Inadequate American Presidents

Andrew Jackson

There were no remarkable presidents during the period of 1865 to 1901, which include Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.

Before Abraham Lincoln ran for reelection in 1864, he attempted to attract southern democratic voters by changing his vice president. He replaced Vice President Hannibal Hamlin with democratic southerner and Tennessee resident Andrew Johnson. The Democrats had nominated pro-war, pro-Confederacy candidate George B. McClellan.

Lincoln’s Reservation

President Lincoln did not think he could win against McClellan. To improve his chances, Lincoln allowed every Union soldier to take a leave of absence to vote. However, when Atlanta fell to the North in September of 1864, it slowed down the anti-northern movements that had gained momentum in the South. Therefore, Lincoln won the race with 212 electoral votes out of a total of 233 and 55 percent of the popular vote, even though his name did not appear on the southern ballets.

Andrew Johnson’s Reign

After Lincoln died on April 15, 1865 of a gunshot wound to the head by assassin John Wilkes Booth, Andrew Johnson became the 17th president of the U.S. He was a dogmatic, stubborn, uncompromising man with no formal education. In fact, he was illiterate until he was approximately 20 years old when he married Eliza McCardle in 1827. Although his wife taught him how to read, write and do basic arithmetic, many historians tend to give him more credit than he deserves by painting Johnson with the “self-educated” brush.

The Republican-dominated Congress forced Johnson to continue the implementation of Lincoln’s 10 percent plan for Reconstruction, but the highlight of Johnson’s presidency was his near impeachment. In 1867 Congress passed a law called the Tenure of Office Act. It prohibited the removal of civil officers without the Senate’s approval.

When Congress was out of session during August of 1867, Johnson took it upon himself to suspend the Secretary of War Henry Stanton and put General Grant in his office. Once Congress reconvened several months later, the Senate disapproved of Stanton’s suspension. Consequently, Grant vacated his new office, but Johnson appointed General Lorenzo Thomas to replace Grant.

Impeachment Procedure

As a result of Johnson’s actions, Congress charged him with nine counts of violating the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson’s trial started in March of 1868 and lasted more than eleven weeks. In May the Senate voted 35 to 19 against Johnson, which was one vote short of the required two-thirds vote to remove the president. Fortunately for Johnson, seven republicans joined twelve democrats in the Senate to vote in his favor.

Johnson’s struggles with Congress ended when he infamously left office in 1868. The Republican Party nominated Ulysses S. Grant as its candidate for the presidency. As the highest ranking general in the Union army during the Civil War, Grant’s war strategies, in addition to African American soldiers, were major factors in the North’s victory over the South. Grant was the perfect candidate because he was a war hero. With the exception of many southerners, the American people loved Grant.

The Grant Administration

Similar to Johnson, however, Grant had virtually no formal education. Understanding his social position and the fact that his leadership abilities as a war general gained him nationwide popularity, Grant loved to rub shoulders with educated, cultured people. Therefore, when he became president in 1869, he surrounded himself with people of this type. However, his advisors and friends correctly interpreted Grant’s obsession with social prestige as well as his naivety on civilian matters. Therefore, they overwhelmed Grant and made all the major political decisions for him.

The Scandals

Nevertheless, Grant admired his educated advisors and friends so much that he always blindly defended them, even when they were in the wrong. For example, Orville Babcock, Grant’s private secretary, was taking kickbacks in 1875 from several distillers who paid off federal authorities to avoid paying the high taxes on whisky. Authorities called it the “Whiskey Ring Scandal,” but Grant defended Babcock even though all the evidence pointed to Babcock’s guilt.

Secretary of War William E. Belknap took bribes to “sell lucrative Native American trading posts in Oklahoma.” In addition, there was the Black Friday Scandal. Grant’s advisors convinced him to limit the flow of gold into the economy. Once gold became scarce, the price went up and Grant’s friends made tremendous profits from this arrangement. When authorities brought charges against Belknap and others, Grant defended them. For his silence on important issues and loyalty to corruption, his friends referred to Grant as the “mute genius,” much like Gerald Ford of the 1970s.

Inefficient Presidents

Neither Johnson nor Grant addressed real issues of the day. They didn’t address the injustices affecting African Americans, Native Americans and other ethnic groups. They didn’t address business monopolies, the exploitation of farmers, low wages, unsafe on-site conditions of urban workers and government corruption, which was rampant in Grant’s administration. Instead, both administrations discussed less pressing issues often called “straw” issues. To them, the major problems were immigration, pensions and expansion.


  1. Boyer, Clark, Kett, Salisbury, Sitkoff, Woloch. The Enduring Vision – A History of the American People, Fifth Edition. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.