Then & Now | Andrew Johnson

The first visit of a sitting President of the United States to Cleveland was not for purposes of a debate, but, nevertheless, it opened a major debate on the President’s temperament and, indirectly, played a role his impeachment.

When Andrew Johnson came to Cleveland on September 3, 1866, he arrived in a city that was confronting the consequences of the Civil War and a city that had voted strongly for his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln.   Lincoln had, indeed, visited Cleveland, but it was on his way to his inauguration and then, sadly, following his assassination, Cleveland was one of the cities in which he lay in state.

Feelings were high in the city, in particular in relation to the reconstruction of the former Confederate states.   A good number of people in northeastern Ohio felt that Johnson’s policies were far too easy on those who had rebelled against the United States, particularly as they saw many southerners who had held power before the war being allowed to again hold political office.   There were a good number of Radical Republicans in the region who felt that the South was being allowed to go back to just what it had been before.  For those who believed strongly in the rights of the now free Black population, Johnson’s policies were proving to be a disaster.

Johnson’s stop in Cleveland was part of a longer journey he had undertaken to help “sell” his policies to the north.  Dubbed the “Swing Around the Circle” it started in Washington, DC, then went to New York, then west to Chicago, down to St. Louis and then back to Washington.  While Johnson had received a rather good reception at the start, his appearance in Cleveland changed that.

After supper at the Kennard House hotel, which stood at the corner of St. Clair and what is now West 6th Street, Johnson stepped out on the balcony to address a large crowd, a crowd peppered with radical Republicans.   They perhaps knew that Johnson had a habit of going “off script, and that it was easy to goad him.    As he delivered his prepared script, someone in the crowd shouted “Hang Jeff Davis.”   Johnson broke from his script and retorted “why don’t you hang Thad Stevens and Wendell Phillips [Stevens was a radical Republican Congressman and Phillps a famous abolitionist].  When Johnson left the balcony someone overheard his friends telling him to be more dignified.   His response which was quoted in newspapers across the country was “I don’t care about my dignity.”   When Johnson left the hotel the next day to continue his journey he saw a large banner reading “In the work of reconstruction, traitors must be made to take back seats”.   He purportedly pulled his hat down over his eyes and stared at the carriage floor so not to have to see the banner.

After Cleveland, the tour only became worse, hecklers were everywhere.   In St. Louis he compared himself to Jesus and played off the Republicans as his betrayers.   And in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a platform for spectators collapsed, killing thirteen.  By the end of the tour, even Johnson’s supporters were abandoning him, largely because of his lack of dignity.  When Johnson was impeached in 1868, the tenth of eleven articles of impeachment noted that he, as President “…did…make and declare, with a loud voice certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues, and therein utter loud threats and bitter menaces, as well against Congress as the laws of the United States duly enacted thereby, amid the cries, jeers and laughter of the multitudes then assembled in hearing.”  However, this article was not brought to a vote in the Senate given that it had a lack of support. 

Johnson would be the first President to be impeached (by a vote of 127 to 47 in the House of Representatives) but he would acquitted by the Senate.   Factors other than his intemperate nature were at the core of the charges, but, nevertheless, dignity still mattered, and that visit to Cleveland, rightly or wrongly, gave the nation an impression that still lingers in the popular memory.