The period after the Civil War saw Presidents ranging from one of the most politically experienced to possibly the least politically experienced. The Reconstruction Era, as this period was known, was one of the most corrupt in our nation’s political history. The South, especially, felt the effects of corruption the hardest.
Andrew Johnson held almost every elected office in American politics. A runaway tailor’s apprentice (making him the only President to be a wanted fugitive with a price on his head), he settled in eastern Tennessee and opened a tailor shop. People gathered in his shop (as opposed to the stereotypical general store) to discuss politics and current events. They elected him to the city council, and then as their mayor. He then went to the state house of representatives and then the state senate, and finally to Congress.
He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the 28th Congress in 1842. He served in the House from 1843 to 1853. During this time, he served as the chairman of the House Committee on Public Expenditures. In 1852, his House career came to an end. Democrats from the western and central part of Tennessee had long wanted to rid themselves of Johnson, who came from the anti-slavery eastern portion of the slave state. They gerrymandered (redrew the district lines of his Congressional district in a way that made it extremely hard for him to win re-election) his district, knowing he could not win in the newly created district. They hoped that he would either run and lose, or just give up. They misjudged Andrew Johnson. He did indeed withdraw from the race for the House seat. But he did not retire. Instead, he announced his intention of running for governor of the state of Tennessee. He ran and won, which made the leading Democrats even more unhappy with him. After two terms a governor, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1856. He served in the U.S. Senate from October 8, 1857 until his resignation on March 4, 1862. He served as the chairman of the Committee to Audit and Control the Contingent Expense, an important committee.
Although well known, and even a long-shot name mentioned for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1860, Johnson’s action in the Senate at the start of the Civil War made him famous in the North, and infamous in the South. As southern states seceded from the Union, their Representatives and Senators resigned and left the Congress. Of all the southern members of Congress, only Johnson refused to leave. He made an impassioned speech denouncing those who left, especially those who owed much to the nation. He had especially hard words for Jefferson Davis. In his speech, Johnson said of Davis who was educated at West Point, “…when I remember that he was nurtured by this government … I cannot understand how he can be willing to hail another banner … It seems to me that if I could not unsheathe my sword in vindication of the flag of my country … I would return the sword to its scabbard. I would never sheathe it in the bosom of my mother! Never! Never!” His stand by the Union made him a hero in the North, but the South saw him as a traitor. During a tour of Tennessee campaigning to try to convince Tennessee to stay in the Union, John was burned and hung in effigy. Once, he barely avoided being lynched by leaving through the back door of a train station while a mob rushed in the front door, rope in hand.
He left the Senate to become military governor of Tennessee. In 1864, he was elected Vice President in 1864, and succeeded Lincoln after Lincoln’s assassination. He became the first President to be impeached when he again stood loyally by what he thought was right and tried to carry out Lincoln’s magnanimous Reconstruction program. He was acquitted of the impeachment charges by just one vote, and finished his term.
In 1875, he was once again elected to the U.S. Senate in an emotional comeback victory. He attended a special session of Congress that summer, and was hailed as a hero by many of the men who had tried to kick him out of the White House. His triumph was short lived, however. He died later that summer of a sudden stroke. He lacked the tact and political skills to carry out Lincoln’s difficult program, and his Presidency is considered something of a failure. But he lived to see himself vindicated by his re-election to the Senate.
Johnson was succeeded by the hero of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had no political experience, and his administration is considered one of the most corrupt of any President.
After Grant, a nation tired of graft and corruption turned to a proven reformer to bring honesty back to government. Hayes had been a combat officer in the Civil War. In various battles, Hayes had been wounded four times and had six horses shot from under him. Through his courage and leadership, he had risen through the ranks to become a major general. During the war, he was nominated by the Republicans in his home district to run for Congress. He accepted the nomination. When they asked him to return to Ohio to campaign, he refused. He sent a telegram stating, “I have other business just now. Any man who would leave the army at this time to electioneer for Congress ought to be scalped.” His patriotism became the Republican theme. Slogans such as “Our Candidate Is a Hero” and “Hayes Loves His Country and Fights For It” won him the election in 1864. He did not resign his commission and take his seat in the House of Representatives until December of 1864. He served until in the House until July 20, 1867 when he resigned to accept his party’s nomination to run for governor of Ohio. He was serving his third term as governor when he was nominated for President in 1876. Although he lost the popular vote, after a long and bitter struggle that was decided by Congress, he won in the Electoral College by just one vote. Called “His Accidency” and “Rutherfraud Hayes,” his Presidency was hindered by the manner in which he was elected. He served only one term, and retired. History has evaluated him more kindly than the politicians of his day, considering him honest and competent. He fought corruption, reformed much in government, ended Reconstruction by removing federal troops from the South, and promoted a civil service system. The Civil Service system was created several years after his Presidency ended, in large part due to his efforts.
The Presidents after the Civil War faced incredible difficulties. Johnson and Hayes at least had some experience that gave them a better chance of succeeding. Grant, with no experience, was totally reliant on others who often took advantage of him. It is probable that no President would have been capable of strong, decisive leadership during that period, but with experienced leaders the nation had a better chance at good government.