Bad Presidents

Since I am watching the Jan 6 hearings and realizing yet again what a terrible president Donald J. Trump was, I have decided to post an excerpt from my dissertation, The Politics Of Alcohol Production: The Liquor Industry and the Federal Government, 1862 – 1900. This section deals with another one of our terrible presidents, Andrew Johnson.

In 1866 President Andrew Johnson, in an attempt to consolidate support for his Reconstruction policies and also with the hope of building a new political party consonant with his goals, began to use the considerable amount of patronage power available to him. Although clearly documented evidence of fraud and a obvious need for reform existed, these issues took a back seat to the political needs of Andrew Johnson, as well as those of his political opponents.

Both sides in the Reconstruction controversy desired to place “loyal” people in government jobs. The Treasury Department played a critical role in these plans since it had the second most patronage slots in the government. By replacing federal officials Johnson attempted to coerce adherence to his vision of Reconstruction. To avoid dismissal many employees maintained neutrality. The Tenure of Office Act of 1867, designed to prevent arbitrary dismissal of officials without Senate consent, helped these workers to feel more secure. Designed to protect middle level workers the law did not resolve the issue of removal of department heads.[1]

Andrew Johnson’s main target was the Treasury Department; however Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch refused to dismiss Republicans summarily. His steadfast support of Assistant Secretary William Chandler, disliked by other members of the Cabinet, reflected McCulloch’s desire to keep the staffing of the Treasury impartial.  McCulloch, writing in 1900, claimed the Assistant Secretary was “one of the few radical Republicans who did not permit their party allegiance to blind them to the merits of Andrew Johnson.” In a discussion with President Johnson Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles expressed a different point of view, claiming that McCulloch “had committed a great error in retaining Rollins, Chandler, and other Radicals . . .”[2]

The Secretary’s “neutrality” extended in the other direction of the political spectrum. McCulloch, a banker from Indiana, believed in an easy, swift restoration of the Southern states and a liberal interpretation of the Test Oath. McCulloch maintained that many competent Southerners would be excluded form revenue offices because they could not swear they had not taken part in the Rebel cause. After Cabinet discussion people who “could only take an oath for the faithful performance of their duties and obedience to the Constitution of the United States” held positions in the Bureau of Internal Revenue.[3]

Many people found Mcculloch’s hard-money fiscal policies unappealing; this added to the controversy surrounding the Secretary. McCulloch, however, remained loyal both to the President and a smooth running Treasury Department. On a practical level the Secretary and Commissioner divided the appointments to distribute patronage to both sides. This did not really satisfy anyone and certainly didn’t generate an efficient workforce.  Rollins, in his annual reports endorsed the concept of civil service for the Bureau of Internal Revenue yet nothing was less likely to happen.[4]

Through most of 1867 and 1868, Reconstruction and the impeachment proceedings preoccupied  Johnson, his cabinet, and Congress. During this time McCulloch stood loyally by the President. Still Johnson received several letters pleading with him to remove both McCulloch and Rollins.

“I now implore you to bring this worst, because he is most sly and deceitful of all your enemies, McCulloch to the Test.

Demand of him the resignation of Rollins, let him know that if he has not sufficient power over his subordinate, to get his resignation, that you will accept his resignation.”

As McCulloch has complete control over Rollins this will bring his resignation, as he is now trembling over his Printing Bureau and wants to remain to cover the stupendous defalcations that exist there.”[5]

The attempt to convict Johnson did not succeed and, as far as most historians are concerned, there is nothing to say about his administration after that point. However Andrew Johnson was still President and retained the prerogatives, albeit reduced, of the office. Much of Johnson’s behavior from his inauguration as Chief Executive was oriented towards running for the Presidency in his own right. His drive to create a new party failed and by June 1868 Johnson concentrated his efforts on winning the Democratic nomination. The President was however anathema to most politicians and in July the Democratic party nominated Horatio Seymour and Francis P. Blair Jr. as President and Vice-President. Bitterly disappointed Johnson still sought some degree of vindication for his policies. In an attempt to achieve this, the President turned to the arena his supporters had continuously urged him to investigate, the Bureau of Internal Revenue.[6]

[1]Michael Les Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (New York, 1973), pp. 39 – 40, 48 – 51.

[2] Hugh McCulloch, Men and Measures of Half A Century (New York, 1900), p. 236. William Chandler was not a Radical but he was a staunch and partisan Republican who consistently opposed Civil Service Reform.

[3] William Henry Smith, History of the Cabinet of the United States of America (Baltimore, 1925), p. 219; McCulloch, Men and Measures, p. 227.

[4]Herbert S. Schell, “Hugh McCulloch and the Treasury Department, 1865-1869,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 27 (December 1930): 413-416; Hugh McCulloch to Andrew Johnson, 19 August 1867, Andrew Johnson Presidential Papers, Library of Congress, microfilm edition; U.S. Office of Internal Revenue. Annual Report of the Commissioner, 1867, pp. xv-xviii, xxxi; U.S. Treasury Department, Annual Report of the Special Commissioner, 1867, p. 31; U.S. Treasury Department, Annual Report of the Special Commissioner, 1866 p. 4. See also the report of the Revenue Commission for a discussion of civil service reform.

[5] R.W. Latham to Andrew Johnson, 6 February 1868, 24 January 1868,  Andrew Johnson  Papers.

[6] Albert Castel, Andrew Johnson (Kansas, 1979), passim; Eric McKitrick, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (Chicago, 1960), passim.

© All Rights Reserved. Do not reproduce without author’s permission. Amy Mittelman 2022.

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