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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Whatever else Andrew Johnson knows


"That

affair, in its philosophy," he had said, "corresponds to the many attempts related in history at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution. Orsini's attempt on Louis Napoleon and John Brown's attempt at Harper's Ferry were, in their philosophy, precisely the same. The eagerness to cast blame on Old England in the one case and on New England in the other does not disprove the sameness of the two things." It may be added that the "philosophy" of Booth was also "precisely the same" as that of Orsini and Brown, and that the "eagerness to cast blame" on the conquered South was equally unjustifiable and equally inevitable.

The anger of the North was terrible, and was intensified by the recollection of the late President's pleas for lenity and a forgetfulness of the past. "This is their reply to magnanimity!" was the almost universal cry. The wild idea that the responsible heads of the Confederacy were privy to the deed found a wide credence which would have been impossible in cooler blood. The justifiable but unrestrained indignation which Booth's crime provoked must be counted as the first of the factors which made possible the tragic blunders of the Reconstruction.

Another factor was the personality of the new President. Andrew

Johnson occupied a position in some ways analogous to that of Tyler a generation earlier. He had been chosen Vice-President as a concession to the War Democrats and to the Unionists of the Border States whose support had been thought necessary to defeat McClellan. With the Northern Republicans who now composed the great majority of Congress he had no political affinity whatever. Yet at the beginning of his term of office he was more popular with the Radicals than Lincoln had ever been. He seemed to share to the full the violence of the popular mood. His declaration that as murder was a crime, so treason was a crime, and "must be made odious," was welcomed with enthusiasm by the very men who afterwards impeached him. Nor, when we blame these men for trafficking with perjurers and digging up tainted and worthless evidence for the purpose of sustaining against him the preposterous charge of complicity in the murder of his predecessor, must we forget that he himself, without any evidence at all, had under his own hand and seal brought the same monstrous accusation against Jefferson Davis. Davis, when apprehended, met the affront with a cutting reply. "There is one man at least who knows this accusation to be false--the man who makes it. Whatever else Andrew Johnson knows, he knows that I preferred Mr. Lincoln to him."

It was true. Between Johnson and the chiefs of the Confederacy there was a bitterness greater than could be found in the heart of any Northerner. To him they were the seducers who had caught his beloved South in a net of disloyalty and disaster. To them he was a traitor who had sold himself to the Yankee oppressor. A social quarrel intensified the political one. Johnson, who had been a tailor by trade, was the one political representative of the "poor whites" of the South. He knew that the great slave-owning squires despised him, and he hated them in return. It was only when the issues cut deeper that it became apparent that, while he would gladly have hanged Jeff Davis and all his Cabinet on a sufficient number of sour apple trees (and perhaps he was the one man in the United States who really wanted to do so), he was none the less a Southerner to the backbone; it was only when the Negro question was raised that the Northern men began to realize, what any Southerner or man acquainted with the South could have told them, that the attitude of the "poor white" towards the Negro was a thousand times more hostile than that of the slave-owner.


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