My email conversations with readers reveal that many people my age share a love of reading history books we previously lacked time for. One of my recent favorites is “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” by David W. Blight. I was so eager to get it that I finished it before it won a Pulitzer Prize.
Diving into detailed histories can be exciting but also upsetting. Blight’s reporting on President Andrew Johnson, for instance, sharply contradicts one of my lifelong favorites, “Profiles in Courage,” by Sen. John F. Kennedy. The future president also won a Pulitzer for what was the first nonfiction book I ever read not assigned by a teacher.
My problem with Kennedy’s book has meaning for how we teach history. Blight describes a meeting in the White House in early 1866 between Johnson and an uninvited (possible in those days) delegation of 13 men, 12 of them black, led by Douglass, the most important black American of his century. They were protesting, among other things, Johnson’s putting back into power white Southerners who refused to let black people vote.
When Douglass asked the president for “the ballot with which to save ourselves,” Johnson said he preferred that people like Douglass leave America and colonize some other part of the world. He predicted a “war of the races” if blacks got access to the ballot. He insisted that nothing could be forced on the majority of a community “without their consent.” That, he said, was “a fundamental tenet in my creed that the people must be obeyed.”
After the delegation left, Blight said, Johnson’s private secretary heard him say, as reported in the New York World: “I know that d____d Douglass; he’s just like any n-----, & he would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.” (It’s telling that a newspaper of that era would print the n-word in full but not “damned.”)
By contrast, “Profiles in Courage” characterized the 17th president as a loyal follower of Abraham Lincoln: “Andrew Johnson, the courageous if untactful Tennessean who had been the only Southern Member of Congress to refuse to secede with his state, had committed himself to the policies of the Great Emancipator to whose high station he had succeeded only by the course of an assassin’s bullet.”
That might have some truth. Lincoln also told Douglass he thought former slaves would be better off in Africa. We’ll never know how the doomed president would have dealt with Southern leaders who sanctioned murder of black people seeking to vote. But Kennedy never mentioned that Johnson was such a cruel and aggressive racist. I would have preferred that the senator at least raise the possibility that removing such a person from office as the Radical Republicans tried to do might have been better for the country.
It doesn’t matter if the real author of that book was Kennedy or his speechwriter Ted Sorensen. I can’t expect either of them to share the views of 21st-century readers like me. “Profiles in Courage” was published in 1957, a very different time when all Southern senators were Kennedy’s Democratic Party colleagues.
But I wanted to know what high school students are taught about this now. I bought the “Reconstruction to the 21st Century” volume (copyright 2012) of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s textbook series “The Americans.” The American Textbook Council has a low opinion of most history textbooks but called that series “the most instructionally sound” on U.S. history available to teachers.
The textbook’s two pages on this subject seem to reflect the latest scholarship. It says that “Johnson’s plan differed little from Lincoln’s” but that he also “pardoned more than 13,000 former confederates because he believed that ‘white men alone must manage the South.’ ” The textbook’s portrayal of those who tried to remove Johnson is closer to Blight’s, and to Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” with Tommy Lee Jones as a heroic Rep. Thaddeus Stevens. Kennedy, on the other hand, called Stevens “the crippled, fanatical personification of the extremes of the Radical Republican movement.”
Why not let 11th-graders know what I didn’t at that age, that views of history can change? Assigning a sample of Kennedy and a sample of Blight might intrigue today’s teens, as it does me. I’ve heard some history teachers are doing that. May their numbers increase.