An interview with historian James M. McPherson

The Civil War, impeachment then and now and Lincoln's legacy—Part 2

By David Walsh
20 May 1999

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This is the second part of an interview conducted by WSWS editorial board member David Walsh with James M. McPherson. Walsh spoke to McPherson, the distinguished historian of the Civil War era, in his office at Princeton University. Professor McPherson's works include Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution ; Battle Cry of Freedom [a Pulitzer Prize winner]; For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War and The Struggle for Equality .

David Walsh: How do you explain the enduring fascination with Lincoln? The peculiar thing is that he is embraced by political factions that are diametrically opposed to one another. Do you see him as a man of the Right, or a man of the Left?

James McPherson: I would say that in the context of his own time, he was more on the Left of center, but not a radical. The major issues of his time were slavery and democracy. On the economy, the Whig Party, the party with which he was identified, was in many ways more progressive than the Democrats, in the sense that they believed in economic develo pment as a way of bringing rising prosperity for all classes.

I think Lincoln really believed that if you created a kind of level playing field, and then you had a rapidly expanding economy, with expanding opportunity within that economy, then anybody, like himself, a poor boy, could get ahead, if he was ambitious, worked hard, and so on. But the way to do that was through certain kinds of government activism, to promote economic and social development. So the Whigs were the party at the state level and the local level of public schools, for example, which advocated using government to promote economic growth, through the building of railroads, or canals, or the chartering of banks, subsidies for certain kinds of economic enterprise.

The Democrats were afraid that these kinds of subsidies or special grants to economic development would, in the end, promote inequality. They wanted small government, and they tended to be against large-scale appropriations for schools and that sort of thing. They would say they were for the common man because most of these subsidies, which went toward the building of railroads, or the chartering of banks, were really going to help the rich more than the poor in the end. But Lincoln didn't believe that. He said that the poor man with ambition—he was thinking of himself—could get ahead in a system like this. But these were very lively issues in the 1820s to the 1840s, the Jacksonian period. And you can get into an endless argument over which of the two parties was really Left or Right. I don't think Left or Right had the same connotations as it does now.

By the 1850s, certainly for a generation after that, the major issue in American politics was slavery and race. And on that issue, Lincoln and the Republicans were certainly Left of center. They were the ones who thought slavery was wrong, that it eventually must be brought to an end, and then during the war and Reconstruction period, they were the ones who actually pushed through the legislation that, on paper at least, granted equal rights to blacks, including the former slaves. They were very much in favor of the use of powerful central government to promote this.

Lincoln certainly wasn't on the far Left of the Republican spectrum, someone like Thaddeus Stevens or Charles Sumner would be. But Lincoln wound up going along with many of their measures, and actually promoting them as president. Looking toward the future he would have continued to move in a more liberal direction on these issues. What Lincoln's position might have been in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on issues that became associated with the Progressive period and the rise of giant industry, who knows?

To address his enduring fascination is not simple. Part of it has to do with his martyrdom at the moment of triumph. If he had lived he would still be a giant figure in the American pantheon, but there is a special quality that attaches to his reputation because he was assassinated at the very moment of triumph. Part of the fascination is the sort of rags-to-riches, log cabin to White House image that's associated with him. Part of it is the enduring language of the greatest documents we associate with him, the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural and several others. Part of it is his association with the war, which also has its own fascination, as you know. It's hard to say why he stands out so far above everybody else in popular fascination. More books have been written about Lincoln than anybody else in American history by far, and more books have been written about him in English than almost anybody else.

Because Lincoln has this image of semi-divinity almost, I think people on all parts of the political spectrum ever since the 1860s and 1870s have wanted their positions to be identified with Lincoln. His writings are sort of the like the Bible; you can go to them and find support for almost anything you believe in, in the contemporary world. There's a wonderful essay by David Donald, that he wrote back in the 1950s, called Getting Right with Lincoln, in which he traced this tendency of politicians always to find a Lincoln quote to support their position.

DW: Does it seem sometimes that these were quite recent events?

JM: It does. I had a great grandfather who was born in 1841 or 1842 and who fought in the Civil War, whom my mother knew. When she was a child he was still alive. I think he died in 1924 or something like that. She had known him as a seven- or eight-year-old child.

DW: Turning to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868, I've been reading various works on the subject. There are different views on it, obviously. In the course of this year's turmoil, I didn't run across much that was in depth about it in the media. Johnson's impeachment is sometimes portrayed in the literature as an entirely illegitimate attempt at a political coup d'état by a group of power-hungry, vengeful radicals. Whether Johnson had broken the Tenure of Office Act as he was charged is questionable, but certainly there were serious political issues at stake. Hundreds of thousands had sacrificed their lives for a cause, and there was reason to believe that this victory would be diminished.

JM: Or even reversed.

DW: How do you view these circumstances—the Stanton issue, the question of black suffrage, the treatment of former slaveholders, the re-entry of the Southern states?

JM: Whether or not the impeachment of Johnson was a legitimate constitutional process or not I think could be endlessly debated. His removal of Stanton in violation, or alleged violation, of the Tenure of Office Act was the issue on which he was impeached, the trigger for it. But the real substantive issue was Johnson's repeated defiance of the Republican majority in Congress on issues that that majority regarded as essential to resolving the outcome of the war and protecting the stability of the restored Union. There was a partisan dimension to this too. The Republicans also saw it as essential to their continued control of the government, but a lot of them could argue that their continued control of the government was the only way to ensure what was often called at the time the fruits of victory in the war. There was still a widespread tendency among many Republicans to see the Democrats, especially the Southern Democrats, as representing the spirit of the rebellion.

Johnson had not been elected president, unlike Clinton. In the only sort of referendum on his presidency, the Congressional elections of 1866, he had been overwhelmingly repudiated by the Northern voters who returned a three-quarters Republican majority to the House of Representatives. Of course Southern states were not voting. But that was the issue, what were the terms on which they were going to be brought back into the Union.

Whether the process was the correct process and was constitutionally valid is one question, but the issues were in many ways pretty serious, almost life-and-death issues in the context of the time. There was enormous substance to the issues involved in the impeachment of 1868 in a way that I think was totally absent from the Clinton impeachment. That was a personal vendetta, and in Johnson's case, I don't think it was personal.

DW: How had Johnson been viewed up to that time?

JM: His tenure as vice-president was pretty short. He had been inaugurated on March 4 and six weeks later, after Lincoln's assassination, he was named president. During the war he was something of a hero in the eyes of the North. He was the only senator from a state [Tennessee] that had seceded who remained loyal to the Union. He gave ringing speeches denouncing secession and denouncing the Confederates. When the Union army gained control of much of Tennessee in the spring of 1862 Lincoln sent him back to Nashville, which remained under Union control for the rest of the war, as military governor. He played a pretty important role, in maintaining Unionism under wartime military occupation of the parts of Tennessee that remained under Union control.

So here's a former Democrat from a Southern state, and in 1864 the Republican Party is trying to broaden its image from a Republican Party to a Union Party; they called themselves the Union Party, because they wanted to attract votes from more Democrats. Johnson seemed to be a perfect vice-presidential candidate to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party.

DW: What was the reaction after the assassination, was there any concern about Johnson?

JM: There was a kind of mixed reaction. Johnson, when he took the oath as vice president on March 4, 1865, had been suffering from a mild case of typhoid fever and he was ill, he was nervous, he had taken a couple of drinks to fortify himself before he took the oath of office, and he apparently was drunk. That created a somewhat bad image in the press. But he lived that down, and when Lincoln was assassinated he came out with strong speeches about punishing traitors and rebels and so on. The radical wing of the Republican Party thought he was a congenial guy who was going to go along with their program that would be pretty restrictive on restoring former Confederates to any kind of political rights and political role.

As time went on, however, Johnson backed away from that and did an almost 180-degree turn. By the fall of 1865 he was identifying himself with Southern rights and making noises about bringing the Southern states back into the government as quickly as possible under the mildest conditions possible.

One interpretation is that the Blair family, which was a powerful political family going all the way back to the Jacksonian period, got to Johnson and tried to persuade him that he could create a middle force in American politics, a new coalition of the center, that would isolate the radical Republicans on the Left and the former secessionist Democrats on the Right, and that he could become the presidential candidate of a revived, middle of the road loyalist-Democrat and conservative Republican Party. I think Johnson was mesmerized by that prospect, and in the end it boomeranged on him. Instead of attracting moderate Republicans to this middle of the road party, he drove middle of the road Republicans to the left on the Reconstruction issue.

DW: What were some of the issues in 1865, '66 and '67 that precipitated the crisis?

JM: Basically it was the terms of Reconstruction and the status of the freed slaves in the Reconstructed South. Johnson's idea, after this early rhetoric about punishing treason, was that Southern states had to fulfill only minimal requirements and then they could come back in the Union, with their full rights, voting rights, property rights. He issued a proclamation of pardon and amnesty. He also issued 13,000 individual pardons. These were political leaders more than anything else. He had exempted wealthy Southerners in his original amnesty, anyone who owned more than $20,000 worth of property.

Johnson represented the poor whites of east Tennessee and he thought the planters were the ones who had led the South into secession and ruined the South, and he was going to show them who was running the country. He was a poor white himself. He had been semi-literate when he was growing up, a tailor, an apprentice tailor. Like Lincoln, he had clawed his way to the top, a self-made man. But unlike Lincoln he harbored resentment against the elite. So he had originally exempted them from his proclamation of pardon. But then when they came on bended knee and prostrated themselves in front of him and asked for forgiveness, he gave it to them and I think felt a sense of power in doing it. They captured him more than he captured them.

He wanted to bring them back on the easiest possible terms and allow them to reorganize Southern state governments, elect Senators and Congressmen, petition for the seating of these Senators and Congressmen in the US Congress, and come back as fully-fledged members of the Union, with only the condition of ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, and repudiating the ordinance of secession. Once they did that, everything would be the same again, as it always had been.

The Republicans wanted some kind of guarantees, they wanted minimal rights for blacks, and, as time went on, they moved to the left on that issue and wanted suffrage in the South. They wanted to create a Republican Party in the South, they wanted protection for genuine white Unionists in the South, who they felt would be oppressed if these former Confederates regained political control. Basically, it was a question of who was going to rule the South. Was it going to be the former ruling class, most of whom had been Confederates? Or was it going to be a new, much more democratic coalition of blacks and whites who had not been strong Confederates, either loyal Unionists during the war or reluctant Confederates.

I think the Republicans wanted to create a kind of middle class, small farmer coalition. Those are the people who became Republicans in the South as an offset to the old ruling class in the South. They were afraid that Johnson's policy was going to restore the old ruling class. So that was really what these issues were about. The Republicans passed a civil rights act, they renewed the Freedmen's Bureau and expanded its responsibilities and powers in the South, they passed several Reconstruction acts, to enfranchise the former slaves and to keep disfranchised some elements of the former Confederate ruling class for the time being. Johnson vetoed every one of these acts, then the Republicans would pass them over his veto. Then Johnson would get his attorney general to construe the law as narrowly as possible, and he would appoint officials in the South who did as little as possible to enforce the law. It was this kind of a seesaw battle that was going on through 1866, '67 and into 1868 that really lay behind the impeachment.

He was a president who was defying the will of the majority of Congress in doing all he could to frustrate the legislation they passed over his veto.

DW: Do you think his removal would have made a difference?

JM: In some ways, it might have. Another aspect of this is that because Johnson was defying the Republicans in Congress, he encouraged Southern resistance to Congressional legislation. Johnson held out the hope to former Confederates in the South that if they would only hang in there until 1868, the Democrats would win the presidential election and the Republicans would be out of power. So he encouraged this kind of violent resistance in the South. If he had been removed from office that might have been a far more decisive signal that the Republicans were going to use the full powers of the national government and the army to enforce legislation in the South.

Historian Hans Trefousse argues that the failure to convict Johnson really encouraged Southern whites to continue their resistance, and that may be true. However, Johnson did pull back after he was acquitted. He scaled back his rhetoric, he accepted a compromise candidate as secretary of war, John Schofield; he stopped using the presidency to try to frustrate legislation, so even though he wasn't removed from office this whole controversy pulled his teeth a little bit.

DW: This is perhaps the same question asked in a different way, but what if Lincoln had not been assassinated? Would the course of American history have been at all different, granted that obviously that the US was going to become a modern, industrial capitalist country? Would the conditions in the South perhaps, the conditions of blacks, have been somewhat different?

JM: I think so. For one thing there would have been no impeachment. For another, Lincoln would not have held out the same kind of encouragement to the Southern whites to resist that Johnson did. There clearly would have been ongoing tensions and differences between executive and Congress, there always are even when Congress is controlled by the same party as the president. Nevertheless, Lincoln had worked in general harmony with Congress during the war, although there were some tensions, especially in 1864. As a result there would have been a smoother Reconstruction process, less violence, less confrontation, less polarization in Washington and in the South, maybe in the long run less violent resistance by Southern whites to whatever had to be done to carry out Reconstruction.

Now Lincoln, of course, would have gone out of office in 1869, and much of the violence that eventually made the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments pretty much a dead letter for three-quarters of a century, might have happened anyhow. Under [Ulysses S.] Grant, who probably would have been Lincoln's successor, just as he was Johnson's successor ... who knows. But I think in terms of the other broader developments that you're talking about, the development of the United States as a major industrial capitalist country, that would have happened no matter what. What happened in the impeachment controversy of 1868 was virtually irrelevant to that process.

DW: Could you contrast the two impeachment processes, 1868 and 1998?

JM: The major difference is that the impeachment of the 1860s concerned really serious matters of substance, and the 1990s' impeachment was a more personal vendetta, with a context of the cultural wars, issues like abortion, and going all the way back to the Vietnam War, as well as lifestyle questions. The Right in American politics sees Clinton as a nefarious symbol of many of these changes they don't like in American society, but for the most part the recent impeachment did not have much to do with substantive legislative and political and executive policy matters in the same way that the Johnson impeachment did.

Another thing is that in the 1990s' impeachment there seems to have been a very sharp divide between Congress and the country. All the polls showed an overwhelming majority against Clinton's impeachment, but Congress went ahead anyhow. Whereas in the 1860s, the nearest thing we had to polls was the 1866 Congressional elections and that represented a very sharp repudiation of Johnson's leadership. Johnson didn't have strong political support in the country. Clinton did, although the nature of that political support is a bit ambiguous. The electorate made a distinction between his personal behavior and his presidential leadership. Johnson's personal behavior in 1868 had nothing to do with the impeachment at all.

DW: What was the attitude of the Abolitionists, the former Abolitionists, toward Johnson's impeachment?

JM: They mostly favored it. They saw Johnson as representing the pro-slavery revival, and so they were strongly in favor of getting rid of him.

Explanatory notes

Thaddeus Stevens(1792-1868), US representative from Pennsylvania and a fervent opponent of slavery. He was a leader of the radical Republicans' Reconstruction program and viewed the Southern states as “conquered provinces.” He was a leader in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

Andrew Johnson(1808-75), 17th president of the US (1865-69). A self-educated tailor, he rose in Tennessee politics, becoming a congressman, governor and US senator. He was Lincoln's running mate in the 1864 election and became president upon Lincoln's assassination. When Johnson tried to force Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton from office, radical Republicans sought to remove him. On February 24, 1868, the House passed a resolution of impeachment against Johnson. The most important of the charges was that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act in attempting to oust Stanton. The Senate failed to convict Johnson by one vote in March 1868.

Ulysses S. Grant(1822-85), commander in chief of the Union army in the Civil War and later 18th president of the US (1869-77).