Johnson's presidency corresponded with the first and most crucial phase of Reconstruction. Since Reconstruction was intimately linked to the highly controversial issue of the status of blacks in American life, both it and Johnson have been highly controversial also. Accordingly, historians who believe that congressional Reconstruction in general was bad and that in particular it was a mistake to grant blacks equal civil and political rights so soon after being freed from slavery portray Johnson as a heroic champion of the Constitution and true reconciliation between North and South. Historians who feel that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were necessary acts of justice and that the only thing wrong with Reconstruction was that it did not go far enough condemn Johnson as a racist villain who deserved to be removed from office. Between these extremes stand yet more historians and their judgments of Johnson; historians never have agreed about him, nor will they ever.
Even so, it seems that this can be said with certainty about the tenacious tailor from Tennessee: Few presidents faced a greater challenge than he did, and none failed more completely than he to meet that challenge successfully. There are several reasons why this was so.
First, Johnson was a southerner and a Democrat heading the government of a nation controlled by northerners and Republicans. Consequently, he miscalculated the attitudes of the North and had no sympathy for, or understanding of, the Republicans. Lincoln, had he lived, would not have suffered from such handicaps and the course of Reconstruction would have been substantially different.
Johnson lacked the moral and political authority of an elected president, yet he acted as if he possessed it. As a result, his refusal to compromise with Congress quickly dissipated the strength he initially enjoyed.
Johnson's dedication to the Union, the Constitution, and democracy as he understood them was as sincere as it was strong; but he did not realize that the Civil War was a revolution that would not end with the defeat of the rebels and the freeing of the slaves, and he failed to see that the pre-1861 power relationship between the federal and state governments had been permanently altered in favor of the former.
Johnson, like the vast majority of American whites of his time, considered blacks inferior. Had his racial attitudes been those of Charles Sumner or of a twentieth-century liberal, possibly the story of his presidency and the outcome of Reconstruction would have been happier. But there is no evidence that racism was the sole or even the main determinant of his policies. Like Lincoln, he perceived the enormous obstacles that lay in the way of equality for blacks; he also believed, given the realities of the situation, that the status of blacks in the South would sooner or later be dictated by the whites. This belief, obviously, was not altogether wrong. By 1875, the year Johnson died, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were virtually dead. Eighty years would pass before they came to life again.
Finally, Johnson suffered from serious defects of mind and character. Although he possessed "great natural capacity," he held "few ideas," was "narrow-minded," and lacked flexibility and adroitness. He also was extremely distrustful of others, tended to regard advice as tantamount to dictation, and was overly pugnacious and insufficiently discreet. At the same time, he was often indecisive and hesitant, yet when he did act, he did so hastily and without foresight. Quite likely these traits, more than anything else, caused him to commit the blunders that turned his policies and presidency into a shambles.
To sum up, Johnson quested for power all of his adult life; but when, through tragic circumstance, he gained the highest power, he proved incapable of using it in an effective and beneficial manner.