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 Posted: Sat Sep 13th, 2008 02:11 am
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Wrap10
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Johnson is an interesting study, isn't he. Right after Lincoln is killed, he talks like he's going to be about the worst nightmare the South ever had. He seemed to view southern leaders as nothing short of tyrants, worthy of a good hanging. Then when some of those same southern leaders begin glad-handing him as president, he completely changes his tune and seemingly becomes the South's best friend. Maybe it's unfair to say it like this, but you get the sense that they played him like a fiddle.

It was largely because of Johnson that the former Confederate states got a shot at "self reconstruction" for a couple of years after the war. The result was a post-war South that had a remarkable resemblance, politically and socially, to the pre-war South, which perhaps isn't really surprising when you get down to it. But the result of that was the better known Congressional Reconstruction, or "Radical" Reconstruction as it's also called, championed by several of the so-called Radical Republicans in Congress. This is the version of Reconstruction that is often portrayed, incorrectly for the most part in my opinion, of the North having its boot on the throat of the South. That idea, in my view, is overplayed.

But Johnson had a hand in what in the end was, if not a complete failure, then certainly far from being a complete success. And I think his reputation properly suffers for it as a result. What would his reputation be in the absence of the Civil Rights Movement? That's hard to say, at least for me. But I do think Reconstruction, as a whole, was what it has often been called, a golden opportunity missed. I don't know as I fully agree with the folks who think its failure is the starting point for the racial problems that followed over the next century. It played a role, but the roots of that problem were already in the ground by that point. But, the decade or so that followed the war was a chance to at least seriously weaken those roots, if not pull them out of the ground. Advances were made in that direction, but not as far, by a good deal, as they could have been.

I do think Johnson comes in for a share of the blame for that, as does the entire country for that matter. I also think Johnson was in over his head. The problems that faced the country after the war would likely have taxed the abilities of Lincoln himself, as I've seen at least one historian say. And to borrow a phrase, Johnson was no Lincoln.

But maybe bringing about equality and solving racial strife was asking a bit too much of that generation, among white people at least, given their collective world view and what they had just gone through in the first half of the 1860's. It is sad though, to think about what might have been, and how history might have been altered. Even if it was, at bottom, a long shot at that time. Perhaps that's why Reconstruction seems to get so little attention compared with the Civil War.

Perry

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