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After the Glory: the Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans

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Behind the current Clinton scandal stands the specter of Watergate. That it should be there is understandable. The bungled burglary at the Democratic Party national headquarters occurred twenty-six years ago this past summer. Next August will see the twenty-fifth anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation as President of the United States. Watergate then is still very much a part of living memory, and living memory is the type of history most relevant to the general public because it is the history with which they are most familiar. Consequently, Watergate has come to exert a powerful influence on the terms of reference by which people understand the Clinton scandal.

Some analogies to Watergate are admittedly quite apt. Monica Lewinsky's stained cocktail dress was a "smoking gun," providing definitive proof the President lied in denying a sexual relationship with the intern. Clinton's August 17 confession also was a quintessential "modified limited hangout." However, much of the use of Watergate analogies distorts the meaning and significance of the Clinton case. Some of the distortion is merely irritating. For instance, a lot of journalists and politicians seem to have the ambition of becoming the Howard Baker of the scandal. Lately, there have appeared too many strained variations on his classic line, "What did the President know, and when did he know it?" However, the Watergate-isms forced on the Clinton scandal are not all the product of awkward attempts to paraphrase Howard Baker or the temporal proximity of Watergate. There also has been a conscious attempt by some Clinton opponents to emphasize Watergate in order to make Bill Clinton's misdeeds seem more serious than they are in reality. While these efforts are understandable politically, they are questionable historically.

Of greater disappointment to this historian has been the temporal myopia in the search for insight into the Clinton scandal. Watergate was not the first serious attempt to impeach a president. Seldom mentioned in the discussion of the troubles of William Jefferson Clinton is the impeachment of his fellow Southerner, Andrew Johnson. In May 1868, Johnson came closer than any president did in American history to involuntary removal from office. At his trial in the U.S. Senate that spring, he avoided conviction by only one vote. The neglect of the case of Andrew Johnson is unfortunate. Johnson's impeachment provides more insight into the current travails of Bill Clinton than Watergate, and suggests the ultimate resolution of the impeachment proceedings soon to get underway in the U.S. House of Representatives. However, since the Johnson's impeachment exists outside living memory, it will be necessary to discuss the background of the case at some length.

Andrew Johnson became President of the United States after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. As a Southerner and a Democrat, Johnson was an unlikely president in 1865. He owed his nomination as Vice-President to wartime politics. As Lincoln struggled for reelection in the tight 1864 campaign, he was forced to reach out to marginal constituencies. Such minor voting blocs included white Southerners who had stayed loyal to the United States after the formation of the Confederacy. Lincoln also hoped to gain the votes of Democrats who favored a continuation of the Civil War. (Lincoln's Democratic opponent, George McClellan, called for an armistice and convention of the states to restore the Union by peaceful means.) Prominent among these Southern unionists and War Democrats was Andrew Johnson. Johnson was the only U.S. Senator from a seceded state that did not resign and join the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War. During the conflict, he served as the governor of Union-occupied Tennessee, his home state. Hence, Johnson owed his nomination as Vice-President in 1864 to Lincoln's effort to persuade Southern unionists and War Democrats to vote for his reelection. Indeed, bringing Johnson aboard the ticket required Lincoln to repackage the Republicans that year as the "National Union" party because his running mate was a Democrat.

Johnson became President as the Civil War was rapidly coming to a close. Hence, the issue on the mind of the nation as the Tennessean entered the White House was not the conduct of the war, but the status of the postwar South. Johnson, like his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, favored a lenient peace in which all but the highest-ranking Confederates would be restored to their full rights as U.S. citizens, and normal state government quickly reestablished in the South. Johnson demanded only two substantial concessions before the Southern states regained their full status within the union: that they repudiate Confederate government debts and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery. The Southern states quickly acceded, and by the end of 1865, Johnson believed that the process of reconstruction essentially was complete.

However, in his rapid reintegration of the South into the union, Johnson made enemies of an influential faction in the Republican Party, the Radicals. The Radicals believed that Johnson had thrown away a golden opportunity to impose fundamental reforms on Southern society. In particular, the Radicals wanted African Americans to be accorded full citizenship and black men given the right to vote. When Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights bill in early 1866 that provided for the citizenship of African Americans the Radicals began to advocate openly his impeachment. They believed that unless the President could be removed from office, he would be in a position to frustrate their ambitions for interracial government in the South.

Moderate and conservative Republicans initially resisted the calls for impeachment. Moderate Republicans had joined the Radicals in supporting the Civil Rights bill because they recognized that black citizenship and suffrage were the only means of sustaining a politically viable Republican Party in the South. Having provided a basis for a Southern Republican Party moderates felt they could compromise with the President on other Reconstruction-related legislation. However, Andrew Johnson imprudently rejected their overtures. For example, Johnson refused a compromise on the Freedmen's Bureau bill, which sought to extend the life of the federal agency assisting former slaves in the transition to freedom. Many Republicans also were offended by the extreme generosity with which Johnson issued pardons to former high-ranking Confederates. Still, while Johnson's actions alienated moderate and conservative Republicans and forced them to cooperate with the Radicals in the formulation of Reconstruction policy, impeachment was too extreme a measure for non-Radicals



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