Andrew Johnson - The referendum of 1866





On 28 July, Congress adjourned and its members headed home to engage in the upcoming congressional elections. These elections, as everyone knew, would be a de facto referendum on Reconstruction. If the Republicans could maintain or increase their majority in Congress, it would mean the North supported their policy of protecting black rights in the South; if they lost their majority or had it substantially reduced, then they would stand repudiated and Johnson would be vindicated.

Johnson sought to secure Republican defeat and victory for himself in two main ways. The first was to try to form a working coalition of Conservative Republicans and northern Democrats that would back candidates favorable to his Reconstruction policy and serve as a step toward the establishment of a new political party. To this end he arranged for the organization of "Johnson Clubs" throughout the North and the border states, and for the meeting of delegates from all of the northern and southern states in the National Union Convention in Philadelphia on 14–16 August. The Johnson Clubs tended to be dominated by Democrats, and many of the participants in the National Union Convention were prominent Copperheads and Confederates. Consequently, most Republicans regarded both moves as merely devices to trick them into voting for Democrats, and instead of gaining support, Johnson lost it.

Johnson's other major effort to overthrow the Republicans took the form of doing something no previous president had done—making a personal campaign tour. Using as the occasion an invitation to dedicate a monument to Stephen A. Douglas in Chicago, Johnson left Washington on 28 August in a special train that carried him north to upstate New York, west to Chicago, south to St. Louis, and then back east to Washington via the Ohio Valley. Proud of his prowess as a stump orator, Johnson believed that if he could speak directly to the people, he would rally them behind his Reconstruction policy. Instead, this "swing around the circle" proved to be a political and personal fiasco. Everywhere he went, Johnson delivered virtually the same speech; before long, his audiences knew what he was going to say before he said it, and pro-Republican humorists had a field day parodying his repetitious remarks. On several occasions, notably in Cleveland and St. Louis, hecklers caused him to lose his temper, to engage in unseemly debates, and to make indiscreet statements. At Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and several other cities hostile crowds shouted him down, and Republican newspapers denounced him as a vulgar, drunken demagogue who was disgracing the presidency, accusations with which many northerners agreed. Far from persuading the northern people, he ended up disgusting them.

During September, October, and November the voters of the North went to the polls. When all ballots were counted, the Republicans had retained control of every state in the North and increased their already huge majority in Congress. Quite obviously the course of Reconstruction henceforth would be determined by Congress with little or no reference to the wishes of the president. Any chance that Johnson would be able to form a new party and succeed himself in the White House had been destroyed, although in spite of everything he would continue to harbor the latter ambition.




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