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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

President Johnson and Reconstruction

By James Gillespie Blaine (1830–1893)

[Born in West Brownsville, Penn., 1830. Died in Washington, D.C., 1893. Twenty Years of Congress. 1884–86.]

EQUIPPED with these rare endowments, it is not strange that Mr. Seward made a deep impression upon the mind of the President. In conflicts of opinion the superior mind, the subtle address, the fixed purpose, the gentle yet strong will, must in the end prevail. Mr. Seward gave to the President the most luminous exposition of his own views, warm, generous, patriotic in tone. He set before him the glory of an Administration which should completely reëstablish the union of the States, and reunite the hearts of the people, now estranged by civil conflict. He impressed him with the danger of delay to the Republic and with the discredit which would attach to himself if he should leave to another President the grateful task of reconciliation. He pictured to him the National Constellation no longer obscured but with every star in its orbit, all revolving in harmony, and once more shining with a brilliancy undimmed by the smallest cloud in the political heavens.

By his arguments and by his eloquence Mr. Seward completely captivated the President. He effectually persuaded him that a policy of anger and hate and vengeance could lead only to evil results; that the one supreme demand of the country was confidence and repose; that the ends of justice could be reached by methods and measures altogether consistent with mercy. The President was gradually influenced by Mr. Seward’s arguments, though their whole tenor was against his strongest predilections and against his pronounced and public committals to a policy directly the reverse of that to which he was now, almost imperceptibly to himself, yielding assent. The man who had in April avowed himself in favor of “the halter for intelligent, influential traitors,” who passionately declared during the interval between the fall of Richmond and the death of Mr. Lincoln that “traitors should be arrested, tried, convicted and hanged,” was now about to proclaim a policy of reconstruction without attempting the indictment of even one traitor, or issuing a warrant for the arrest of a single participant in the Rebellion aside from those suspected of personal crime in connection with the noted conspiracy of assassination.

In this serious struggle with the President, Mr. Seward’s influence was supplemented and enhanced by the timely and artful interposition of clever men from the South. A large class in that section quickly perceived the amelioration of the President’s feelings, and they used every judicious effort to forward and develop it. They were ready to forget all the hard words of Johnson, and to forgive all his harsh acts, for the great end to be gained to their States and their people by turning him aside from his proclaimed policy of punishing a great number of rebels with the utmost severity of the law. Johnson’s wrath was evidently appeased by the complaisance shown by leading men of the South. He was not especially open to flattery, but it was noticed that words of commendation from his native section seemed peculiarly pleasing to him.

The tendency of his mind under such influences was perhaps not unnatural. It is the common instinct of mankind to covet in an especial degree the good will of those among whom the years of childhood and boyhood are spent. Applause from old friends and neighbors is the most grateful that ever reaches human ears. When Washington’s renown filled two continents, he was still sensitive respecting his popularity among the freeholders of Virginia. When Bonaparte had kingdoms and empires at his feet, he was jealous of his fame with the untamed spirits of Corsica, where among the veterans of Paoli he had received the fiery inspiration of war. The boundless admiration and gratitude of America never compensated Lafayette for the failure of his career in France. This instinct had its full sway over Johnson. It was not in the order of nature that he should esteem his popularity among Northern men, to whom he was a stranger, as highly as he would esteem it among the men of the South, with whom he had been associated during the whole of his career. In that section he was born. There he had acquired the fame which brought him national honors, and after his public service should end he looked forward to a peaceful close of life in the beautiful land which had always been his home.

Still another influence wrought powerfully on the President’s mind. He had inherited poverty in a community where during the slave system riches were especially envied and honored. He had been reared in the lower walks of life among a people peculiarly given to arbitrary social distinctions and to aristocratic pretensions as positive and tenacious as they were often ill-founded and unsubstantial. From the ranks of the rich and the aristocratic in the South, Johnson had always been excluded. Even when he was governor of his State, or a senator of the United States, he found himself socially inferior to many whom he excelled in intellect and character. His sentiments were regarded as hostile to slavery, and to be hostile to slavery was to fall inevitably under the ban in any part of the South for the fifty years preceding the war. His political strength was with the non-slave-holding white population of Tennessee which was vastly larger than the slave-holding population, the proportion indeed being twenty-seven to one. With these a “good fellow” ranked all the higher for not possessing the graces or, as they would term them, the “airs” of society.

As Mr. Johnson grew in public favor and increased in reputation, as his talents were admitted and his power in debate appreciated, he became eager to compel recognition from those who had successfully proscribed him. A man who is born to social equality with the best of his community, and accustomed in his earlier years to its enjoyment, does not feel the sting of attempted exclusion, but is rather made pleasantly conscious of the prestige which inspires the adverse effort, and can look upon its bitterness in a spirit of lofty disdain. Wendell Phillips, descended from a long line of distinguished ancestry, was amused rather than disconcerted by the strenuous but futile attempts to ostracize him for the maintenance of opinions which he lived to see his native city adopt and enforce. But the feeling is far different in a man who has experienced only a galling sense of inferiority. To such a one, advancing either in fortune or in fame, social prominence seems a necessity, without which other gifts constitute only the aggravations of life.

It was therefore with a sense of exaltation that Johnson beheld as applicants for his consideration and supplicants for his mercy, many of those in the South who had never recognized him as a social equal. A mind of true loftiness would not have been swayed by such a change of relative positions, but it was inevitable that a mind of Johnson’s type, which if not ignoble was certainly not noble, should yield to its flattering and seductive influence. In the present attitude of the leading men of the South towards him, he saw the one triumph which sweetened his life, the one requisite which had been needed to complete his happiness. In securing the good opinion of his native South, he would attain the goal of his highest ambition, he would conquer the haughty enemy who during all the years of his public career had been able to fix upon him the badge of social inferiority.