In the more than 200 years that America has existed, we have accumulated an assortment of presidents - some colorful, some unforgettable, and some that left no apparent mark on history. Among the presidents who ended up in the dustbin is Andrew Johnson. Although often unfairly characterized during and after his administration as unscrupulous, incompetent, and arrogant, his only real “crime,” other than being a Southern Democrat, was his determination to carry out Abraham Lincoln’s policy of mercy to the defeated Southern states after the Civil War.
President Lincoln had led the nation through 3 years of bloody war, and the northern states were weary of it. Without a decisive Union victory, the future seemed to hang in the balance. Lincoln and the fledgling Republican party faced losing the presidency to the Democratic candidate, failed former head of the Union army, George McClellan. If he won, McClellan promised, he would allow the states to leave the Union, and slavery would remain intact. In an effort to strengthen the ticket, Andrew Johnson, one of the few Democrats who had refused to secede from the Union, was chosen as the Republican party's vice presidential nominee.
Lincoln and Johnson cruised to victory that November, mainly due to a string of Union victories. Indeed, just about a month after Lincoln's 2nd inauguration, the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, surrendered. When Union General Ulysses Grant consulted Lincoln about surrender terms, the president told him to “let 'em up easy.” Lincoln's inaugural address had also made clear what his policy would be toward the defeated South: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
But only 5 days later, disaster struck. John Wilkes Booth, a member of a team of assassins, shot President Lincoln as he was attending a play with his wife at Ford's Theater. The plan had been to also assassinate General Grant that night, but, at the last minute, he had canceled his plans to attend the play with the Lincolns. Andrew Johnson also narrowly escaped; his intended assassin, an alcoholic, drank himself into a stupor instead of killing Johnson that night. But the Secretary of State, William Seward, was not so fortunate. He was home in bed, recovering from a serious carriage accident, when an assasin broke into his home and proceeded to stab him repeatedly in the throat. The only thing that saved his life was a thick iron brace around his neck.
Meanwhile, the dying Lincoln was taken to a house across the street. As he kept watch that night, the deeply-affected Johnson vowed, “They shall pay for this!”
Within hours, the burden that had sat on Lincoln's shoulders for the past 4 years would be his. Could he handle it?