Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

11.6 “Andy Ain’t a Drunkard”: Vice President Andrew Johnson


Lincoln's Second Vice President, Andrew Johnson

Lincoln's Second Vice President, Andrew Johnson

Let’s face it, our 17th President, Andrew Johnson, was a bit of a train wreck.

We might have seen hints of it coming during the Lincoln Administration; as Lincoln’s second Vice President, Johnson was a politically clever choice–well, he would have been, had Lincoln had remained alive.

Johnson was a Tennessee Democrat, and was the only Southern Senator to remain in Congress after the Confederate states had seceded.  As such, he gained tremendous political clout among Union politicians as the war came to a close, and became an appealing symbol of unity and bipartisanship when he was put on the ticket with Lincoln in 1864.  He increased his popularity among Republicans with his professed vitriol towards the Confederates, stating  “Treason must be made odious… traitors must be punished and impoverished … their social power must be destroyed.”

However, trouble began to brew shortly after the election.  First, Johnson asked Lincoln if he actually had to attend the inaugural ceremonies.  (Lincoln’s response to the question?  “That Johnson is a queer man.”)  On Inauguration Day, he arrived drunk at his own swearing in, and proceeded to launch into a rather strange speech:  “I am a-goin’ for to tell you here to-day; yes, I’m a-goin for to tell you all, that I’m a plebian! I glory in it; I am a plebian! ”   Johnson’s excuse was that he needed the (more than 5 glasses of) whiskey he consumed as a pain reliever from the lingering symptoms of typhoid he had suffered earlier in life.  Lincoln tried to defend him by stating “I have known Andy for many years…he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared. Andy ain’t a drunkard.”

As a member of a different party (the National Union Party/”War Democrat”), and kept separate from Lincoln’s Cabinet and the decision-making processes of State, Johnson was likely never intended for the Presidency.  Like his Vice Presidential predecessor (Hannibal Hamlin), Johnson was not privy to Lincoln’s inner circle, and as such, was remote from policy making.

Thus, when he took over the Presidency after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, he lacked both Executive experience, as well as a working knowledge of Lincoln’s Cabinet (which he inherited.)  Although he had professed hatred toward the Confederate cause, he was ultimately quite lenient towards his “plebian” Southern brethren in setting Reconstruction policy.  This ultimately cost him the support of Congress and his Cabinet (notably the leader of the anti-South sentiment, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton), as well as earned him two impeachment trials.  More importantly, Johnson’s political decisions left indelible scars on this country that can still be felt to this day.

Which leads me to this observation:  beware the politician with the folksy accent who always talks about the common people.  We had eight years of it, and look what that did for us.  And now, before the confetti from Election Day has finished being cleared from the streets, there’s another folksy outsider on the rise, “rearin’ her head” at the Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington, setting up her own PAC, and getting ready for a run in 2012.

Oh, God, Andy, I’m with you.  Pass the whiskey.

11.3 Dig that Hair: Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles


Gideon Welles, hair icon

Gideon Welles, hair icon

Facial hair was evidently the thing in Civil War America.  Part of Abraham Lincoln’s iconic image was the close-cropped beard that framed his face.  Robert E. Lee sported a full beard and mustache.  Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George McClellan had beards.  And who could forget General Ambrose Burnside’s imposing sideburns?  The were enough to scare the Confederacy into submission.  (They were so fierce, in fact, that the term “sideburns” actually derives from Burnside’s name.)

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles’ locks were no exception.  A big, bushy white beard with a curly, girly mop: he certainly set a standard for interesting hair trends in the 19th Century.

It’s not exactly the coif you would conjure for a Secretary of the Navy, is it?  It’s a bit extreme, even for the 1800s.  Given this, it’s not surprising that Welles came to this military jurisdiction largely via a career in law, journalism and politics in Connecticut.  After founding the Hartford Times in 1826, he served in the Connecticut state legislature from 1827-1835.  A Jacksonian Democrat for most of his life, Welles shifted to the Republican party as a means of protest because of his anti-slavery views.  When he was picked by Lincoln for the Cabinet post in 1861, he had just started another newspaper in Connecticut, the Republican-leaning Hartford Evening Press, and had served as a staunch political supporter of Lincoln’s.

However misguided his hair choices may have been, the misguidedness did not spill over into his role as head of the Navy.  He found the state of the Navy department in shambles when he first assumed office, especially after the departure of Southern naval leaders to join the Confederate cause.  In 1861, the Navy had 76 ships and 7600 sailors.  By 1865, it had nearly ten times that number.  Grudgingly (because he disagreed with the decision) he used this manpower to blockade Southern ports as part of the Anaconda Plan, which ultimately helped win the war–the South was financially strangled by their inability to sell cotton or to import goods and weapons.  For this success, Lincoln dubbed Welles his “Neptune.”

Despite quite vocal disagreements with other members of the Cabinet during throughout his tenure there, Welles remained in the Naval Secretary position through Andrew Johnson’s administration, and left office in 1869.  Largely due to his disagreement with Johnson about Reconstruction policies, he reverted to his membership in the Democratic Party.  Upon leaving Washington, he returned home to Connecticut to edit his newspapers and write.  His biography, Lincoln and Seward, was published in 1877.  He died of strep throat a year later.

But however changeable his life may have been, one thing in Gideon Welles’ life remained constant: his hair.  No doubt he would have won any hair-related throwdowns among the Team of Rivals (although he did have some competition in Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, as we will see tomorrow.)  Lincoln wouldn’t have a chance.