The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

  • By Robert S. Levine
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 336 pp.

A valuable, fresh look at a dark chapter in American history.

The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

During the recent impeachments of our 45th president, pundits recalled the 1868 impeachment of our 17th. Starting work on his book in the first year of the Trump Administration and finishing it during the pandemic, author Robert S. Levine is well aware of the ironies — and the timeliness — of a retrospective view of Reconstruction and “the failed promise” of Andrew Johnson’s presidency, leading to his impeachment.

But Levine, a distinguished professor of English at the University of Maryland, takes a different tack in his new book, presenting the story largely from a Black perspective in which Frederick Douglass, the most prominent African American of his time, emerges as a key antagonist of accidental-president Johnson, a Tennessee tailor and Union Democrat whom Abraham Lincoln chose as his 1864 running mate.

Douglass was wary but hopeful at the start. He had reason for skepticism, sensing Johnson’s innate racism, but he was willing to give the new president a chance to prove himself. But Johnson soon emerges in Levine’s accessible narrative as a sometimes puzzling and schizophrenic figure.

As military governor of Tennessee, he was publicly for abolition, even styling himself “the Moses” of enslaved African Americans. Even during his presidency, while repeatedly vetoing congressional attempts to “reconstruct” the South, he had Black allies, including John Langston, the first Black congressman from Virginia and first dean of Howard University law school, and black nationalist and physician Martin R. Delaney.

But Douglass was having none of it. Johnson, the wily politician, sought to co-opt him by making him commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which Johnson himself had tried unsuccessfully to dismantle. Douglass smartly rejected the job.

Among the bureau’s Washington employees, however, was Douglass’ son Charles, and their correspondence before and during Johnson’s impeachment trial provides an intimate view of the proceedings — which Douglass did not attend, although Charles had secured tickets — and of their thinking on the most high-profile issue of the day.

Strangely, although the broader context of the impeachment was the battle over Reconstruction and Johnson’s attempts to undermine it, all but one of its 11 articles concerned a personnel matter: Johnson had tried to fire his secretary of the Army, Edwin M. Stanton, whom he’d inherited from Lincoln. Critics charged that the firing violated the Tenure in Office Act requiring congressional approval for such dismissals.

The lone article of impeachment veering from this narrow charge cited not civil rights but Johnson’s speeches allegedly defaming Congress. During the two months of the trial, Johnson’s actions undermining the newly won rights of freed people were barely mentioned.

How did Johnson square his earlier pro-Black positions with his attempts to kill Reconstruction? His approach was legalistic. In his view, under the Constitution, the Southern states could never have left the union and, therefore, did not leave and needed only to be restored, not “reconstructed.”

This killing of Reconstruction he could do by presidential fiat — decried as one-man rule — in which Congress had no role. And while supporting the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, he opposed subsequent amendments that established birthright citizenship, guaranteed due process, and enfranchised Black men. The last was a reform Johnson had previously supported, if only on a limited basis.

He later argued that such matters should be left to the states, thus foreshadowing current voter-suppression efforts by Republican legislators. But, as history records and Levine notes, that had also been Lincoln’s position. Levine accuses Johnson of “willful naivete” in suggesting Blacks could obtain the vote without federal intervention.

In the spirit of his Second Inaugural pledge of “malice toward none with charity for all,” Lincoln seemed to have set the precedent, proposing that Louisiana be readmitted to the Union if just 10 percent of its eligible voters in 1860 swore allegiance to the United States and adopted a new state constitution abolishing slavery.

Johnson sought to extend the same courtesy to all the former Confederate states, and he issued an amnesty generously pardoning ex-Rebels who went on to roll back Reconstruction gains as state legislators. The greatest traitors, Johnson declared, were not ex-Confederate leaders but “radical” Republicans, whom he blamed, too, for violence against Blacks.

He also decried the hypocrisy of Northern states that barred Blacks from voting. But after meeting with a Black delegation, including Douglass, at the White House, Johnson declared of Douglass, according to his secretary’s notes, “he’s just like any n----r, & he would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.” Douglass concluded that the man who began as a self-proclaimed Moses to enslaved Blacks had become Pharaoh.

Levine’s viewpoint — or bias, if you prefer — is clear: He wrote this book from 2017-2020, “under the shadow of he who shall be nameless,” echoing the phrase Douglass employed to refer to Johnson. There are similarities between POTUS 17 and 45, Levine notes, but unlike our 45th president, there was promise in Johnson: He was never driven by greed, and when he failed to win his party’s nomination in 1868, he peacefully stepped down the following year.

Throughout the book, Levine tries to present a nuanced picture of Johnson, who he argues might have guided the war-torn nation to a better place but whose “rigid version of constitutionalism and blinkered racism…destroyed that promise during his presidential term.” In Levine’s view, the first impeached president emerges as a politician who tried to have it both ways, publicly appealing to Blacks even as he indulged — and engaged in — white racism.

In the end, Levine asserts, Johnson should be remembered not for the immediate result of the one-vote acquittal that allowed him to finish his term but for setting the stage for more than a century of subsequent racial repression that undermined the postwar promise of civil rights and equal justice for all. Still, the author argues, Johnson’s very intransigence prodded congressional Republicans to “formulate and ratify” the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution.

W.E.B. DuBois declared Johnson the “most pitiable figure of American history.” Levine does not go that far, noting that Reconstruction’s failure could not be blamed on one man, but rather on the “endemic, debilitating, cruel, and destructive racism that was everywhere in the United States…That racism has not gone away.”

In this, Levine echoes Douglass, who expressed similar sentiments. In dedicating a copy of a late revised edition of his autobiography, he wrote: “Not a Negro problem, not a race problem, but a national problem; whether the American people will ultimately administer equal justice to all the varieties of the human race in this Republic.” Comparably, writes Levine, the “promise” of Reconstruction “remains unfulfilled to this day.”

This book lacks a bibliography, an omission that some may find puzzling. But the author’s personal bibliography, 10 titles listed in front, includes scholarly works relating to Douglass and associated topics. Further, Levine’s 31 pages of notes are extensive and helpful. Most importantly, The Failed Promise is an engaging new look at an old story. It is a welcome addition to the growing catalog of books that implicitly link the past to the present, providing historical context for the nation’s current reckoning with its original sin of slavery and its enduring legacy.   

Eugene L. Meyer, a member of the board of the Independent, is a journalist and author, most recently, of Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown's Army. Meyer has been featured in the Biographers International Organization’s podcast series.

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