The lives of Frederick Douglass and Andrew Johnson tell the story of Reconstruction.Two conflicting visions of America confront us, then and now. Our ancestors planted the seeds of those conflicts when the first slave ships docked, but they bloomed in Reconstruction,
How does one person become a Black abolitionist and one person become a white supremacist politician in the context of the early 1800s? How did each of these men influence the Reconstruction of America? Might this kind of historical inquiry help us make sense of the present?
Frederick Douglass, former slave and passionate abolitionist, described the moment Andrew Johnson saw him in the crowd at Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration, March 4, 1865. Lincoln had pointed out Douglass in the crowd. “A frown…of bitter contempt and aversion” came over Johnson’s face, said Douglass. “..it then changed to the bland, sickly smile of a demagogue”. Douglass turned to his companion and said, “Whatever Andrew Johnson may be, he is no friend of our race.” Only 41 days later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and Andrew Johnson was president of the United States. Frederick Douglass’s words were prescient.
Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on December 29, 1808 to Jacob and Polly Johnson. His parent were illiterate and on the fringes of white society. Jacob Johnson died before Andrew was ten years old and his mother was unable to support them on the money she made as a washerwoman for a local lawyer. He was apprenticed to a tailor by the time he was ten years old. His mother had no other choice but to sell her son’s labor in order for the family to survive. Apprenticeships at that time were only a step above indentured servants, but at least Johnson learned a trade. More importantly he learned to read and was exposed to the ideas of tradesmen and townspeople who congregated in the tailor’s shop. Johnson began his own program of self-improvement here, and studied closely a copy of The American Speaker he was given by a visitor to the shop. Eventually Johnson escaped this life and wound up in Greenville, Tennessee at the age of 19.
Frederick Douglass did not know his exact birthdate but thought it to be in February, 1818. He was born on the banks of the Tuckahoe River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. We share a last name but, Douglass once pointed out that “genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves.” He lived with his grandmother and grandfather, Betsy and Isaac Bailey, on the plantation where his mother was enslaved. He rarely saw her.
When he was nine years old, Douglass was sent to Baltimore to serve as a slave to the Auld family where he was to be a companion to “Little Tommy”. Sophia Auld, the mistress of the house, treated Douglass more like a half-brother to Tommy, and gave him the greatest gift of his life. She taught him to read. At some point the master of the house became aware of this and sternly put a stop to it. Douglass reports that the white man’s lecture was an epiphany for Frederick, and described it as the first “antislavery lecture” he ever heard. Auld told Sophia that it was against the law to teach a slave to read and write. Throughout his life, dedicated to abolishing slavery, Douglass would repeat the words of his owner. “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world”. Literacy became Douglass’ ticket to a new life. As a teenager in Auld’s household, Douglass would spend time in his kitchen loft reworking Tommy’s copybooks, copying worlds from the Webster spelling book, the Bible, and the Methodist hymnal. “Words had become his reason to live.” (Blight) Eventually he escaped in 1838 and arrived, after a long and harrowing journey, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He was 20 years old,
Douglass and Johnson launched their adult lives at 19 and 20. One had escaped slavery and the other escaped extreme poverty and servitude. Douglass had the courage to board a ship in disguise and risk the imprisonment and beatings he would receive if discovered. Johnson braved the frontier of East Tennessee and Western Carolina to travel through the Blue Ride mountains for his new life. Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey changed his name to Douglass to avoid captivity in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Andrew Johnson settled in Greeneville, Tennessee and set about to become respectable.
New Bedford, Massachusetts was a whaling center and Douglass went to work as a laborer to take care of his wife who he married as soon as they arrived in New Bedford. They quickly had two children he had to support but he was also discovering newspapers and other publications that expanded his mind and his understanding of the abolitionist movement. During these first years he also found the AME Zion church where he rapidly became a leader and teacher. By 1841 he was discovered by white abolitionists who were amazed at the words of this self-made man and former slave. This began a 50 year career as a reader, thinker, writer and orator for the cause of Black people in America. Douglass’s influence culminated in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had his flaws, but Douglass knew Lincoln was the man of the hour for Black people. When he was assassinated, Douglass described his murder as a “great convulsion”. Later he would say that it was slavery itself, “in a last spasm of madness, that had murdered the president.”
A decade earlier Andrew Johnson had arrived in Greenville, Tennessee. He set up a tailor shop in the southwest corner of East Tennessee, married, and began to integrate himself into the community as a respectable tradesman. His attraction to the world of ideas continued and he enjoyed listening to political debates. He became a good debater himself and was described as “aggressive” and a “bully” as his political beliefs crystallized. Always restless and desiring to climb up the ladder of success, he read voraciously and tried to compensate for his lack of education. Within two years of his residence in Greenville he launched a long political career. He was elected an alderman, then the mayor and eventually a state legislator. Later he was elected to the US House of Representatives. It was here he showed his debating and speaking skills around a “defining set of political beliefs. He continued to style himself as a champion of the workingman in opposition to society’s elites, and saw himself as the guardian of the public purse”. (Gordon-Reed). Johnson would continue his ascent that a contemporary would describe as “one intense, unceasing, desperate” uphill struggle. It would culminate in assuming the presidency at a crucial moment of American history.
Two Visions for a “New America”
They both were leaders, one’s power came as spokesperson for the abolitionist movement and the Black man, and the other’s power came from his election to government positions. They both were self-educated, voracious readers, and riveting speakers. They both had escaped lives that seem ordained for them to live. But they came to very different conclusions on the kind of society America should be. Only one of them could pass laws, use political power, and “make things happen” on the ground.
Douglass and Johnson’s deep differences have roots in their early experiences, just as ours do. Douglass expressed throughout his life the deep anguish of his years in slavery, His spirit and intellect were obvious by his teenage years and invoked the hostility and physical abuse of his masters. He was finally sent to spend a year with a farmer, Edward Covey, who made a living “breaking” slaves. “In this brutal environment, Douglass became a student of human nature, of the slaveholder’s mind, and the fullest meanings of human rights.” (Blight) Armed with this understanding, he fought back. After repeatedly defying Covey, the struggle erupted into what Douglass described as a two hour fight. It ended with Douglass on top of Covey with his hands on his throat, squeezing and drawing blood with his fingernails. Covey gave up and never touched Douglass again. Throughout his life, Douglass would describe this fight as the moment he became a man.
White writers and publishers, like William Garrison, now had a spokesperson who could go beyond abstractions to reveal the evils of slavery. Douglass claimed his right and the right of all Black people to be treated as human beings, not beasts of burden. He believed in the ideas set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Douglass only had power through his voice and ideas, but he used it to the fullest extent possible. His ideas and moral suasion would influence northern abolitionists, but Southern politicians also began to see the inevitable loss of slavery and their economic power.
Johnson had been humiliated, too, as a poor, white, boy, indentured (apprenticed) to a tailor in town. Townspeople felt free to speculate on his mother’s relationship with the man she worked for, so Johnson’s parentage was an object of speculation. This treatment likely bred deep resentments toward people with more money and status, and convinced Johnson to claim allegiance to the common man. As he entered politics, Johnson’s allegiance became loyalty to the common white man. The strength and perseverance that brought him over the Blue Ridge mountains, also made him stubborn and unwilling to compromise even with his own supporters. He did not advocate for abolition of slavery and argued that states had the right to decide their own such laws. Johnson refused to accept enfranchisement for Black people. In fact, when he was president, he was visited by Frederick Douglass and others, who encouraged him to grant voting rights to Blacks. Johnson refused and painted a picture of a country, if Blacks had power, where poor whites and Blacks would war with each other.. He resented the white planter class, but only on behalf of the white working man. He thought it essential for Black people to know their rank in the pecking order of society.
These deep, enduring differences around slavery and class were so intense that the United States exploded. The most modern estimate of the death toll in the Civil War was 750,000 Americans. After Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, VA, the re-election of Lincoln with Johnson by his side, the reconstruction of the country could begin. Douglass and Johnson both listened to the words of Lincoln at his second inauguration.
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”
John Wilkes Booth also was present at the inauguration. His response to these words was the assassination of Lincoln 42 days later. Johnson assumed the presidency and began to restore, not reconstruct, the South.
This took all the abolitionists and Radical Republicans in the Congress by surprise. Johnson moved rapidly while Congress was on recess to bring back the Confederate states as soon as possible. He pardoned all the southerners who fought in the war except for the highest ranking. He took pleasure requiring the wealthy whites to to come to him and request his pardon. He restored lands captured by the Union during the war to their previous white owners. Some of those lands had been given to black families who were farming them. His actions denied Black people any opportunity to take care of themselves. All these steps resulted in the Confederate sympathizers to be reelected to governments. New constitutions were passed that essentially locked Black people out of a voting, land ownership, even moving around freely.
Douglass continued his advocacy of Black people’s right to be fully human with the same rights as white people. He convinced abolitionist to be vigilant and be sure another form of slavery was not instituted. Garrison’s abolitionist society actually thought the battle for equality was over after the passage of the 13th Amendment. Douglass set the convention of abolitionist straight,
“They would not call it slavery, but some other name. Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names. It has been called “the peculiar institution,” “the social system,” and the “impediment,” as it was called by the General conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. It has been called by a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth.”
Douglass’s warnings came true. When Congress returned, it was able to pass legislation and Constitutional amendments that countered much of Johnson’s political moves. But there had been enough time for the white supremacy thinking to gain a hold again. Even after Blacks began to vote and elect Blacks in government positions, the resentments of white people festered. Northern allies who came south to help Blacks were characterized as carpetbaggers and scalawags who were supporting incompetent and ignorant Blacks. Efforts to fund and expand the Freedman’s Bureau to provide assistance and advocacy for Blacks in the south, were met with violence at times. The caricatures and propaganda used to undermine respect for Black people were successful for generations in creating the illusion of Blacks as ignorant and not ready for citizenship and leadership. In actuality popular laws were passed when Blacks briefly participated in government. The most influential legislation was free public schools for all children.
Despite Douglass’ efforts, eventually the northern Republicans got weary of the effort and the cost. Many decided that it would be best to allow the South to handle the problems, so Blacks would stay in the South. Whites in the South were provided the space they needed, and they began to use other tools to keep Blacks in their place. The KKK was born and by 1877 Blacks were forcefully locked out of common life once again.
I started this historical inquiry as part of a journey to better understand why race is still such a divisive issue in our country today. Why do we continue to see this pattern of progress, backlash, and anguish? A few things have become very clear to me:
- Racial prejudice is deep in the bones of America
- Racism is a disease that starts its contagion at birth
- White people must own their part in the spread of this disease
- Overcoming the disease has to be done with intention, on purpose
- Moral suasion, although important, will not get the job done
- Power to change laws and policies is crucial
- Governmental power is important, but not sufficient
- Every institution in America is affected by the disease
- Change Leadership across all social institutions is essential
The journey continues.