Day By Day

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

This Day In History

Today is "National Tortilla Chip Day". Need I say more? So get out there, slather on the dip or salsa and crunch away to your heart's content.

On this day in 1868, the House of Representatives impeached Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth President of the United States. Johnson is a fascinating figure. Born into poverty in North Carolina he was completely uneducated. He was apprenticed to a tailor to learn a trade, and in his free time taught himself to read and write. In his teens he ran away to Tennessee and found work as a tailor. He then married an educated woman who taught him mathematics and honed his speaking skills. He was involved in the early workingmen's movement and won election to local office. In the 1830's he joined the Jacksonian Democrats and was elected to the Tennessee State Legislature and then to the State Senate. Throughout he was associated with the radical wing of the movement, consistently attacking Tennessee's planter elites. He campaigned as the personification of the common man [sort of a Sarah Palin of his day] and in 1843 he was elected to Congress. Ten years later he became Governor of Tennessee.

In 1857 Johnson was elected to the Senate, promising to enact a Homestead Bill that would provide assistance to small farmers. It was in the Senate that he made his most fateful decision. The election of Abraham Lincoln split the country. All of the Senators from southern States resigned in protest save one. Johnson held his seat and proclaimed his loyalty to the Union. In 1862 President Lincoln appointed Johnson to the rank of Brigadier General and made him the military Governor of Tennessee. Johnson saw secession as a conspiracy hatched by his hated enemies, the planter class and used his wartime powers to systematically suppress them. Then in 1864 Lincoln, facing electoral defeat, abandoned the Republican party and campaigned at the head of a new, fusionist, political movement -- the "Union Party" -- incorporating both Republicans and pro-Union Democrats. To symbolize this new bi-partisan coalition, Lincoln invited Democrat Andrew Johnson onto the ticket as his running mate.

When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 Johnson became president and inherited the problems of Reconstruction. Because of his hatred for the planter elite Radical Antislavery Republicans expected him to take a hard line against Southern slaveholders but he disappointed them, taking a Lincolnesque moderate course toward the defeated Confederates. He pardoned many of them, supported the electoral process that returned many of them to power, and vetoed a Civil Rights Bill that would have protected the voting rights of freedmen [former slaves] and undermined the power of the southern Democrats, which by now was proclaiming itself the Party of the White Man. Republicans were furious and they over-rode Johnson's veto. Then came a second battle as Johnson unsuccessfully opposed passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Then in 1866 Johnson actively campaigned, again unsuccessfully, against the Republican radicals. The battle lines were drawn.

In 1867 Congress acted to limit Johnson's power, passing over his veto the "Tenure of Office Act" which prohibited him from firing any official who had been confirmed by the Senate. House Republicans also made an unsuccessful attempt to impeach him. Johnson correctly charged that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional and, to test it, he fired his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton [a radical Republican who had at one point been an attorney in Pittsburgh -- see, I knew I could get a Pennsylvania angle into this] and appointed an interim replacement, Lorenzo Thomas. At that point the House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment against him. Among the articles was one charging that he had made public speeches that would sow disrespect toward Congress.

Historians have argued endlessly over Andrew Johnson. In the late nineteenth century he was usually seen as a martyr to political extremism, protecting the Constitution and defending States rights against an intrusive Federal power. In the Progressive Era, historians portrayed him as a virtuous champion of the common man against big business interests. Then in the Civil Rights era he was portrayed as a diabolical racist who was trying to block virtuous Republican efforts to impose racial justice on the South. A new consensus on Johnson has not yet emerged, but it will. History is an endless argument.

And on this day in 1920 the "German Workers' Party", a small radical organization in Munich, decided to change its name to the National Socialist German Worker's Party [Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei]. We know them today as the Nazis. The term "Socialist" in their title should remind us that in many ways the Nazis were creatures of the Left, not the Right.

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