And. Johnson's Feb. 22, 1866 Talk III
Bill Long 12/31/06
Expanding the Federal Government; Naming his Foes
One of the issues frequently overlooked or underplayed in the study of the Civil War and Reconstruction is the tremendous constitutional crisis that these events presented. For example, when States seceeded in 1860-1861, could they legally do so? What was the legal status of the seceeded states during the War? Or, once the War was over, how did one reintegrate these states into the Union? Did Lincoln have the legal authority to suspend habeas corpus? Did his appeals to the "inherent powers" of the Presidency have any real legal merit? Did Congress have the authority to eliminate slavery apart from a Constitutional Amendment? Once the 13th Amendment was ratified, did one need another Amendment if one wanted to get rid of some of the "badges and incidents" of slavery? Could one just do so under the "old" Constitution by enacting a statute? How far did the authority of the Federal Government really reach under the Constitution before the Civil War Amendments (13th-15th)? These, and many other questions, dogged the best legal minds of the time. Sometimes it seemed as if political and military events simply overshadowed and washed away legal concerns. Yet, some of these questions are still "live" issues, as can be seen from the debate over President Bush's "inherent" powers to authorize wiretaps and do other things in the "War on Terror." Well, how did Johnson refer to this issue in the "serendade" speech of Feb. 22, 1866? After speaking of the Northern victory in the War, he said:
When the Government has succeeded, there is an attempt now to concentrate all power in the hands of a few at the federal head, and thereby bring about a consolidation of the Republich, which is equally objectionable with its dissolution. We find a power assumed and attempted to be exercised of a most extraordinary character. We see no that governments can be revolutionized without going into the battle-field; and sometimes the revolutions most distressing to a people are effected without the shedding of blood. That is, the substance of your Government may be taken away, while there is held out to you the form and the shadow," (60).
Though no one recordedhow the President said the following, I can "hear" his voice rising to a fever pitch:
"And now, what are the attempts, and what is being proposed? We find that by an irresponsible central directory (note the language of the French Revolution) nearly all the powers of Congress are assumed, without even consulting the legislative and executive departments of the Government..." (Id.)
He then alluded to a current fight in Congress regarding the seating of one member of Congress, which Epps describes very well in his book. But ultimately, Johnson comes to the point where he says that just as he opposed the slave masters in the recently concluded War, so he must oppose the Northerners who are trying to impose this kind of centralized government on the people.
He goes on:
"I am opposed to the Davises, The Toomses, the Slidells and the long list of such (i.e., representing the old slave-holding Southern interests). But when I perceive on the other hand, men--[A voice, 'Call them off']--I care not by what name you call them--still opposed to the Union, I am free to say to you that I am still with the people. I am still for the preservation of these States, for the preservation of the Union, and in favor of this great Government accomplishing its destiny,"(60).
The text of the speech then has the following: [Here the President was called upon to give the names of three of the members of Congress to whom he had alluded as being opposed to the Union.]
"The gentleman calls for three names. I am talking to my friends and fellow-citizens here [Right--as if his words wouldn't "get back" to anyone. Sort of like expecting one's email to be completely private today.] Suppose I should name to you those whom I look upon as being opposed to the fundamental principles of this Government, and as now laboring to destroy them. I say Thaddeus Stevens, of Pennsylvania; I say Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts; I say Wendell Phillips, of Massachusetts..." (61).
Well, even though he still had "two pages to go" in his speech, it has reached its nadir. He was actually asserting, though it is only to "friends," that three of the most prominent and articulate members of the United States Congress were traitors, who were threatening the Union with no less skill than the Southern planters did so a decade previously. Once the President of the United States does this, he has gone far, far astray. This is as much a sign of open warfare as the firing on Fort Sumter. For the President of the United States is calling his political opponents "traitors."
I think those of us who lived through the days following 9/11 understand a little of Johnson's fervor. Those who opposed President Bush's attempt to rush us into War in 2002 and 2003 were branded as disloyal Americans, though I don't recall the President, even in his most arrogant blindness, calling his political foes "traitors." But we can understand how the temptation to do so is very strong, especially when your approval ratings hover around 90 percent.
But once you have called someone a traitor, you have thrown down the political gauntlet. And Johnson, who had just wrapped himself in the American Constitution and in the cross of Jesus Christ, felt fully justified in doing so. The only problem, however, is that the people you call names don't just go into a corner, shrivel up and die (at least most of them don't). They are energized, and re-energized to fight you, to give their last ounce of devotion not simply to their cause but to destroying you. Perhaps a larger man than Johnson could have avoided some of the pitfalls he fell into. But the times were incredibly polarized, and there was no more polarizing force than Andrew Johnson. Sometimes if people just listened to their mothers (about treating everyone "nicely"), we could avoid a lot of big problems.
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