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"Profiles in Courage" Andrew Johnson (1965)

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Before the Debacle of Highest Office

Author: theowinthrop from United States
29 October 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There is a little irony that Walter Matthau got chosen to play Andrew Johnson in this episode (especially as Matthau also played Governor John Slaton on another episode of PROFILES IN COURAGE). Matthau was Jewish, and Slaton would be ruined by his attempting to insure a fair treatment for the Jewish homicide defendant Leo Frank in 1913 - 1915 (when the convicted Frank was lynched). But Johnson was a bit of an anti-Semite (there are recorded comments in speeches that he gave that were not friendly). It was just another flaw in a man who was full of them, but that Matthau was portraying him - and in a heroic moment of Johnson's career - is curious.

Matthau does well in the role, especially in the scenes where he was in Tennessee facing hostile, pro - secession crowds in late 1860. Because of Johnson's bravery in the period (and after) he deserved Matthau's best performance here, but still there is that irony.

Andrew Johnson was caught in the same bind that Benton, Webster, and Houston faced in that crippling event known as the Slavery conflict. Like Benton and Webster his stand as a "Nationalist" was opposed by local voting blocks that were going in the opposite direction, and did not care for the standpoints of their former heroes. Tennessee, however, was more split than any other southern secession state except for neighboring Virginia. Virginia's western provinces were opposed to secession, and would secede from Virginia in 1863, forming the state of West Virginia (in short they accomplished what Sam Houston was planning on a larger scale with disgruntled Texas). In Tennessee the majority was slightly larger for secession, but there was a large pro-North group. Johnson remained tied to that group.

Johnson is possibly the poorest man to ever become President. He was originally apprenticed to a humble trade. If Harry Truman was the haberdasher, and Calvin Coolidge and Chester Arthur the two nattiest looking dressers as President, Andy Johnson was the tailor President. In fact, when he was elected President, Thomas Nash always had a pair of scissors attached to his pants in his political cartoons.

But Johnson slowly improved. His wife Eliza, a schoolteacher, taught him to read and write (he is the only President except for Washington not to attend a college). Johnson's business thrived, and he became a land owner (and a slave owner - to his last days he despised African Americans unfortunately). But one class he hated more than African Americans: he disliked the planter class.

If Houston thought the fire - eaters like Yancy were phonies who never put themselves into really dangerous situations, Johnson thought that the secession movement was only meant to benefit the planter class which was symbolized by Jefferson Davis. As a member of the poor white trash class, Johnson suspected the planters and their real goals (to enslaved everyone outside their class).

When the secession crisis rose in late 1860, Johnson refused to join the bulk of his southern senators in Washington and stand by their seceding states. Tennessee was having it's convention, and at great personal risk Johnson went to try to prevent secession. He failed, but returned to Washington. He announced that he was going to represent Tennessee in the government of the United States, that he had been elected into. And so Johnson remained.

Later in the war (in 1862) half of Tennessee was recaptured by the North. Johnson helped reorganize the section to support the Union. His actions won him respect in Washington. Lincoln would notice what he did, and decided that in the 1864 Presidential election he would run on a Unionist Ticket (not a Republican Ticket) with a Democrat as his running-mate. Johnson got chosen, and the ticket won.

And after that it was downhill for his historic image. He got something similar to "drunk" at his inauguration in March 1865 as Vice President, when he was given too much to drink while recovering from an illness (and trying to steady his nerves). The image of drunken Andy Johnson never would be lost.

One month and eleven days later Lincoln was dead by Booth's bullet, and Johnson was President (to everyone's consternation). The fact that the assassin (in a clever move) left his calling card at the Willard Hotel for Johnson - to implicate the Vice President in the assassination - did not explain that Booth's confederate George Atzerodt was to assassinate Johnson, but lost his nerve. Johnson's failure to save the life of Mary Surratt before her execution was also a disappointment to many people. Nothing he could do was acceptable.

The final blow was his attempt to fire Secretary of War Stanton, who was an ally of Johnson's enemies. A violation of the then legal Tenure of Office Act led to his impeachment and trial. This leads to the career of Edmund Ross.

Historically Johnson falls into one of two positions. He tried to defend Presidential prerogatives against a power-hungry Radical Republican group in Congress, and to some extent succeeded. But his racial attitudes to African-Americans were not tolerable, and the Radicals were determined to try to undue the effect of slavery. Either he is a constitutional hero on separation of powers or a villain on relations between the races. But his bravery in early 1861 cannot be denied.

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