Andrew Johnson was the first president to be impeached. Donald Trump could be the third. (Knock on wood.) But as detailed in Brenda Wineapple’s riveting and definitive new history, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, the two presidents shared more than just a talent for pissing off congress. Both were/are paranoid, vindictive, stubborn, bigoted, arrogant, self-righteous, autocratic, volatile, vainglorious, divisive, indifferent to constitutional niceties, and prone to giving long, rambling, non-sequitur-filled speeches in which they threatened opponents and spoke about themselves in the third person. Official portraits also show a kindred propensity for glowering.
And here’s one more quality the two share: tenuous legitimacy. In Johnson’s case this was because he was the first vice president to succeed an assassinated president, his authority further compromised by the fact that the slain Abraham Lincoln was a Northern Republican and Johnson a Southern Democrat (albeit one loyal to the Union). In Trump’s case, it is because he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes while welcoming the electoral meddling of a hostile foreign government. That, and the fact that he’s manifestly unfit for office. Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park, spoke for many of his fellow citizens in the late 1860s when he dismissed Johnson as a “so-called president,” just as an angry LeBron James did a century and a half later when he called Trump the same, following the fatal white supremacist riots in Charlottesville.
There were, of course, important differences between the two presidents. Johnson was a heavy drinker-he showed up plastered for his vice-presidential inauguration-while Trump is a teetotaler. Johnson was also a self-made man; his father, a constable and stables keeper, died when Johnson was three and was thus unable to float him financially for decades. In fact, Johnson, who spent his boyhood as an indentured servant, never owned even a single overleveraged casino that needing bailing out.
But Wineapple’s deeply researched book is full of observations about Johnson from his contemporaries that, but for proper nouns and the occasional musty adjective, could just as easily have been said or written today about Trump. A sampling:
“Full of pomp and swaggering vanity.” – Frederick Douglass, author and abolitionist
“Very vindictive and perverse in his temper and conduct.” –James K. Polk, former president
“Proud and sensitive, firm to obstinacy, resolute to fierceness, intelligent in his own sphere (which is narrow)… often mistakes the intensity of his own convictions for strength of evidence.” –Henry Ward Beecher, abolitionist minister
“Johnson is suspicious of everyone.” –John Sherman, Republican senator from Ohio
“If Andrew Johnson turns out everyone who despises his recent course, he will have naught left to fill the offices.” –unidentified political “observer” in the Chicago Tribune
“The Ravings of a Besotted and Debauched Demagogue” –Chicago Tribune headline, describing a Johnson speech
“Whoever heard of such a Presidential Ass?” –unidentified college officer
“Is there no way to arrest the insane course of the President?” –Thadeus Stevens, Republican representative from Pennsylvania
“He is nominally a President of a republic, but in reality an absolute ruler issuing decrees….” –William Shipman, federal judge
“Johnson’s more intimate pals talk as if he contemplated a coup d’état….” –George Templeton Strong, lawyer and diarist
“Our president is a bad man. Search history and I am sure you will find no ruler who, during the same space of time, had done so much mischief to his country.” – Charles Sumner, Republican senator from Massachusetts
“What a muddle we are in politically! Was there ever such a madman in so high a place as Johnson?” – Henry Raymond, founder of the New York Times
“The queerest man who ever occupied the White House.” –Shelby Moore Cullom, Republican representative from Illinois
“Johnson is an exception to all rules.” –Moorfield Storey, lawyer and civil rights activist
But wait, there's more! Johnson was charged with eleven articles of impeachment. The tenth, as Wineapple writes, accused him of "disgracing the presidential office" during a series of raucous rallies he held in the summer of 1866. Or, as Article 10, put it: Johnson, "unmindful of the high duties of his high office and the dignity and proprieties thereof," let loose with "certain intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues," not to mention "loud threats and bitter menaces"-all delivered "amid the cries, jeers, and laughter of the multitudes then assembled." In other words, MAGA!
('You Might Also Like',)