Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Andrew Johnson and His Impeachment

Andrew Johnson’s impeachment


Wayne Anderson/Courtesy

A statue of Andrew Johnson stands in one of the village squares in Greeneville, Tenn.

            Because I am particularly interested in presidential museums, we stopped in Greeneville, Tenn., to visit the sites dedicated to President Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) while on our way to the storytelling festival in Jonesborough, Tenn.

            Our first stop was the home in Greeneville where Johnson lived after his presidency. Johnson’s wife, one child and a number of grandchildren died of tuberculosis at this house.

            On the house tour, the emphasis was on how careful the family was with money. The rooms were small, the furniture simple. Before the Civil War, the family owned slaves who worked in the home. During the war, the slaves were freed and given salaries. One of the former slaves is buried in the family plot.

            At the visitor center at the National Historical Site, the park ranger was exceptionally knowledgeable about President Johnson’s life. The ranger, who had been an actor at one point in his career, enjoyed doing re-enactments and leading tours in the role of Johnson. He looked forward to portraying Presidents Truman and Roosevelt. This, he felt, is a way of involving visitors in history in a meaningful way.

            The National Park Service will be doing more to involve visitors in history by introducing actors in the roles of historical figures who can interact and answer questions as if they were that person, the ranger said. We had already experienced this when we met an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at the Lincoln home in Springfield, Ill.

            The visitor center included a small display on Johnson’s impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives, which opposed his approach to Reconstruction after the Civil War. The original disagreement was with radical Republicans who felt that President Lincoln’s approach, which Johnson was carrying out, was too lenient on the former Confederate states. Congress passed laws that Johnson vetoed. When Congress overrode his veto, he refused to enforce the new laws. In response, the House impeached him. The Senate acquitted him by one vote, but the Supreme Court did not support Johnson’s position on the interpretation of the Constitution until much later, leaving the impression that Johnson — not the legislators — had been wrong.

            Next to this exhibit, is a building built over the tailor shop where Johnson made his living before he became a politician: first, as Greeneville’s mayor, then a Tennessee state representative and senator, Tennessee governor, U.S. congressman and senator, vice president and, finally, with Lincoln’s assassination, U.S. president. Across the alley is the family’s original home. Exhibits in a series of small rooms concern President Johnson’s early years and his political career, leading to a close friendship with Lincoln. The Republican Lincoln chose Johnson, a Democrat, as running mate in his second term because they agreed on how the South should be treated after the Civil War was over.

            President Andrew Johnson’s exhibits are unusual in that they appear in various locations around Greeneville, and offer a complete picture of what his life was like.
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