Why was Andrew Johnson President?

Eric Medlin
4 min readApr 13, 2022

Lincoln thought he needed the Tennessee governor. He didn’t.

The Atlanta Cyclorama, a famous attraction depicting the defenses of Atlanta during the Civil War. Source: Explore Georgia

Andrew Johnson is currently remembered as one of the worst presidents in American history. He rightfully receives much of the blame for the ultimate failure of Reconstruction. His racism and incompetence stand out among a host of fellow racists and incompetents in the history of the American presidency. In recent years, the historical judgment of several formerly maligned presidents such as Ulysses S. Grant has improved, while no revisionists have taken it upon themselves to change Johnson’s legacy.

Therefore, it came as no surprise that political gadfly Andrew Yang’s tweet about Johnson on Monday led to such strong criticism. Following his failed run as New York mayor, Yang has taken on the position of third-party advocate. He founded the Forward Party in October 2021 and has argued for a kind of nonpartisan politics ever since. He followed those arguments up with a novel argument: “Lincoln won the presidency on the brand new Republican ticket in 1860 with 39.8% in a four-way race. He took a Democrat, Andrew Johnson as his running mate in 1864.” The response was immediate. Liberals from Mehdi Hasan to John Legend castigated Yang for ostensibly supporting such a white supremacist candidate. Mediaite summed up the response with this blaring headline: “Andrew Yang Gets Obliterated After Invoking Andrew Johnson to Call for National Unity: ‘Did John Wilkes Booth Write This Tweet?’”

The consensus against Johnson leads to an interesting question. If Johnson was such a terrible leader, why did Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest president in American history, choose him as his running mate? Why did Lincoln drop his first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, a man who many observers today believe would have been a much better Reconstruction-era president than Johnson was? The problem is a common one in historical memory. Lincoln’s appointment, while seeming illogical in hindsight, was in many ways the most sensible at the time.

In 1864, the Civil War had been raging for three years without a discernible end to the conflict. Ulysses S. Grant was stuck in Virginia, embarking on a siege in Petersburg after several horrific battles in northern Virginia. The Union army in the west suffered arguably its worst defeat the year before at Sabine…

Eric Medlin

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week. www.twitter.com/medlinwrites