Presidential Feuds, Part 2

The Feud That Left a Mark on Presidential History

Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant engaged in a personal and political feud almost unparalleled in both the briefness of its duration and the violence of its animosity. The trouble began after the Civil War ended. Johnson, who had been elected Vice President in 1864, became President after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Grant was the commanding general of the army, and the hero of the Civil War.

Johnson was determined to carry out Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans, bringing the southern states back into the Union as quickly as possible. Radical Republicans in Congress opposed Johnson’s plans, wanting to keep the southern states under military (and Radical) control. They felt that the southern states had committed political suicide and were no longer states; they were now territories again, and under Congressional control.

After the mid-term elections in 1866, the Radicals found themselves in overwhelming control of both houses of Congress. They sought to use their advantage to control Johnson. One of the acts they passed was the Tenure of Office Act. This law declared that any position that required Senate confirmation of the appointment also required Senate confirmation before the official could be dismissed. This meant that Johnson could not control his own cabinet. Johnson sought to test the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act by firing his Radical and disloyal Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

Stanton refused to be fired, claiming that Johnson was acting illegally under the terms of the Tenure of Office Act. Stanton actually barricaded himself in his office and refused to leave it. Johnson countered by suspending Stanton and appointing as interim Secretary of War the one man no one dared to oppose, Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant served as interim Secretary of War until Congress reconvened. On January 13, 1868, the Senate passed a resolution declaring that the removal of Stanton was not legal and, although being very careful not to criticize General Grant, ordered Stanton reinstated. Grant relinquished the office and returned to his army duties. This began the feud in earnest.

Johnson wrote an angry letter to Grant accusing Grant of breaking his word. Johnson felt that Grant knew what role he had been meant to play and backed out under pressure from Congress. Johnson implied that Grant deserted him, caring more about the upcoming Republican Presidential nomination than doing what was right for his country.

Grant responded that he considered Congress, and not the President, the final authority in the matter, and that he had never given the President any intimation that he would violate the law to support him. Grant concluded his letter, written on February 3, 1868, saying, “And now, Mr. President, when my honor as a soldier and integrity as a man have been so violently assailed, pardon me for saying that I can but regard this whole matter from beginning to end as an attempt to involve me in a resistance of law for which you hesitated to assume the responsibility, and thus destroy my character before the country.”

This was not the first clash between the two men. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, President Johnson sought to have Robert E. Lee arrested for treason, contrary to the surrender terms signed at Appomattox. Grant was furious that Johnson would even think about violating the term of the surrender that represented the nation’s solemn word of honor. When Lee appealed to Grant for help, Grant intervened on Lee’s behalf. He threatened to take his case to the people if the President did not drop his attempt to have Lee arrested. Johnson backed down, and Lee was not arrested.

Grant was elected in 1868 to succeed Johnson as President. The two had not reconciled by the time Grant was inaugurated President on March 4, 1869. President Johnson refused to ride with Grant, and therefore was not present at Grant’s inauguration. This had not happened since John Quincy Adams left town the night before the inauguration of Andrew Jackson in 1829.

The next great political feud involved two men who had been best of personal and political friends, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Teddy Roosevelt had been the incredibly popular President. Unfortunately, on election night in 1904, Teddy said he would not run for another term in 1908. In 1908, Teddy kept his word and retired. He virtually appointed his friend and Secretary of War William Howard Taft as his successor. With Teddy’s support, Taft won in a landslide. But shortly after Taft took office, the friendship, both political and personal, began to break apart until the two men became bitter enemies. In the next article, we will experience this political earthquake that changed not only our history, but also the history of the entire world.