Andrew Johnson's Presidency

Start Free Trial

Explain how Andrew Johnson’s background shaped his attitudes and policies on Reconstruction.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Johnson's upbringing and life experiences certainly predisposed him against the wealthy slaveholders that led the southern states into secession and civil war. He was born into poverty and moved to Tennessee as a teenager to escape life as a tailor's apprentice in North Carolina. He only came to prominence in...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Johnson's upbringing and life experiences certainly predisposed him against the wealthy slaveholders that led the southern states into secession and civil war. He was born into poverty and moved to Tennessee as a teenager to escape life as a tailor's apprentice in North Carolina. He only came to prominence in Tennessee out of marriage, and he was basically illiterate until young adulthood.

Johnson's approach to Reconstruction was characterized by his unshakeable belief that the South should always be dominated by whites. He was not antislavery per se, but he despised the powerful planters who dominated the politics and economy of the antebellum South. This was actually a fairly common position among many white men in areas of the South where slavery was less central than in others. They resented slavery because it devalued the work of ordinary white men who were not, themselves, slaveholders. Some even argued that slavery contributed to the poverty of poor whites.

But men like Johnson had no sympathy whatsoever for African American men and women. Indeed, as one historian has written, his speeches before, during, and after the war were full of "vile racist language against blacks." So when Republicans in Congress attempted to enact measures that would have fostered black political and social equality in the postwar South, Johnson vehemently opposed them. He foresaw a South without slavery, but no less dominated by whites than before the war.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Born in North Carolina and representing Tennessee, Andrew Johnson was raised in poverty and ascended politically by supporting the interests of common people against the Southern aristocracy. During the Civil War, he remained a senator loyal to the Union, and this got him selected as vice president during the Civil War.

Politically, Johnson's background was reflected in his views, with his distrust of large government (he was a supporter of states's rights) as well as in his unwillingness to defend the rights of freedmen, all despite his support of the Union. During Reconstruction, he ran afoul of the Radical Republicans, who accused him of being too lenient with the South. Furthermore, he vetoed government actions that would have granted more money to the struggling Freedmen's Bureau, as well as 1866's Civil Rights Bill, which would have expanded citizenship, all while black people faced severe legalized discrimination by way of the Black Codes. When the Radical Republicans gained control of Congress, they were able to overrule his vetoes and begin impeachment proceedings against him.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Andrew Johnson was most definitely not from the ruling class of the South.  He was born to a very middling family and was quite poor during his childhood and youth.  This colored his attitudes towards Reconstruction.

Because Johnson was from such a poor family, he had no love for the planters who dominated the South.  At the same time, he had no real love for African Americans since he, like many poor white Southerners, felt that it was important to maintain "white skin privilege" to differentiate themselves from blacks.  If blacks got rights, the poor whites would no longer be able to feel that they were clearly above anyone in the social hierarchy.

These attitudes led to Johnson's approach to Reconstruction.  He tried to make it easy for Southern states to return to the Union.  He did not push them for concessions on black rights.  At the same time, however, he tried to limit the the true aristocrats of the South's ability to regain political and economic power.

Thus, Johnson thought he was creating a Reconstruction system that would put more power in the hands of the whites who had not been part of the plantation-owning elite.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team