Andrew Johnson's Civil War and Reconstruction

By Sefton, James E. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2012 | Go to article overview

Andrew Johnson's Civil War and Reconstruction


Sefton, James E., The Journal of Southern History


Andrew Johnson's Civil War and Reconstruction. By Paul H. Bergeron. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 299. $49.95, ISBN 978-1-57233-748-0.)

Paul H. Bergeron has accomplished a difficult task. He has written an evenhanded, balanced study of the nineteenth-century president most in need of one but least likely to inspire one. Andrew Johnson, Bergeron believes, "has been vilified enough"--by the Radical Republicans in the 1860s and "a century later by their intellectual and ideological descendants, namely, certain scholars and biographers" (p. 6).

Bergeron's focus is not Johnson's racism, as it was in the work of Eric L. McKitrick, LaWanda Cox and John H. Cox, and others. All scholars recognize Johnson's racial views, and Bergeron certainly does not defend them. But he does write, "It is extraordinarily difficult, however, to imagine how Johnson could have avoided being a racist" (p. 6). American demography supported the reality of "a hierarchical society, with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom" (p. 7).

The focus instead is Johnson's performance as a political leader in times of crisis. Therefore, instead of a full biography, Andrew Johnson's Civil War and Reconstruction is a study of the most important portion of Johnson's public life. Much of the scholarship of the last forty years has taken Johnson's racism as the cause of his erroneous policies on Reconstruction and, therefore, as the justification for his impeachment and for the conviction that he deserved and barely escaped.

Bergeron, whose many years as editor of the final nine volumes of The Papers of Andrew Johnson (16 vols.; Knoxville, 1967-2000) make him the most knowledgeable current student of Johnson, presents a different picture. Andrew Johnson's Civil War and Reconstruction depicts Johnson as a practitioner of power in two phases. The first was his successful cooperation with Abraham Lincoln to save the Union and Johnson's own state of Tennessee and to accomplish emancipation. The second phase was Johnson's effort as president to advance his own policies on Reconstruction, to preserve the presidency from congressional attack, and to further his own electoral ambition for 1868. …

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