his political views, but it made me believe that the real tragedy was the Republican’s choice to nominate Johnson as Vice President when his views were so out of step with the main stream Republican Party. That being said, Johnson’s confrontational and uncompromising character severely impeded his ability to lead the country as president. While his impeachment was meritless and political, it was a reflection on a man who stood on his principles which had become severely outdated. Unfortunately, those principles advocated hard line racist attitudes that leave little to commend him, even with the benefit of hindsight.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    I knew little about this man, outside knowing that he was the first president to be impeached. This is one of the most complex biographies that I have read, as Andrew Johnson opinions and actions were nothing but competing contradictions. Brought into the White House as a Vice President due to his Unionist leanings, once President he pretended that the southern states had never succeeded. Sometimes Democrat, sometimes Republican. For the 13th Amendment freeing the slaves, and against the 14th Am I knew little about this man, outside knowing that he was the first president to be impeached. This is one of the most complex biographies that I have read, as Andrew Johnson opinions and actions were nothing but competing contradictions. Brought into the White House as a Vice President due to his Unionist leanings, once President he pretended that the southern states had never succeeded. Sometimes Democrat, sometimes Republican. For the 13th Amendment freeing the slaves, and against the 14th Amendment allowing people of color equal protection and the vote. The charges that brought the impeachment hearings and how they ultimately failed have been forgotten. A law, the Tenure in Office Act, passed by Congress specifically to thwart Johnson, that was found unconstitutional little under 6 decades later. Worth the read, but will not likely change your opinion of him.

  22. 5 out of 5

    John Maniscalco

    This was an informative book if for no other reason that Andrew Johnson is not written about much, let alone fairly so. This is a very fair book and, to an extent, attempts to restore Johnson's reputation, not out of any overt attempt by the author, but by giving a fair account of Johnson's life. The reader will learn that while he was a gifted politician that contributed much the reconciliation between North and South, something that history seems to have forgotten. I also respected Johnson for This was an informative book if for no other reason that Andrew Johnson is not written about much, let alone fairly so. This is a very fair book and, to an extent, attempts to restore Johnson's reputation, not out of any overt attempt by the author, but by giving a fair account of Johnson's life. The reader will learn that while he was a gifted politician that contributed much the reconciliation between North and South, something that history seems to have forgotten. I also respected Johnson for being such an outspoken Southern Unionist. He is also of historical importance as one of the first modern Southern Democratic populists, a precursor to Lyndon Johnson or argueably Huey Long.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Shawn

    An excellent biography of a President serving in a time of great division. Acting out of principle Andrew Johnson was able to set himself at odds with nearly everyone. At times I could see great strength of character set hard on noble values, but at others he was the face of failed Reconstruction policies and his decisions led to destructive policies that would affect race relations in the South (and North) for generations. This particular biography was well-balanced, drawing out relevant details An excellent biography of a President serving in a time of great division. Acting out of principle Andrew Johnson was able to set himself at odds with nearly everyone. At times I could see great strength of character set hard on noble values, but at others he was the face of failed Reconstruction policies and his decisions led to destructive policies that would affect race relations in the South (and North) for generations. This particular biography was well-balanced, drawing out relevant details when needed to bring you to an understanding of times and circumstances, yet not bogging the reader down with too much information, thus loosing the story line.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    I normally knock off a book in 3-5 days. This book took a month. It was interesting to read, but very slow going. I did not really know anything about Andrew Johnsonprior to reading this book and found it fascinating. Here was a man who was very politically savvy but with very firm personal convictions. He allowed these personal convictions to interfere when it came to Reconstruction. It makes one wonder how our history would have been if Lincoln had lived....

  25. 5 out of 5

    Willis

    This past summer we stopped at the Andrew Johnson home in Greenville, TN so I had to learn more about the man. He is routinely rated as one of the worst Presidents in US history so I was pleased that the book gives a fair treatment to let you decide for yourself. The author does tend to agree with the routine assessment but I felt that he tried to be honest in his portrayal of the man and show the positive things about him beyond just the negative aspects. Fairly well written.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    Not the best biography I've ever read. Author assumes a fair amount of knowledge on behalf of the reader. Author advocates the position that Andrew Johnson was a man of his times with very good political skills but a man who did not keep up with his times and set the foundations for a century of racism b Not the best biography I've ever read. Author assumes a fair amount of knowledge on behalf of the reader. Author advocates the position that Andrew Johnson was a man of his times with very good political skills but a man who did not keep up with his times and set the foundations for a century of racism b

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    Great biography of a flawed man who caused incalculable damage to the United States. Learning about all the presidents in order shows him as the first "great failure" (especially after his predecessor) elected to top office (but certainly not the last). This shines a light on the real causes of much still happening today. Great biography of a flawed man who caused incalculable damage to the United States. Learning about all the presidents in order shows him as the first "great failure" (especially after his predecessor) elected to top office (but certainly not the last). This shines a light on the real causes of much still happening today.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ivan

    FIRST LINE REVIEW: "When Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth president of the United States, was born, on December 29, 1808, his native Raleigh was still a raw settlement." A very interesting life, but ultimately a biography that bogged itself down in too much minutiae and confusingly tried to explain the political complications of his time in office. FIRST LINE REVIEW: "When Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth president of the United States, was born, on December 29, 1808, his native Raleigh was still a raw settlement." A very interesting life, but ultimately a biography that bogged itself down in too much minutiae and confusingly tried to explain the political complications of his time in office.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    This nice one volume biography of Andrew Johnson does a good job of detailing a president known mostly for a single incident (impeachment). Casual readers will find it a difficult read but anyone interested in American History and the post Civil War era should enjoy it.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Selina

    I honestly loved it! Not an exciting thrill-filled adventure, but filled with information about the politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction, much of it new to me. I learned so much about an important era in US history and a man most of us know very little about.

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