Trump’s 2018 Hasn’t Been as Bad as Andrew Johnson’s 1866

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In late August 1866, Andrew Johnson set out from Washington on the first and still most infamous midterm campaign swing by a sitting president. Along for the ride in his private train car were General Ulysses S. Grant, Admiral David Farragut, Secretary of State William Seward and others — including, interestingly, the Mexican minister to the U.S., Matias Romero, a friend of Grant’s. General George Armstrong Custer and his wife, Libbie, were to join up a couple of days later.

The “Swing Around the Circle,” as the voyage to New York, the Midwest and back was dubbed, started well. There were huge, enthusiastic crowds in Baltimore and New York, where Johnson’s push for reconciliation between Northern and Southern whites was popular, and respectful ones in Philadelphia, where it was less so. The president was brief and dignified in his remarks, and the newspaper coverage overwhelmingly positive. There was one minor disaster in upstate New York when a young boy’s leg was crushed by a carriage carrying Grant, and Johnson’s tendency to begin every speech with “You are aware that it is not my purpose to make a speech …” was starting to engender a few snickers. But as the train headed southeast from Buffalo into Pennsylvania and then Ohio, the trip was looking like a clear success.

It was all downhill from there, as journalist and historian Garry Boulard writes in “The Swing Around the Circle: Andrew Johnson and the Train Ride That Destroyed a Presidency, my chief source of information about the trip. Johnson hung on — barely — for two more years as president, but his political capital was all spent.

I got interested in Johnson and his Swing Around the Circle after reading about it in Richard White’s “The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896," which I wrote a column about earlier this year. The campaign swing also gets a chapter in Ron Chernow’s bestselling biography of Grant, which I haven’t read yet but surely will soon now that it’s out in paperback. For me, as for some other people, the seeming similarities between Johnson and the current occupant of the White House are too tantalizing to ignore.

It’s not that Donald Trump is a carbon copy of Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat who came to national prominence as the lone U.S. senator from a Southern state to spurn the Confederacy during the Civil War. Johnson gained the nation’s highest office not through an election but due to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, who had chosen Johnson as his running mate in 1864 with the idea that having a Southerner as vice president could help reunite the country after the war. Just a few weeks after an embarrassing public debut as vice president at Lincoln’s second inauguration, before which Johnson downed several glasses of whiskey to fight a fever and got totally sloshed, he was president.

Once in office, Johnson clashed constantly with so-called Radical Republicans in Congress who wanted to do much more to help freed slaves and punish former Confederates than he was comfortable with. He gave an impromptu Washington’s-birthday speech at the White House in 1866 in which he referred to himself 210 times and asserted that if Jefferson Davis and other Confederate officials were traitors, then so were Radical Republican congressional leaders Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and abolitionist Wendell Phillips. He vetoed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1866, decrying it for granting rights, birthright citizenship among them, to “the Chinese of the Pacific States, Indians subject to taxation, the people called Gipsies, as well as the entire race designated as blacks, people of color, negroes, mulattoes and persons of African blood.”  (I’m not going to spell out what I see as Trump-like behavior and views here. If you see it, you see it. If you don’t, you may not find much point to this column.)

The House and Senate overrode that veto — the first override of a presidential veto of major legislation in U.S. history. But Johnson retained the support of Secretary of State Seward, the former New York governor who had been Lincoln’s most important adviser, and as the 1866 elections neared, it still seemed conceivable that, with Southern states beginning to send representatives to Congress again, he could build a coalition that would thwart the radicals. Bringing along a bunch of Civil War heroes on a campaign swing through the North (Grant in particular had doubts about joining in but didn’t want to say no to his commander in chief) was part of that coalition-building effort.

At first, as noted at the beginning of this column, it seemed to be working. Then the train got to Cleveland. An increasingly bored Grant had gotten so drunk that his aides sent him ahead on a steamer to Detroit to keep him out of the public eye, so the most popular member of the delegation (and Ohio native son) was not on hand when Johnson appeared on the balcony of Cleveland’s Kennard House hotel to address the gathered crowd. He started out with his usual non-speech speech but was soon ruffled by hecklers in the crowd. “Hang Jeff Davis,” one yelled.

“Hang Jeff Davis? Hang Jeff Davis?” Johnson replied. “Why don’t you hang him?” It degenerated from there, with Johnson at one point yelling, “Why don’t you hang Thad Stevens and Wendell Phillips?” He kept going for 10 rambling minutes after that. When he finally retreated into the hotel, James Doolittle, a Republican U.S. senator from Wisconsin and key political ally, warned him that such behavior damaged the dignity of the presidency. Responded Johnson, within earshot of reporters, “I don’t care about my dignity.”

With that, two of the nation’s biggest newspapers, the New York Herald and New York Times, turned from friendly to appalled. The Herald deemed Johnson’s behavior “mortifying,” and the Times found it “greatly to be regretted.” The negative coverage continued as Johnson wrangled with hecklers again in Detroit and St. Louis, was snubbed by local officials in Chicago, and had to hide out from rioters in Indianapolis.

The worst moment of all came when a temporary wooden platform at the station in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, collapsed under the weight of the crowd there to greet the train. Hundreds were injured, and the Times reported that 13 died. Johnson and Grant wanted to keep the train in Johnstown and use it to transport the injured, but the conductor told them that waiting was impossible. Johnson left a top aide behind to help out, and at the next stop wrote out a $500 personal check (about $8,000 in current dollars) to aid relief efforts. In other words, he seems to have behaved admirably. But the tragedy only deepened the sense of failure and gloom that had enveloped the trip. Subsequent satiric accounts of the tour by humor columnist David Ross Locke and cartoonist Thomas Nast cemented the image of Johnson as an incompetent, whiny crank.

The subsequent 1866 midterms weren’t really a wave election, given that the Republicans already had a majority, but Johnson’s attempt to forge a new coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans was a complete flop. Republicans increased their edge in the House and Senate, with the party’s radical wing firmly in control. They showed up early in Washington and refused to allow the Southern states to be readmitted to the Union until they had ratified the 14th Amendment (only Tennessee had). After overturning two of Johnson’s vetoes in 1866, Congress overrode 13 more in 1867, 1868 and early 1869. Johnson’s 15 veto overrides remain the all-time record. He was also impeached by the House in 1868, although the Senate fell one vote short of convicting him. The Democrats declined to nominate him for the presidency in 1868, and Grant ran as a Republican and won in an Electoral College landslide.

President Trump’s midterm campaigning efforts this year were by comparison not such an obvious debacle. His party lost the House but kept the Senate, and there don’t seem to be nearly enough votes to override vetoes or throw him out of office. He confined his midterm campaigning appearances to controlled environments before friendly crowds, avoiding Johnson’s heckling problem. And while he certainly did and said many things that New York journalists and many other observers saw as undignified, he’s been doing that since he kicked off his presidential campaign in 2015. As historian Charles Cashdollar wrote of Johnson: “It is questionable, when all is said and done, that political success is the natural result of political dignity.”

What did Johnson in, really, was weakness. He didn’t have the votes in Congress, or the command of Washington’s then-much-smaller administrative apparatus, to accomplish many of his objectives, and after he appealed to the electorate in 1866 and was rebuffed, he ended up with even less power. Trump will also have less power over the next two years than he has had so far, and his flailing behavior since the election both reflects and probably is accelerating the diminishment of his clout. Like Johnson’s, his presidency seems to be in a downward spiral that he is ill-equipped to reverse.

Then again, President Trump has appeared to be on the brink before. And 11 years after the Swing Around the Circle, while Johnson himself was no longer around, his vision of a restoration to power for white Southerners and a sidelining of the rights and political aspirations of blacks was realized in the Compromise of 1877. History’s lessons tend not to be as clear as one might want them to be.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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