Author Annette Gordon-Reed

Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Andrew Johnson explains why the Reconstruction-era commander in chief, over time, came to be viewed as a bad president.

Annette Gordon-Reed is recognized as one of America's most distinguished presidential scholars. She was the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize in History (for her groundbreaking text The Hemingses of Monticello) and is the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant. A native of a small east Texas town, Gordon-Reed's passion for the past took her on an unorthodox journey to writing. After finishing Harvard Law School, she spent her early career practicing law. She now holds three professorial appointments at Harvard.


Tavis: Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at Harvard who became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in History for her book, The Hemingses of Monticello.” Her latest is a look at one of America’s most maligned presidents, Andrew Johnson. The new book is part of the American Presidents series. Professor Gordon-Reed, good to have you on this program.
Annette Gordon-Reed: Good to be here.
Tavis: My first question was going to be, if Johnson was such a bad president, why a book about Andrew Johnson? But before I even get to that, let’s go to my man, Frederick Douglass who you quote in this book. These are Douglass’s thoughts – Frederick Douglass, that is – about his first meeting with Andrew Johnson:
“There are moments in the lives of most men, when the doors of their souls are open, and unconsciously to themselves, their true characters may be read by the observant eye. It was at such an instant when I caught a glimpse of the real nature of this man, which all subsequent developments proved true.
I was standing in the crowd by the side of Mrs. Thomas J. Dorsey, when Mr. Lincoln touched Mr. Johnson and pointed me out to him. The first expression which came to his face, and which I think was the true index of his heart, was one of bitter contempt and aversion.
Seeing that I had observed him, he tried to assume a more friendly appearance, but it was too late; it is useless to close the door when all within had been seen. His first glance was the frown of the man; the second was the bland and sickly smile of the demagogue. I turned to Mrs. Dorsey and said, “Whatever Andrew Johnson may be, he is no friend to of our race.”
That’s what Frederick Douglass thought of Andrew Johnson. Tell me more.
Gordon-Reed: Pretty tough, pretty tough.
Tavis: Yeah.
Gordon-Reed: Well, he actually read Johnson. Frederick Douglass was a brilliant man and he could see just in that unconscious look that here was a person who did not have the best interest of African Americans at heart.
And it’s a terrible thing to think that this guy was the head of Reconstruction, when you’re trying to figure out – the question was, what do we do with four million African Americans, former slaves, who were set free? This guy had a particular answer and that was send them back to as near a slavery as possible. So there was this huge lost opportunity.
Tavis: Was Johnson bad of his own doing – or not doing, as it were – or is Johnson regarded as being such a bad president because he followed a guy named Abraham Lincoln?
Gordon-Reed: Well, it’s both things. I mean, it would be hard to follow Lincoln. In surveys of presidents, Johnson is usually in the bottom five and Lincoln is usually number one. So to go from what people considered to be the best to the worst in one term is quite a shock for people. But he was also bad because he wasn’t really equipped to do what had to be done for the nation at this very, very critical time. So it was both things.
It was following a popular president, a person who was popular in our time, even more so than then, and historians looking at what he botched essentially was Reconstruction and realizing that this was the wrong man, you know, at this very, very critical moment.
Tavis: Yeah. There was great debate – I want to come forward and then go back – there was great debate, as we all know. This is not about whether you like or loathe, agree or disagree with Sarah Palin, but there was great debate about John McCain even selecting Sarah Palin, given her readiness or lack thereof in the minds of some to be the president of the United States if called upon for whatever reason to do that someday.
If Johnson was such a bad president, how did he end up getting that close to the office in the first place?
Gordon-Reed: Well, Johnson was a bad president, but he was somebody who had worked his way up from nothing to become, you know, a very, very high official in Tennessee. He was the only southern senator who remained loyal to the Union, so he stayed in the Union.
Lincoln picked him because he was a war governor and Lincoln could sort of signal to the south, hey, it’s possible for some sort of reconciliation. I don’t hate the south. I’ve picked this person who is from your area. You’re on a border state and this means that we can work together again.
Lincoln was always trying to signal to them even in the midst of war that this had to be wrapped up at some place and you had to bring the confederacy back in. So it was his idea to say here’s a southerner who could remain loyal and be a part of my administration. So that’s how it happened.
But, you know, Lincoln and obviously none of these people knew what was gonna happen not long after his inauguration and this guy would be president.
Tavis: Before I come to his public policy, or lack thereof, how would you describe Johnson’s views on Black people, Frederick Douglass’s point of view notwithstanding. I ask that because, as you and I both know, Lincoln’s view on Black folk evolved over time. So tell me about Johnson’s views.
Gordon-Reed: Well, certainly prejudice against Black people was the tenor of the time, but Johnson was particularly harsh. Even people noticed. They said this guy’s even too much for us. He said openly that everyone knows the Black race – the African race, I believe, is the quote – “is inferior to the white race and we should try to bring them up. But when we bring them up, we should bring ourselves up so that we’ll always maintain that gap.” He was a white supremacist, open about that. He said that this should be a white man’s government.
So you can imagine, when you have Reconstruction and people are saying we have to bring political rights to Black people in the south and he’s saying, no, no, no. The south should be a white man’s government is it’s gonna stay that way as long as I have anything to do about it. So that’s really what it was.
I mean, he thought Blacks existed basically to serve white people and he bitterly resented any kind of push to create some sort of political rights, some sort of citizenship, for African Americans.
Tavis: Again, to my point, I know that Lincoln evolved over time and there are scholars who will tell you that Lincoln really didn’t free the slaves because he wanted to do; he did it for a lot of other reasons.
Gordon-Reed: Yeah, yeah. He needed people to fight. He needed soldiers. Black soldiers contributed to the Union effort.
Tavis: Exactly.
Gordon-Reed: We helped to win the war.
Tavis: I raise that because I’m curious as to whether or not – and I would assume that he was – Lincoln was aware of Johnson’s racist views when he picked him. Or did Lincoln pick him and then, after picking him, Lincoln’s views evolved over time?
Gordon-Reed: Well, Lincoln knew Johnson, but didn’t know him very, very well. He really picked him because of his position as the only southerner, you know, prominent southerner who remained loyal to the Union. As they said, he focused mainly on talking about punishing traitors, punishing whites, who had gone in the Confederacy.
He really didn’t talk very much about Blacks until it became apparent that, wait a minute, they’re gonna try to – the radical Republicans. They called them radical. They were radical in the sense that they wanted Black people to have rights and that was a radical notion for some people, then and now.
So he was there talking about punishing whites, but he really didn’t get into Blacks until he saw, wait a minute, they’re trying to do something with African Americans here and I’m gonna try to stop it.
Tavis: Here’s a whole book here that you’ve written about this one question I want to ask now, which we get a chance to top-line because I can’t do justice to it in this conversation. Let me phrase it this way. So how badly did Johnson miss his mark?
When I say miss his mark, I mean, for all that could have happened then, for what should have happened during this period, for the way that he should have measured up. As we look back on history now, he missed the mark how badly?
Gordon-Reed: Well, he missed the mark very badly from our perspective. I should say that, for a good amount of time, Johnson was thought of as a good president. You know, right after Reconstruction and when the sort of southern romantic view of what the old south was about, people saw him as someone who stood against, you know, the horror of Negro rule. You know, we can’t have that, and he was seen as a hero.
It didn’t dawn on people – actually, W.E.B. Du Bois was, of course, one of the first people to point out, wait a minute, in his book, “Black Reconstruction” – this guy screwed up. This was terrible.
The Reconstruction was not as historians portrayed it. He is not a hero. And that was the beginning of the crack in the facade that was in the 19th and early 20th century with Johnson as a hero. Then other historians, white historians, began to reassess it and, as we came to the civil rights movement, then his reputation really, really plummeted.
He missed the mark because, I mean, Thurgood Marshall said at one point in one of his opinions that – he’s not talking specifically about Johnson, but he talked about Reconstruction – if things had gone the way they were supposed to have gone, they could have gone, the plan to bring Blacks into citizenship, to get land for Blacks for the freedom to work their own land instead of being sharecroppers, a lot of the stuff that we went through in the ’50s and the ’60s, a lot of things that he had to do, the LDF wouldn’t have taken place because we could have started this process back then instead of starting it in the ’50s and ’60s. So we lost 100 years essentially.
Tavis: So Thurgood Marshall talks about it, but so does Dr. King. King does not call President Johnson by name – Andrew Johnson, that is – by name, but when King starts out that “I Have A Dream” speech and he’s talking about that check, that bad check, the check marked insufficient funds, and we refuse to believe the Bank of Justice is bankrupt. King is building up to something in this speech, but he’s going all the way back to this era about how much was missed.
Gordon-Reed: He’s going back to Jefferson and the Declaration. Reconstruction is the time – the Civil War is the time, as Lincoln said, a rebirth and to do it right. King saw it, that there were these opportunities that were missed. So that’s why we were where we were when he said those words.
Tavis: You said something else that got my attention. I don’t ask this question out of any naivety, but it’s always fascinating to me how, with all due respect to historians, if historians are dealing with the facts and the facts are the facts, then how over time do historians have a different read on Johnson?
How at one time is he a great president, then all of a sudden, a century later, he’s a horrible president? How do historians do that to us?
Gordon-Reed: Well, how historians do it, because history is an art and a science. It’s not like physics; it’s not like chemistry or anything like that. Different sensibilities. People have different views about things. There was a time when Blacks weren’t thought of as human beings and you could tell it in the history. You could read it in the way historians wrote. It’s as if they’re writing about people who are, you know, subhuman.
As attitudes changed, people began to ask new questions of the material. Du Bois and Eric Foner and other people who wrote about Reconstruction began to ask different things and say, hey, wait a minute. These are people we’re talking about here. We’re not talking about, you know, cattle, and their interests are important to us and we’re sitting around here now trying to grapple with all these issues. This guy was among the people who helped put us behind.
Tavis: What is there finally to learn – let me rephrase that. What is there finally for President Obama or any president coming after him, but certainly in this moment President Obama, to learn about not missing your moment historically?
Gordon-Reed: Well, I think presidents are the sum total of all of their experiences and I think that President Obama and most presidents dealing in the modern era have the benefit of the civil rights movement, a great more of engagement on the population about rights and what the president means as a leader in those areas.
So I think looking to history is important to sort of not repeat the mistakes that people made in the past and that’s the value of history. I think that Obama, from what I know of him, is a very, very careful student of history and understands the role that he has to play there.
I mean, the terrible thing about Johnson – I really want to make this point – is that it’s not that one man controls everything, but the president is a symbol. He exercises real power, but also symbolic power. And to have this person at the moment when they’re trying to transform Black lives to stand up and say essentially, no, hold the line against that, he played a pivotal role in setting us back.
Tavis: It’s part of the American Presidents series. The new text is called “Andrew Johnson” written by Annette Gordon-Reed. Professor Gordon-Reed, good to have you on this program.
Gordon-Reed: Good to be here.
Tavis: Thanks for the book.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm