Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy by David O. Stewart (Book Review)

David O. Stewart, “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009).  464 pages.  $27.00 Hardcover.  $11.99 Kindle.  

As a Civil War buff, I find myself increasingly drawn to the dynamics of the American South.  The 19th century brought about a crisis of mammoth proportions, splitting our country in two long before the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861.  Everything came to a head on slavery.  While some abhorred the institution, many were more concerned about the spread of it into the newly acquired western territories.  Compromise and after compromise was set in place, but the election of Lincoln tore the North from the South and began a series of Southern states seceding from the Union.  Lincoln was elected without carrying a single southern state.  In their mind, if the country could do this without them, then let them go and have their independence. 

Lincoln fought to save the Union and soon realized the political and practical need of freeing the slaves.  This galvanized the North, bringing Lincoln back for a second term in 1864—and all but sealing the fate of the short-lived Confederate States of America.  In Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, he ends with a paragraph laced with healing and reunion:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Ten days later, the assassin’s bullet from the gun of John Wilkes Booth took the country on a different turn.  Enter Andrew Johnson.

Andrew Johnson, who stayed with the Union and served from 1862-1865 as the War Governor of Tennessee was picked by Lincoln from a Southern state in order to work toward reunion.  As I blogged about at my preaching blog, Johnson’s first speech in Washington as the Vice President was inauspicious and disgraceful

David O. Stewart’s book, as the title shows, is about the events that led up to the first trial of a sitting American president (impeachment).  Johnson was a stubborn man who held grudges and clearly favored a states rights’ philosophy of government, which he believed Southern governments should be restored without interference from the federal government.  A racist, believing that the United States should be run by a “white man’s government,” he did not move forward with prosecution of the murder and horrors committed against the four million now-free blacks in the South.  The Ku Klux Klan began to take over whole counties, making no freed black or Unionist safe.  Whenever the federal generals who oversaw the various sectors of the South to make sure the governments established were loyal to the Union, Johnson resisted them.

As the book will show, Johnson’s greatest political foe (and the greatest American hero at the time) was a man by the name of Ulysses S Grant, the winning general in the Civil War!  Johnson felt grant was a rube, Grant distrusted Johnson and loathed his policies in the South.

This book shows one of the great low points in American history, some say even lower than the Civil War itself.  You will learn about Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens, U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania, who not only sought the freedom of blacks, but sought to give them the right to vote—unlike most in the North and South who did not believe that blacks in that time were equal to whites, even those who sought their freedom. 

You’ll learn about War Secretary Edwin Stanton, a holdover from the Lincoln Administration whom Johnson detested and sought to replace, violating the Constitution’s Tenure of Office Act—thus bringing a showdown of Stanton barricading himself in the War Secretary’s office for weeks. 

Stewart does a masterful job of showing diligent research as well as bringing a novel-style of writing that moves the story along.  It shows so much of what goes on behind the scenes and the disturbing on-goings, compromises, bribes, and politics that come into play in the workings of our government.  A great read.  Highly recommended!

Watch David O. Stewart discuss briefly his book.

Bruce Kuklick, who teaches American history at the University of Pennsylvania, gives a great review in the Washington Post (2009). 

Categories: American History, Book Review | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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