The ghost of Andrew Johnson, America’s 17th president and the first to be impeached, is haunting the White House. Echoes of Johnson’s footsteps can be detected in the 45th president’s policies and conduct, including Donald Trump’s rash, ill-advised decision to unceremoniously fire FBI Director James B. Comey. That act is reminiscent of Johnson’s discharge of his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, in 1867, which led to impeachment by the House of Representatives. Whether Trump’s firing of Comey could contribute to a similar fate in the House remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, in thought, word and deed, Johnson may be a spirit manifested in Trump.
Johnson has been described by historian Eric Foner as “intolerant of criticism, and out of touch with political reality.” Labeling Johnson “self-absorbed,” Foner cited a one-hour Washington’s Birthday speech by Johnson in which he “referred to himself over 200 times.” Sound like anyone we know?
This much can be said: The crooked, nefarious pathways blazed by Johnson on enforcement of civil rights and justice are routes that Trump is faithfully following.
Johnson laid his tracks early.
Had Johnson’s policies prevailed for the past 150 years, the District of Columbia would never have had African American mayors or council members — or even any blacks among the city’s electorate. In 1867, Johnson vetoed legislation giving African American men the right to vote in the District. That precious right was, thankfully, granted three days later, but only because Congress overrode Johnson’s veto. (Johnson expressed his strong anti-black feelings in his message about a veto of the first Reconstruction Act: “The negroes have not asked for the privilege of voting; the vast majority of them have no idea what it means.”)
And no thanks to Johnson, Howard University and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, in Foggy Bottom, are celebrating their sesquicentennials.
One hundred and fifty-one years ago, Johnson vetoed a bill renewing the charter of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was created to provide assistance to Howard University and the fledging African American colleges and universities in the emancipated South. Johnson described such assistance as “Africanizing the southern part of our territory.”
St. Mary’s Church, the city’s first African American Episcopal congregation, also had a near-death experience with Johnson.
The church, located in the 700 block of 23rd Street NW, has the aforementioned Stanton to thank for its original building. Hearing about the newly formed congregation’s search for a place of worship, Stanton provided the chapel materials that became the first building exclusively for the city’s black Episcopalians.
Like Howard University, St. Mary’s had dodged a Johnson bullet. The church held its first service on June 9, 1867. It was just two months later, in August, that Johnson fired Stanton.
But Johnson was a scourge of America far beyond the District of Columbia.
Frowning upon giving full rights and privileges of citizenship to freed African Americans, Johnson vetoed a stream of civil rights bills, most of the vetoes were overridden by Congress.
He undercut the positive measures of Reconstruction. He gave former Confederate states freedom to manage their affairs, which allowed them to enact Black Codes that imposed plantation-like conditions on former slaves.
Now Trump, as boorish, undisciplined, racially insensitive and bullying as Johnson was, is not missing a beat when it comes to lax civil rights enforcement and ignoring racial, ethnic and religious injustices.
Under Trump’s agenda, states will be allowed to take protection of minority rights into their own hands. Trump’s administration will look the other way.
In Trump’s Washington, the Labor Department unit that monitors discrimination by federal contractors is being disbanded, the Education Department’s office that investigates discrimination complaints in school districts is being gutted, police departments that have whipped up on blacks will receive dialed-down Justice Department oversight, and environmental polluters may get the Environmental Protection Agency’s green light to contaminate minority communities .
White supremacists are as emboldened today as they were during Andrew Johnson’s era.
Discrimination is getting the same blind-eye treatment it received during the post-Civil War white Southern pushback. Acts of racially and religiously motivated violence are enjoying a resurgence reminiscent of the day the White House was ruled by Andrew Johnson — an apparition that seems to be making daily appearances in the Oval Office.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.
Read more on this topic: