Was Andrew Johnson the Worst President?

I have written several articles on our Presidents and Vice-Presidents. A list of the links have been provided at the bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional Presidents and their places in history.

Is President Andrew Johnson the Worst President in our History as a country? Our did he just have the misfortune to follow the shoes of our greatest president. He was the 17th president of the United States serving 1865 to 1869. He assumed the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Johnson was a Democrat who ran with Lincoln on the National Union ticket, coming to office as the Civil War concluded. For the 1864 election, Hamlin was replaced as Vice Presidential nominee by Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat chosen for his appeal to Southern Unionists. Hannibal Hamlin was Lincoln’s Vice Presidential running mate in his first term as president. I wonder if Lincoln knew that he was going to be assassinated would he have kept Hamlin?

So Johnson was only in office a very short time as Vice President, before he was asked to take the most difficult job in the world. I have to admit I never realized that Johnson was not the Vice President in Lincoln’s first term as well. I guess I took it for granted. Not only was he new he wasn’t even a Republican. Now he had the impossible task to rebuild and heal our Union.

Johnson Favored quick restoration of the seceded states to the Union without protection for the former slaves. This led to conflict with the Republican-dominated Congress, culminating in his impeachment by the House of Representatives in 1868. He was acquitted in the Senate by one vote. His main accomplishment as president was the Alaska purchase.

Johnson was born in poverty in Raleigh, North Carolina and never attended school. He was apprenticed as a tailor and worked in several frontier towns before settling in Greeneville, Tennessee. He served as alderman and mayor there before being elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1835. After brief service in the Tennessee Senate, Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1843, where he served five two-year terms. He became governor of Tennessee for four years, and was elected by the legislature to the Senate in 1857. In his congressional service, he sought passage of the Homestead Bill which was enacted soon after he left his Senate seat in 1862. Southern slave states seceded to form the Confederate States of America, including Tennessee, but Johnson remained firmly with the Union. He was the only sitting senator from a Confederate state who did not resign his seat upon learning of his state’s secession. As the only member from a seceded state to remain in the Senate and the most prominent Southern Unionist, Johnson had Lincoln’s ear in the early months of the war. In 1862, Lincoln appointed him as military governor of Tennessee after most of it had been retaken. According to historian Albert Castel in his account of Johnson’s presidency, Lincoln was impressed by Johnson’s administration of Tennessee. Gordon-Reed points out that while the Lincoln-Hamlin ticket might have been considered geographically balanced in 1860, “having Johnson, the southern War Democrat, on the ticket sent the right message about the folly of secession and the continuing capacity for union within the country.” In 1864, Johnson was a logical choice as running mate for Lincoln, who wished to send a message of national unity in his re-election campaign; their ticket easily won. To sound a theme of unity, Lincoln in 1864 ran under the banner of the National Union Party, rather than the Republicans. At the party’s convention in Baltimore in June, Lincoln was easily nominated, although there had been some talk of replacing him with a Cabinet officer or one of the more successful generals. After the convention backed Lincoln, former Secretary of War Simon Cameron offered a resolution to nominate Hamlin, but it was defeated. Johnson was nominated for vice president by C.M. Allen of Indiana with an Iowa delegate as seconder. On the first ballot, Johnson led with 200 votes to 150 for Hamlin and 108 for Dickinson. On the second ballot, Kentucky switched to vote for Johnson, beginning a stampede. Johnson was named on the second ballot with 491 votes to Hamlin’s 17 and eight for Dickinson; the nomination was made unanimous. Lincoln expressed pleasure at the result, “Andy Johnson, I think, is a good man.” When word reached Nashville, a crowd assembled and the military governor obliged with a speech contending his selection as a Southerner meant that the rebel states had not actually left the Union. Johnson was sworn in as vice president in March 1865 and gave a rambling speech, after which he secluded himself to avoid public ridicule. In the weeks after the inauguration, Johnson only presided over the Senate briefly, and hid from public ridicule at the Maryland home of a friend, Francis Preston Blair. When he did return to Washington, it was with the intent of leaving for Tennessee to reestablish his family in Greenville. Instead, he remained after word came that General Ulysses S. Grant had captured the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, presaging the end of the war. Lincoln stated, in response to criticism of Johnson’s behavior, that “I have known Andy Johnson for many years; he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared; Andy ain’t a drunkard.” Six weeks later, the assassination of Lincoln made him president.

The events of the assassination resulted in speculation, then and subsequently, concerning Johnson and what the conspirators might have intended for him. In the vain hope of having his life spared after his capture, Atzerodt spoke much about the conspiracy, but did not say anything to indicate that the plotted assassination of Johnson was merely a ruse. Conspiracy theorists point to the fact that on the day of the assassination, Booth came to the Kirkwood House and left one of his cards with Johnson’s private secretary, William A. Browning. The message on it was: “Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.”

Johnson presided with dignity over Lincoln’s funeral ceremonies in Washington, before his predecessor’s body was sent home to Springfield, Illinois, for interment. Shortly after Lincoln’s death, Union General William T. Sherman reported he had, without consulting Washington, reached an armistice agreement with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston for the surrender of Confederate forces in North Carolina in exchange for the existing state government remaining in power, with private property rights (slaves) to be respected. This did not even grant freedom to those in slavery. This was not acceptable to Johnson or the Cabinet, who sent word for Sherman to secure the surrender without making political deals, which he did. Further, Johnson placed a $100,000 bounty (equivalent to $1.67 million in 2019) on Confederate President Davis, then a fugitive, which gave Johnson the reputation of a man who would be tough on the South. More controversially, he permitted the execution of Mary Surratt for her part in Lincoln’s assassination. Surratt was executed with three others, including Atzerodt, on July 7, 1865.

Johnson implemented his own form of Presidential Reconstruction, a series of proclamations directing the seceded states to hold conventions and elections to reform their civil governments. Johnson’s first Reconstruction actions were two proclamations, with the unanimous backing of his Cabinet, on May 29. One recognized the Virginia government led by provisional Governor Francis Pierpont. The second provided amnesty for all ex-rebels except those holding property valued at $20,000 or more; it also appointed a temporary governor for North Carolina and authorized elections. Neither of these proclamations included provisions regarding black suffrage or freedmen’s rights. The President ordered constitutional conventions in other former rebel states. While he received support from the white South, he underestimated the determination of Northerners to ensure that the war had not been fought for nothing. It was important, in Northern public opinion, that the South acknowledge its defeat, that slavery be ended, and that the lot of African Americans be improved. Southern states returned many of their old leaders and passed Black Codes to deprive the freedmen of many civil liberties, but Congressional Republicans refused to seat legislators from those states and advanced legislation to overrule the Southern actions. Northerners were outraged at the idea of unrepentant Confederate leaders, such as Stephens, rejoining the federal government at a time when emotional wounds from the war remained raw. They saw the Black Codes placing African Americans in a position barely above slavery. Republicans also feared that restoration of the Southern states would return the Democrats to power. Johnson vetoed their bills, and Congressional Republicans overrode him, setting a pattern for the remainder of his presidency. Johnson opposed the Fourteenth Amendment which gave citizenship to former slaves. Although strongly urged by moderates to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Johnson broke decisively with them by vetoing it on March 27. In his veto message, he objected to the measure because it conferred citizenship on the freedmen at a time when 11 out of 36 states were unrepresented in the Congress, and that it discriminated in favor of African Americans and against whites. Within three weeks, Congress had overridden his veto, the first time that had been done on a major bill in American history. The veto, often seen as a key mistake of Johnson’s presidency, convinced moderates there was no hope of working with him. Historian Eric Foner, in his volume on Reconstruction, views it as “the most disastrous miscalculation of his political career”. According to Stewart, the veto was “for many his defining blunder, setting a tone of perpetual confrontation with Congress that prevailed for the rest of his presidency”

In 1866, he went on an unprecedented national tour promoting his executive policies, seeking to break Republican opposition. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was an able and hard-working man, but difficult to deal with. Johnson both admired and was exasperated by his War Secretary, who, in combination with General of the Army Grant, worked to undermine the president’s Southern policy from within his own administration. Johnson considered firing Stanton, but respected him for his wartime service as secretary. Stanton, for his part, feared allowing Johnson to appoint his successor and refused to resign, despite his public disagreements with his president.  As the conflict grew between the branches of government, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act restricting Johnson’s ability to fire Cabinet officials. He persisted in trying to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, but ended up being impeached by the House of Representatives and narrowly avoided conviction in the Senate.

On March 5, 1868, the impeachment trial began in the Senate and lasted almost three months; Congressmen George S. Boutwell, Benjamin Butler and Thaddeus Stevens acted as managers for the House, or prosecutors, and William M. EvartsBenjamin R. Curtis and former Attorney General Stanbery were Johnson’s counsel; Chief Justice Chase served as presiding judge. The defense relied on the provision of the Tenure of Office Act that made it applicable only to appointees of the current administration. Since Lincoln had appointed Stanton, the defense maintained Johnson had not violated the act, and also argued that the President had the right to test the constitutionality of an act of Congress. Johnson’s counsel insisted that he make no appearance at the trial, nor publicly comment about the proceedings, and except for a pair of interviews in April, he complied. Johnson maneuvered to gain an acquittal; for example, he pledged to Iowa Senator James W. Grimes that he would not interfere with Congress’s Reconstruction efforts. Grimes reported to a group of Moderates, many of whom voted for acquittal, that he believed the President would keep his word. Johnson also promised to install the respected John Schofield as War Secretary.  Kansas Senator Edmund G. Ross received assurances that the new, Radical-influenced constitutions ratified in South Carolina and Arkansas would be transmitted to the Congress without delay, an action which would give him and other senators political cover to vote for acquittal.

One reason senators were reluctant to remove the President was that his successor would have been Ohio Senator Wade, the president pro tempore of the Senate. Wade, a lame duck who left office in early 1869, was a Radical who supported such measures as women’s suffrage, placing him beyond the pale politically in much of the nation. Additionally, a President Wade was seen as an obstacle to Grant’s ambitions.


Soon after taking office as president, Johnson reached an accord with Secretary of State William H. Seward that there would be no change in foreign policy. In practice, this meant that Seward would continue to run things as he had under Lincoln. Seward and Lincoln had been rivals for the nomination in 1860; the victor hoped that Seward would succeed him as president in 1869. At the time of Johnson’s accession, the French had intervened in Mexico, sending troops there. While many politicians had indulged in saber rattling over the Mexican matter, Seward preferred quiet diplomacy, warning the French through diplomatic channels that their presence in Mexico was unacceptable. Although the President preferred a more aggressive approach, Seward persuaded him to follow his lead. In April 1866, the French government informed Seward that its troops would be brought home in stages, to conclude by November 1867.

Seward was an expansionist, and sought opportunities to gain territory for the United States. By 1867, the Russian government saw its North American colony (today Alaska) as a financial liability, and feared losing control as American settlement reached there. It instructed its minister in Washington, Baron Eduard de Stoeckl, to negotiate a sale. De Stoeckl did so deftly, getting Seward to raise his offer from $5 million (coincidentally, the minimum that Russia had instructed de Stoeckl to accept) to $7 million, and then getting $200,000 added by raising various objections. This sum of $7.2 million is equivalent to $132 million in present-day terms. On March 30, 1867, de Stoeckl and Seward signed the treaty, working quickly as the Senate was about to adjourn. Johnson and Seward took the signed document to the President’s Room in the Capitol, only to be told there was no time to deal with the matter before adjournment. The President summoned the Senate into session to meet on April 1; that body approved the treaty, 37–2. Emboldened by his success in Alaska, Seward sought acquisitions elsewhere. His only success was staking an American claim to uninhabited Wake Island in the Pacific, which would be officially claimed by the U.S. in 1898. He came close with the Danish West Indies as Denmark agreed to sell and the local population approved the transfer in a plebiscite, but the Senate never voted on the treaty and it expired.

He did not win the 1868 Democratic presidential nomination and left office the following year. Johnson returned to Tennessee after his presidency and gained some vindication when he was elected to the Senate in 1875, making him the only former president to serve in the Senate. He died five months into his term. Johnson’s strong opposition to federally guaranteed rights for black Americans is widely criticized. He is regarded by many historians as one of the worst presidents in American history.

The turn of the 20th century saw the first significant historical evaluations of Johnson. Leading the wave was Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James Ford Rhodes, who wrote of the former president:

Johnson acted in accordance with his nature. He had intellectual force but it worked in a groove. Obstinate rather than firm it undoubtedly seemed to him that following counsel and making concessions were a display of weakness. At all events from his December message to the veto of the Civil Rights Bill he yielded not a jot to Congress. The moderate senators and representatives (who constituted a majority of the Union party) asked him for only a slight compromise; their action was really an entreaty that he would unite with them to preserve Congress and the country from the policy of the radicals … His quarrel with Congress prevented the readmission into the Union on generous terms of the members of the late Confederacy … His pride of opinion, his desire to beat, blinded him to the real welfare of the South and of the whole country.

Rhodes ascribed Johnson’s faults to his personal weaknesses, and blamed him for the problems of the postbellum South. Other early 20th-century historians, such as John BurgessWoodrow Wilson (who later became president himself) and William Dunning, all Southerners, concurred with Rhodes, believing Johnson flawed and politically inept, but concluding that he had tried to carry out Lincoln’s plans for the South in good faith. Author and journalist Jay Tolson suggests that Wilson “depict[ed Reconstruction] as a vindictive program that hurt even repentant southerners while benefiting northern opportunists, the so-called Carpetbaggers, and cynical white southerners, or Scalawags, who exploited alliances with blacks for political gain”.

Even as Rhodes and his school wrote, another group of historians was setting out on the full rehabilitation of Johnson, using for the first time primary sources such as his papers, provided by his daughter Martha before her death in 1901, and the diaries of Johnson’s Navy Secretary, Gideon Welles, first published in 1911. The resulting volumes, such as David Miller DeWitt’s The Impeachment and Trial of President Andrew Johnson (1903), presented him far more favorably than they did those who had sought to oust him. In James Schouler’s 1913 History of the Reconstruction Period, the author accused Rhodes of being “quite unfair to Johnson”, though agreeing that the former president had created many of his own problems through inept political moves. These works had an effect; although historians continued to view Johnson as having deep flaws which sabotaged his presidency, they saw his Reconstruction policies as fundamentally correct. Castel writes:

at the end of the 1920s, an historiographical revolution took place. In the span of three years five widely read books appeared, all highly pro-Johnson….They differed in general approach and specific interpretations, but they all glorified Johnson and condemned his enemies. According to these writers, Johnson was a humane, enlightened, and liberal statesman who waged a courageous battle for the Constitution and democracy against scheming and unscrupulous Radicals, who were motivated by a vindictive hatred of the South, partisanship, and a desire to establish the supremacy of Northern “big business”. In short, rather than a boor, Johnson was a martyr; instead of a villain, a hero.

In the early 21st century, Johnson is among those commonly mentioned as the worst presidents in U.S. history. According to historian Glenn W. Lafantasie, who believes Buchanan the worst president, “Johnson is a particular favorite for the bottom of the pile because of his impeachment … his complete mishandling of Reconstruction policy … his bristling personality, and his enormous sense of self-importance.” Tolson suggests that “Johnson is now scorned for having resisted Radical Republican policies aimed at securing the rights and well-being of the newly emancipated African-Americans”. Gordon-Reed notes that Johnson, along with his contemporaries Pierce and Buchanan, are generally listed among the five worst presidents, but states, “there have never been more difficult times in the life of this nation. The problems these men had to confront were enormous. It would have taken a succession of Lincolns to do them justice.”

After evaluating his presidency, he mainly obtains a low score, because he put pride and his stubbornness before the country. He refused to sign the slave amendments, he was impeached, and basically he was a horses ass. I don’t believe he was the worst president. I will continue my study of the presidents to see who deserves that trophy, a likely candidate is James Buchanan. Johnson took over from a great president with little time to gain experience. He took over the presidency in the worst possible time. His one saving grace was considered Sedward’s Folly, but turned out to be his crowning achievement. The purchase of Alaska. I am sure Russia is still kicking themselves over that deal. Not quite the worst president, but close.


When I wrote this article I had ranked Johnson as the second worst president, just above James Buchanan. But now that I have seen President Biden in action I have changed my mind. I place Biden after just 7 months in office as the 2nd worst president. The way things are going he may actually unseat Buchanan as the worst president. Only time will tell. But judging on his performance so far there is little hope that his ranking/rating will improve.


2 out of 5 stars


en.wikipedia, “Andrew Johnson, ” Wikipedia editors;

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