This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/presidential-rankings/
Andrew Johnson became president upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. With the Civil War over and Congress out of session until December (Congress met much less often then) Johnson had a decision to make on what to do about the former Confederate States of America. He could either commence reconstruction unilaterally, wait for Congress to reconvene in December or call a special session of congress. Johnson chose to act unilaterally without congress to reconstruct the union. This was the worst possible of the three choices, by not working with congress Johnson seriously undermined any chance congress would agree with his proposals. Johnson’ s reconstruction goals was speedy restoration of the states, with the states deciding on voting rights for freed slaves. Johnson also wanted to secure election in his own right in 1868, this would require a unified south under democratic control.
Johnson’s leniency led to southern arrogance. Southerners seen they could get what they wanted without giving any concessions to freed slaves. This led to the enactment of “black codes”, a series of laws which severely restricted African American rights forcing them into a slave labor class. When Congress reconvened in December of 1865, most men elected to congress from the south were former confederates. Northerners were outraged at the idea of unrepentant confederate leaders rejoining the federal government at a time when emotional wounds from the war remained raw. They saw the Black Codes placing African-Americans in a position barely above slavery. Because of these abuses, Congress decided not to seat members from the former confederate states. Johnson’s reconstruction policies led to Jim Crow laws and white supremacist groups, most notably the Ku Klux Klan, holding power in the south until the civil right era of the 1950s & 1960s.
In early 1866 Johnson made a series of decisions that pushed Congress into the hands of the radical republicans. On February 18, 1866 Johnson vetoed bill extending the freedmen’s bureau, which was created to assist former slaves after the civil war. On February 22, 1866 Johnson gave speech condemning Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, and abolitionist Wendell Phillips, and accused them, among other things, of plotting his assassination. finally on March 27 1966 vetoed Civil Rights Bill In his veto message, he objected to the measure because it conferred citizenship on the freedmen. The veto was overridden 3 weeks later, the first veto overridden in US history. Many moderate Republicans saw the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 as the minimum needed to protect former slaves. Had Johnson been willing to sign these two laws and work with moderates, he wouldn’t have lost complete control of the situation. Instead his actions guaranteed that the Radical Republicans would dominate congress. Many former confederates, including Robert E Lee, stated that if Johnson could have made guaranteeing freed slaves rights part of the settlement of the war, but Johnson refused. He did this because he wanted to retain the presidency after 1868 election, and he needed the south to vote Democrat. If former slaves were allowed to vote, they would likely vote Republican, which would jeopardize the Democrats winning a solid south.
Johnson continued vetoing nearly everything congress passed stating that any laws passed without southern representation in congress were unconstitutional. As Johnson’s overly obstructionist vetoes were getting overturned more frequently, Congress started to get bolder. Eventually congress passed the Tenure of Office Act over Johnson’s veto. This law stated that the President couldn’t remove any executive officer who had been appointed by the president, that required Senate approval, unless the Senate approved the removal during the next full session of Congress. Rather than trying to eliminate the law through judicial means, by bringing suit against the law in court, Johnson decided to break the law by removing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. By doing this he created a constitutional crisis, in which he was impeached, and narrowly missed being removed from office. Had Johnson’s gamble not paid off, a precedent may have been set for the removal of “obstructionist” or “unfit” Presidents, of which Johnson was both.
The one positive of Johnson’s term was the purchase of Alaska from Russia, often referred to as Seward’s Folly. Due to his extreme racism, and his boldening of the south against the federal authority, Andrew Johnson severely hurt the lot of African Americans for over a century. This combined with his uncompromising obstructionists ways qualifies him as our third worst president. The only thing that saves him from last place is that two others had a more negative impact.