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.