Win or lose, successful in worldly terms or not, American heroes have stood for constitutional principles advocated by our Founding Fathers in every social and political battle since our nation's birth. But if such men and women still appear in "mainstream" modern histories, they are typically presented as reactionaries, fools, or villains. Few people provide a better example than America's 17th president, Andrew Johnson.
If your recollection proves hazy of this president--not to be confused with the earlier Andrew Jackson or the much-later Lyndon Johnson--you are not alone.
If Andrew Johnson is recalled in modern history books, it is typically to point out that he was impeached, or that he doggedly opposed the supposed blessings of Reconstruction--without providing any explanation as to why he opposed the Reconstruction policy that was fastened on the defeated South after the War Between the States. The histories that mention him may also fault him for having a bad temper and allegedly drinking too much on occasion. But the true story of his character and deeds proves much different.
Johnson was a stalwart Southern conservative from Tennessee who opposed the Confederacy during the war and served as Abraham Lincoln's vice president on a national Republican-Democrat unity ticket in 1864. He acceded to the White House upon Lincoln's assassination in April 1865. That's when his efforts to amicably reunite the North and South and to uphold constitutional principles of a limited federal government engendered the wrath of the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress.
Like Lincoln, Johnson believed that states had no right to secede from the Union, and that during the war those states that formed the Confederacy were still technically part of the United States. He therefore wanted to treat the defeated South as part of the United States during the post-war period. The Radical Republicans, on the other hand, viewed the Southern states as conquered provinces, or as errant states who must earn their way back into the Union.
The Republican Party was the liberal party, and the Democratic Party was the conservative party, during this time period and well into the 20th century. The Radical Republicans were animated by their belief in big government--even Marxism--and they supported whatever degree of rancor or even further bloodshed necessary to centralize power in Washington and impose their ideology on North and South alike. And they wanted to punish the South, to keep it under military occupation, and to bleed it of whatever economic resources it still possessed. They also wanted to deny the right to vote to those who had supported the Confederacy, to mobilize the recently emancipated slaves on behalf of Radical Republican candidates and causes by promising them property that would be then confiscated from the former Confederates, to deny the Southern states congressional representation in Washington, and to install puppet state governments subservient to the Radical Republicans.
Standing in their way was Andrew Johnson, who steadfastly opposed the Radical Republicans' attempt to employ extraconstitutional federal powers to enslave the South--even if his principled opposition meant the loss of the presidency. Johnson never wavered, and despite the fact that he was unfairly impeached by a majority of the members of the Radical Republican-controlled House, the Radical Republicans in the Senate fell one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed to convict him and throw him out of office.
Today, Johnson would be known as an advocate of strict constructionism. That is, he was a proponent of applying the original intent of the Constitution, including the Ninth and Tenth Amendments protecting the states from national government encroachments. Siding with him were the Democrats and a significant minority of Republicans. It might fairly be said that the fight thus …