Title Reviewed:
Andrew Johnson: A Biography

Author Reviewed:
Hans L. Trefousse

George C. Rable


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 86, Issue 2, pp 231-233

Article Type:
Book Review

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Andrew Johnson: A Biography. By Hans L. Trefousse. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989. Pp. 463. Illustrations, notes, index. $25.00.)

Despite the flood of Reconstruction studies appearing over the past several decades and a substantial shelf of works already devoted to the enigmatic Andrew Johnson, historians have long needed a modern, balanced biography of the seventeenth president. In this well-researched, carefully argued, and solidly written book, Hans L. Trefousse fills this important gap in the historical literature of the middle period.

Better than any previous biographer, Trefousse has separated fact from fiction in reexamining Johnson's hardscrabble boyhood in North Carolina, his migration to Tennessee, his success as a tailor, and his meteoric rise to prominence in local, state, and national politics. A powerful orator with a consistently populist appeal, Johnson was equally skillful at playing the dangerous game of divide-and-conquer to advance his career. Ostensibly a Democrat, he nevertheless often quarreled with the leaders of the Tennessee Democracy and worked with dissident Whigs when the need arose. By 1860, a principled commitment to Unionism, combined with intense ambition, drove him strongly to oppose secession, a decision that won Johnson both acclaim and derision throughout the country.

If success in politics often depends on timing, Johnson had chosen the right moment to command the national stage. Admiring his courage and natural political abilities, Abraham Lincoln rewarded Johnson accordingly: first with control of federal patronage in Tennessee, next with appointment as military governor of that state, and finally with the Union party's 1864 vice-presidential nomination.

Although Trefousse has written several books on the Radical Republicans and does not sympathize with Johnson's views on reconstruction and race, he presents a remarkably evenhanded account of the presidential years by paying careful attention to the intricacies of chronology, personality, and factional infighting. Johnson could never transcend the limits of his Jacksonian ideology, but Trefousse refuses to turn this well-known stubborness into a caricature. Johnson's sincere and sometimes magisterial commitment to the Union and the Constitution receives full attention; and the rich analysis of the Republican opposition does not gloss over weaknesses of either character or judgment. Even though Trefousse avoids becoming embroiled in the persistent controversies of Reconstruction historiography, he implicitly departs from the neo-revisionist interpretations of Harold Hyman and Michael Les Benedict by approaching the impeachment question in a manner more akin to the mildly revisionist views of Eric McKitrick.

Andrew Johnson, of course, poses formidable difficulties for a conscientious biographer. Trefousse analyzes Johnson's family life and character, but available evidence simply will not support a complete and compelling portrait of this obviously driven but curiously elusive personality. Thus despite Trefousse's thoughtful attempt to explain why Johnson waited so long before trying to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, this strange episode may forever remain inexplicable. The only real weakness in the book is the author's rigid adherence to chronology, which sometimes leads to the sudden introduction of topics that are just as quickly dropped and repetitiously picked up later. This makes for some awkward transitions and is especially annoying in the discussion of Johnson's advocacy of homestead legislation. All in all, however, Trefousse has written a superior biography—one that should remain the standard work on Andrew Johnson for some time.

GEORGE C. RABLE, professor of history and director of American studies, Anderson University, Anderson, Indiana, is the author of Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (1989). He is currently working on a book dealing with the political culture of the Confederacy.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.