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The Failed Promise

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What did Reconstruction promise to do, and what problems caused it to fall so flat? Robert Levine answers these questions by exploring the careers of both Frederick Douglass and Andrew Johnson. Levine allows the reader to “inhabit the past” (to borrow a phrase from Joseph Ellis); to experience historical moments as they unfolded, without the sense of inevitability that well-trodden history can breed. Though we know of Johnson’s eventual turn for the worse, this book helped me understand the hope that the nation placed in him and the slow realization of his ineffectiveness and secretive tendencies. 

Johnson comes across as a “pitiable” figure (WEB DuBois) that showed much promise and failed on all counts. Instead of presenting Johnson as a scourge of the nation or an inherently evil man, careful reflection on his letters, actions, and the national context recasts him as a lamentable symptom of the chronic and pervasive disease of post-Civil War racism. Johnson does not leave unscathed, however, as the book addresses his shortcomings in excoriating detail through the eyes of Douglass, who continued to hold Johnson responsible for racial tension decades after he left office. He is “partly responsible for, and partly the incarnation of, the Failed Promise of Reconstruction.”

The author drew out a few conflicts that helped me understand the tensions driving the larger issues: between Congressional and Presidential authority, between the constitutionality and unconstitutionality of secession, and between restoration or reconstruction of the Southern states. Despite the many competing narratives and confusing political machinations, Levine employed these dichotomies to keep the story clear and readable. 

This is the essential sequel to Team of Rivals by Goodwin. The humble, conciliatory president followed by the secretive, prejudiced accidental president. 

Thanks to W. W. Norton & Company and NetGalley for the advance copy!
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Over the past three years I’ve read quite a few books on Reconstruction, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, and Frederick Douglass*. I thought I wouldn’t learn anything new when I began reading The Failed Promise, I was wrong. Robert Levine’s new book focuses on the mostly unexamined role that Frederick Douglass and other Black leaders played during the time of the Johnson presidency and his subsequent impeachment.

The title The Failed Promise has a double meaning, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction were both failed promises. Many Radical Republicans and Black leaders had high hopes that Andrew Johnson would be a more progressive and bold president on Reconstruction than Lincoln at the time of his assassination and they had every right to think so because of Johnson’s history of being a Southern Unionist, anti-secessionist, and a proponent of emancipation. But something changed a few months after he became president; Johnson wanted the Southern states to be restored to the Union and not reconstructed. Restoration was essentially a way to let bygones be bygones and allow the Southern states and former Confederate leaders to reenter the Union with no strings attached. Reconstructionists in Congress on the other hand wanted preconditions, they wanted Southerners to ratify the 13th Amendment and allow for Black suffrage before they were welcomed back. This fight between President Johnson and Congress is ultimately what leads to his impeachment. The violation of the Tenure of Office Act was the official charge, but Congress was mostly frustrated with Johnson’s obstruction of Reconstruction.

Levine does a great job showing how Lincoln and Johnson were viewed in this period. Lincoln was criticized and challenged by Douglass when Lincoln was alive, which is seldom talked about, nowadays we focus more on how they were friends. Johnson was a racist who thought he cared about Black people. As you read the book, get use to the refrain that Johnson was a “Moses” to Black people. Anytime Johnson was questioned about his support for Black civil rights he would say that he was Black folks’ Moses which is akin to saying “I love the Blacks” or “I’ve done more for Black people than anyone” in modern times.

Levine gives excellent coverage of the relationship between Johnson and Douglass. He covers the infamously tense meeting between Johnson, Douglass, and other Black leaders on Reconstruction, and how Johnson and his aides kept tabs on Douglass’s public activities. Good thing the FBI or J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t around during this period, otherwise Douglass rights were sure to be violated.

Levine, an English Professor, gives special attention to the speeches delivered by these two leaders during this period. First, there is Johnson’s “Swing Around the Circle” speaking tour, where he preached racist rhetoric, advocated violence against his political opponents, and as a result his public standing suffered because of it. Then there is Douglass’s lesser known speech “Sources of Danger to the Republic”, in it Douglass attacks Johnson and calls the U.S. Constitution one of the dangers to the Republic. What is fascinating about this speech is that Douglass basically becomes a constitutional scholar and attacks certain aspects of the Constitution that he found problematic, such as the veto power, pardoning power, the presidential two term principle, and the office of the vice presidency. Levine also reveals that Douglass had different versions of this speech depending on the racial makeup of his audience, i.e. he was more folksy in front of a Black audience and challenged his White audience to bring about constitutional reform. What makes this book even more special is that Douglass’s 1867 speech before a Black audience in Philadelphia is reprinted for the first time in the Appendix; trust me it is well worth the read.

What I find the most fascinating about this book is the role of Black leaders during the Reconstruction period. Levine writes that during Johnson’s impeachment trial, Black elites did not focus on the Tenure of Office Act in their impeachment brief instead they focused on how Andrew Johnson betrayed Black Americans and also his antipathy to the Freedman’s Bureau. This just goes to show that Black leaders have always been the moral conscious of this nation. When establishment politicians focused on the technicality of Johnson firing Stanton and violating the Tenure of Office Act, Black leaders focused on the stain that Johnson’s racism had on the lives of Black people.

Overall, The Failed Promise is a quick read. I like that Levine presents how complex and nuanced Johnson was. He doesn’t blame all of Reconstruction’s failure on Johnson although he was an important force against Reconstruction. Readers will definitely develop more of an appreciation for Douglass and learn how he almost became a pivotal figure in Johnson’s impeachment. Finally, you will get a glimpse of other notable Black leaders who don’t get their due like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and John Langston.

*See Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. Du Bois, Stony the Road by Henry Louis Gates Jr. , The Impeachers by Brenda Wineapple, and Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight.
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The impeachment trail of Andrew Johnson is often referenced, but I knew little about this president and even less about his ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’ I eagerly opened The Failed Promise to fill in this gap in my understanding. Robert S. Levin has written the book I needed to read.

Johnson claimed to be a friend to the negro. His own slaves admitted that he treated them well. When he became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, he promised to fulfill his claim of being a ‘Moses’ to lead blacks to a promised land where they could reap the fruits of their own labor. Yet he fought the Republican congress on Reconstruction, and warned that Black suffrage risked a race war–and essentially a disenfranchisement of white power in the South.

Andrew Johnson was a Southern, slave-owning Democrat who believed that the Constitution did not allow succession. Therefore, the South never ‘left’ the country and did not require reconstruction.

Johnson made an enemy of Frederick Douglass who directly challenged his policies. Douglas believed that the vote would give blacks representation to shape policy without a federal occupying force.

The underlying racism that pervaded society was evident even in the Radical Republicans who championed abolition. As Douglass pointed out, the Northern states would not grant blacks the right to vote even while pressuring suffrage in the South.

Douglass warned of Constitutional flaws that allowed a president too much power: the patronage system that corrupted the president and those who received patronage; how the president became the leader of the political party that kept him in office; and the presidential veto power. He even posed a conspiracy theory behind the Lincoln assassination!

The Failed Promise is a fascinating study of the epic battle between Congress and Johnson that led to his impeachment trial. This rich history offers insight into the past and the problems that persist to this very day. The huge personalities and political drama kept me riveted. Douglass emerges a moral visionary as relevant to 2021 as he was in the 19th c.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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