Andrew Johnson, One Of The Worst U.S. Presidents The so-called accidental president is often cited among America's worst leaders. Annette Gordon-Reed is inclined to agree. In Andrew Johnson, she calls attention to the opportunities he missed that might have helped resolve racial inequities that still plague the U.S. today.
NPR logo

Andrew Johnson, One Of The Worst U.S. Presidents

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Andrew Johnson, One Of The Worst U.S. Presidents

Andrew Johnson, One Of The Worst U.S. Presidents

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

History has not looked kindly upon Andrew Johnson. To be fair, our 17th president had a tough act to follow, thrust into America's highest office by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And he had the immense challenge of post-Civil War Reconstruction. But the man generally regarded as our best president was succeeded by, very probably, the worst.

He did all he could to restore the political and economic power of the men who led the South into rebellion, sat by while Night Riders terrorized millions of newly-freed slaves, and set back the course of race relations for generations to come.

We'd like to hear from historians today: What lessons can we draw from the life and political career of Andrew Johnson? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Anthony Shadid of the New York Times joins us from Beirut on the winds of change in the Arab world. But first, Annette Gordon-Reed joins us from our bureau in New York. Her new book is "Andrew Johnson," part of the American President Series from Times Books.

And it's nice to have you back with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. ANNETTE GORDON-REED (Author, "Andrew Johnson"): Good to be here.

CONAN: And I wonder if this began with one of those good news, bad news phone calls. The good news: You've picked to write one of the biographies in the Times American President Series. The bad news: You got Andrew Johnson.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, that was - actually, is was a good news, bad new letter. I got a letter from Arthur Schlessinger, the late Arthur Schlessinger, who I'd known from our service on the papers of Thomas Jefferson. And he sent this letter, and he asked me if I would do this. And so it was a good news, bad news letter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You interestingly come to the conclusion, as you say in your introduction: writing history is not like a date with your favorite dead person.

Ms. GORDON-REED: That's true. That's decidedly true, and especially in this case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We do learn an immense amount - just reading this book over the past several days and listening - just back to Martin Luther King's speech we broadcasted a few moments ago, the "I Have a Dream" speech. And he's saying, at the beginning, a hundred years ago, the Emancipation Proclamation, but the check has not been redeemed. And effectively, what he is arguing for is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, measures that, had someone else been president, might have been passed a hundred years earlier.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Yes. I mean, and that's the startling and the wonderful thing about the King speech, is that he links the present to the past and American history to where we were at that point when he was making that speech and saying that, you know, if we had done things right earlier, we wouldn't have -he wouldn't have to have been standing there.

CONAN: Yeah. And it is remarkable to look at the career of - there's this moment you describe in the book. I think it's the presidential election of 1856, when Andrew Johnson - along with a bunch of other, well, less-than-spectacular American presidents - are aligning themselves, perhaps, to run for office. And he says - he looks at Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan and says, hey. If they can be president, why not me?

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, he surely - I mean, the sort of resolution that was described by the docent at his historical home was definitely present in him. He had an enormous amount of confidence and felt that he could go to the highest spot in the land. And he actually succeeded.

CONAN: And his was a career - you can draw parallels between him and Abraham Lincoln: Both born in log cabins, both born of grinding poverty, though in different situations. Both had to struggle to get their own education, and both turned out very differently.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Absolutely differently. I posit in the book - and other historians, people like Eric Foner and other people have written about this era, that, you know, that perhaps Johnson just - it was just too hard for him. I mean, there's poverty, and there's poverty. And different people have different personalities. Sometimes - in some ways, it could crush people. It didn't crush him, but it sent him in a different way. I think there was probably - I think I should probably say there was a great difference in native talent...

CONAN: Uh-huh. Yeah.

Ms. GORDON-REED: ...between Johnson and Lincoln. I mean, Johnson was obviously an intelligent man, but Abraham Lincoln was a genius, and is one of the extraordinary people who come along, you know, only once in a millennia.

And so the comparison is very, very - and I say this in the book. It's really, really unfair to compare him to this sort of once in a, you know, in a lifetime person.

CONAN: Yet it's hard to believe that even relative presidential non-entities like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan could have possibly done as poorly as Andrew Johnson did.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, you know, he had this sort of resolution that we referred to before, this very firm belief in himself in that he was right. He said: I'm right. I know I'm right and, you know, and damned, I know I'm right. And he just basically says this over and over again. And it's the kind of person who thought that stubbornness was synonymous with principle.

So even if things were, you know, catastrophic or if he's going over a cliff, his sense of his rightness, the rightness of his cause, never left him. And that's a really problematic thing when you're dealing with very, very complicated issues - sort of first-impression issues. You have to have the kind of flexibility that Lincoln had to see a situation and change course. A lot of times, people see that as a wishy-washy politician, but it really is a suppleness of mind that you have to have when you are in that type of position.

CONAN: And a man who could also learn. James McPherson's on Lincoln as commander-in-chief - you learn the incredible amount that he taught himself about military strategy.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Oh, absolutely. And you can't go - you know, it's that willingness to say that perhaps I'm wrong, that you have - the resolution is good, but you need sometimes to be able to look at what you're doing and say maybe other people have a better idea. Perhaps I should change course. And for heaven's sakes, they were making things up as they went along, you know, during the Civil War and afterwards in the government, because the Constitution gave them no guide about what to do. And so this was really - it's something that really required masterful and supple thinking.

CONAN: As opposed to the kind of mind you describe in "Andrew Johnson" - and there is a moment, again, this is before the Civil War. And the proposal comes up to build railroads in his state of Tennessee through eastern Tennessee, a region that desperately needed contact with the outside world. And he opposes this idea.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Yes, and his constituents wanted it very, very much. I mean, they wanted to be modern, too. And he thought, well, you know, if you build railroads, people will get to where they're going to quickly and, you know, they won't have to stop at taverns, and all of this. And it's just the kind of - you can say, well, you know, he just didn't understand this. But there were many, many people- as I said, including his constituents - who understood or could see - foresee how important this would be to the region.

CONAN: So a man without vision, at one point you describe him. Later, you go back and correct yourself. No, he did have a vision.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Yes, he had a vision of America as a white man's government. His idea was that the South had never really seceded because it was illegal -secession was illegal, and so they had never really left the United States. And because they had not left the United States, once the hostilities ended, we would go back to where we were before Fort Sumter, before everything fell apart.

And the only thing that would change was that there would be no slavery. So black people would be put in this position of serfs, you know, sort of quasi -not citizens, but serfs, people who were totally under the dominion of white people, except that white people would not have the capacity to turn them into legal chattel.

So, you know, he didn't think that all that had gone on, you know, through the war and before the war and all of the sort of political battles and the actual battles changed anything in the American system of progress, or the reasons for - that there was no reason to change anything after the end of the war.

CONAN: And this sounds like an abstruse point that, well, of course, leaving the Union was illegal. That was against the Constitution. But, in fact, if you held that position, it meant the president had control over when the states rejoined the Union and the conditions under which they did so. If you held that, in fact, the opposite position, it would have been Congress' role - or greater role in Congress to foresee that - oversee that situation. And that would have been very different.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Yes, it would have been very different. And Lincoln took the sort of abstract view that they had not left, that it was illegal for them to leave. But, again, he died before he actually got off into - you know, after the war was over and - I mean, after - well, he'd died, you know, when the war was over, but before he had to deal with the real Reconstruction, trying to actually bringing people back into the Union.

And it was it a battle, a separation of powers battle between the Congress and the president - Congress administering the South, the Southern states as territories, versus the president using his powers to quell insurrections and to bring things back in order.

CONAN: We're talking with Annette Gordon-Reed about her new book, The American Presidents series from Times Books, "Andrew Johnson." 800-989-8255. Email:

We want to hear today from students of history and historians. What lessons do we learn from the life and career of Andrew Johnson? Dan is on the line, with us from Greenville in Tennessee.

DAN (Caller): Yes, Neal.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

DAN: I wanted to ask your guest what her opinion was on - was Johnson not just trying to maintain Lincoln's policy of zero retribution when the South came back in? Although flawed, was he not trying to follow through with Lincoln's wishes?

CONAN: With malice towards none?

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, to a degree, yes. That's what he thought he was doing. He's following in Lincoln's plan. But as we said before, once it became clear that leniency was not getting them anywhere - in other words, when white Southerners turned on the former slaves, Night Riders, violence. The level of violence was just amazing.

It's - we don't really know what Lincoln would've done. You know, Lincoln was adopting what he thought was a war measure. Lincoln was trying to bring an end to the war.

His initial reconstruction policy was designed to stop the fighting. And so he thought that leniency would work. But as time passed, and it became clear that leniency was making - was sort of emboldening Southerners, then the policy became problematic.

And that's where I suggest that a person who had - who was more supple, you know, even if you started out with one intention, once it becomes clear that that's not working, you have to change. You have to change course. And Johnson was not able to do that.

DAN: (unintelligible)

Ms. GORDON-REED: But you are right. You are right. He did think that Lincoln -well, he did think that he was following Lincoln's policy of leniency, but Lincoln didn't get to see the results, the full results of that policy.

DAN: Right. And if, you know, just for, you know, devil's advocate sake, had he taken a more aggressive stance against that, would there not have been the possibility of another secession?

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, you don't know. I mean, one of the things that Southerners said after it was over - not all Southerners, but the people who, you know, who wrote about this - said that they were, after the war, so defeated that they would have accepted any terms that the North put down.

And it wasn't a question of going all the way to, you know, follow all of the policies of the most radical Republicans, but things like, you know, the vote for blacks, just sort of basic civil rights. I'm not so sure that that would have caused another secession.

Certainly, they were not - they were militarily not in a position to start all that up again, and people were tired of the violence. So many people had died, and the South had lost so many men, that in those initial - that initial year afterwards, that was the time for a leader to sort of strike and do what had to be done at the proper moment.

CONAN: Dan, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And we want to hear from historians and students of history today. What do we learn from the life and legacy of Andrew Johnson? 800-989-8255. Email us:

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Andrew Johnson was an accidental president with a daunting task: Reconstruction - though he did not exactly rise to that occasion.

We're talking with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed. Her new book is about the 17th president and his disastrous leadership after the Civil War.

Frederick Douglass sized Johnson up in a glance at his swearing-in as vice president. You can read exactly what Douglass gleaned from that moment in an excerpt from Annette Gordon-Reed's book "Andrew Johnson" at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We want to hear from you. Historians, students of history: What do we learn from the life and legacy of Andrew Johnson?

800-989-8255. Email us: And again, you can join the conversation at our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Annette Gordon-Reed, I do have to ask you about a couple of, well, stories that have circulated for many years about Andrew Johnson. He was a slave owner, and many believed that his - one of his slaves was his mistress, and that she bore him children.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, that's - I don't know how many people believe that, but that is something that was talked about when he was running for office. And as you can imagine, in political campaigns, people throw lots of things around.

But people have written about this, and a woman named Dolly, who had two children after - he bought her when she was a teenager, and within a few years, she had two children who were listed as mulatto in the census. And she was listed as black.

So we really don't know whether this is true or not, but it is something that was talked about and given sort of - in deference to Dolly, I think I should say, that a person, a teenaged enslaved girl who Johnson bought, I thought it was worth to mention it in the story of Johnson's life.

CONAN: Another is the allegation, and this one somewhat stronger, in fact, that somehow, Andrew Johnson was connected to the plot that murdered Lincoln.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, yeah, I looked at that. I wasn't able to find any evidence to support that. But there are a lot of weird things that happened, and it sort of - you know, it caused a lot of people to talk.

I think my basic interpretation of that in the book is that, you know, when somebody that famous and that beloved dies, it's very hard for people to accept that just an ordinary person killed them. You know, you want to believe -people wanted to believe that there was some bigger thing going on, maybe a coup or something that - and Johnson was involved in it.

But I really don't think that that's the case. I think John Wilkes Booth and the person whom he conspired with to kill Johnson really meant to kill Johnson. The guy just instead went to get drunk.

And people thought, well, that's kind of convenient that everybody else who was supposed to be attacked actually got attacked, and in Lincoln's case died, but Johnson remained unscathed. But I don't think that there's - there's nothing to really support that strongly.

CONAN: Email from Laurie(ph) in Portland: Is it true that Andrew Johnson was intoxicated during Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural?

Ms. GORDON-REED: Yes, yes. That is true. And that's one of the parts of the book that I had the most fun writing, partly because Hans Trefousse, who was -actually, I should say, the - a principal biography of Johnson, the only other large, you know, sort of authoritative biography of Johnson that's current -describes this scene. And it's described in the papers of Andrew Johnson, as well. He was ill. He claims that he was ill. And in those days, people drank quite a bit in early America, for a long time. And alcohol was seen as a curative for many, many things, for many ills.

And so he drank large tumblers of whiskey before the ceremony, and apparently, he didn't do very well with it, and he just gave a riotously awful speech, and people were mortified by it.

And, of course, then Lincoln stands up and gives the second inaugural address. And so by comparison, again, this ridiculous speech versus this sublime speech, it sort of reinforced people's beliefs about Johnson as someone who did not deserve to be president - oh, excuse me, in high office, actually, at that point.

CONAN: Clarence is with us on the line from Davis in California.

CLARENCE (Caller): Oh, hello, Annette. How are you?

Ms. GORDON-REED: Just fine.

CLARENCE: Annette, do you think that Johnson's presidency really sort of constitutes a sort of formation of the hostility to black equality that developed after the collapse of Reconstruction - I mean, his vetoing of the freedom's Bureau bill and then his later on his hostility to the 14th Amendment?

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, yes, I think it - he embodied this because, referring to what a caller asked before, about was he just really following Lincoln's policy, the people in the South took this as a real sign that, you know, the president, when the president is the sort of titular leader of the country, the spiritual leader of the country, and when you see the president saying this is a white man's government and it's going to remain that way forever if I have anything to do with it, the people in the South breathed a sigh of relief and said - the white people in the South, I should say, breathed a sigh of relief and said: Oh, this is a man we could deal with, and we don't have to compromise.

You know, he - now, one person said he held out the hope of a white man's government. And therefore, we realized we could, you know, we could go forward and sort of put things back as near as they had been to slavery as possible. So...

CONAN: It's important to point out he did that not with winks and nods and hints. He came out and said it.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Oh, no, no. He was clear about this. He was clear about this. I mean, one of the things that I was - I wanted to drive home in the book is that it was very often people say, well, you shouldn't label someone a racist, or you shouldn't talk about people's racial attitudes in the past because everybody had those attitudes. Well, not quite. I mean...

CLARENCE: I know. I'd agree. I tend to think that there's a tendency to use context to obscure really sort of very bad behavior. In this case, this guy was - just hated black people, and there's no getting around that fact.

Ms. GORDON-REED: He was over the top.

CLARENCE: Yes. Absolutely.

Ms. GORDON-REED: I mean, even people who had their own racial prejudice thought: Hey, wait a minute. I'm willing to go along, but I'm not going that far.

CLARENCE: Yeah, I think, you know, the radical Republicans sniffed in him their worst enemy, you know, their worst sort of nightmare.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Which raises the question - and Clarence, thank you very much for the call - raises the question how someone, Annette Gordon-Reed, you describe as a neo-Confederate, ended up as Abraham Lincoln's vice president.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, here's the good part about Johnson. Johnson - and the good part about Johnson's stubbornness. His belief in the Union - and I really do think he believed in the United States as a Union - led him to be the only Southern senator to remain in Washington, to remain in, you know, the federal government after secession.

And it won him the plaudits and praise of people in the North, but it incurred the wrath of people in the South, of politicians in the South who saw him as a traitor.

So Lincoln wanted him on the ticket. It's not really clear how this was accomplished, and I talk a little bit about this in the book. Lincoln replaced Hannibal Hamlin with Johnson, brought Johnson in to replace Hamlin, and he thought that this would be a good signal.

Lincoln, as I said before, was trying to signal to the South that, you know, maybe we could come together again. And so have a Southerner, you know, a -albeit a Southerner who had remained loyal to the Union. But to have a Southerner as a part of government, he thought, was a good symbolic gesture, a war governor, symbolic gesture to the South that would make them think that, yes, well, perhaps we could work together.

So it was good politics. Lincoln thought it was good politics. It turned out not to have been so great in the long run, but Lincoln could not have known how - what would transpire.

CONAN: And it's fascinating to go back and remind ourselves that in the election of 1864, when Johnson was chosen as his running mate, Lincoln had been rejected by about half of the Republican Party, who thought that his policies were nowhere near radical enough, and so they nominated their own candidate.

There was, of course, George McClellan, the former Union general, who was running on the Peace Democrat ticket. So Abraham Lincoln was in trouble.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, he was in trouble, and there were actually some people who thought that Johnson might be a good standard-bearer. You know, Johnson talked so fervently about punishing traitors. I mean, he was - I mean, before Lincoln's assassination, I mean, Johnson had gotten the reputation as somebody to be afraid of, you know, in the South because he said we're going to punish traitors, treason must be punished, and he was really clear about this.

So there were some people who actually thought that Johnson would be a better standard-bearer, and he would deal with the South in a better way than Lincoln.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Patrick on the air, Patrick calling from East Lansing.

PATRICK (Caller): Hi. I'm looking forward to reading your book. I had a question about right after Lincoln's assassination, when President Johnson had to decide what to do about the civil rights of the people in the South, especially the large landowners and the most politically prominent and powerful Confederates, whether to give them their civil rights back and citizenship.

And he had appeared not to - he had said many things that suggested he would put conditions, and then he said that they just had to declare their loyalty to the Union and apply for a pardon.

And Garrett Epps tells the story how he required them to come personally to the White House, and he met with groups of them...


PATRICK: ...almost everyone. Could you tell that story? And why was no one in the room? And was he cutting deals and setting up his re-election with the Southern landowner base?

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, that's exactly right. He started out with this policy of making the most prominent, prominent Southerners come before him, pretty much -and I don't want to say grovel - but come before him and ask for pardons.

There's a story about Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson's grandson, who actually has to go up and do this. And then he changed his mind. My theory is I don't know that he was making - so much making deals with all of these people. Because in the end, he was not able to control them - the elites, the Southern elites - as much as he wanted to so much as he began to realize that he needed these people.

His primary concern, as I said before, was to get the South back into the way it was beforehand. And once he understood that Congress, even conservative members of the Republican Party - the radical Republicans, moderate and conservatives, those terms that are used - they wanted to have black political rights. So it was pretty clear where Congress was going to go.

And my theory is that once he realized that, he understood that he needed the men in the South who had been in control to be put back in control. In other words, his desire to punish traders paled, sort of, lessened when he realized that he actually needed these people to do what had to be done. If they were put back in place and put back into their old status and there was no transformation of the South, blacks would remain under the dominion of whites, and things would go back to the way they were before the war. So he abruptly changed.

At first, he was punishing traders and he was going to do all these kinds of things. He did make a few people come in. There were some allegations that there were - that people were trading for pardons and so forth, and someone in his administration was doing that and that there was corruption. But the more principal thing, I think, was that he wanted to - he did not want to punish these people too much or destroy them because he knew that they knew how to bring things back under control.

CONAN: I think Patrick also suggesting that there was, after the veto, the Freedman's Bureau Bill and the 14th Amendment problems, his opposition to that, he understood he would never get the Republican nomination for president, maybe the Democrats and the South would nominate him.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Yeah, but they never trusted him - seriously, to begin with. He - what he wanted to do was to build a new party altogether. He had in mind to take conservatives, to try to bring along the conservative Republicans, the Democrats, anybody - you know, irrespective of party label. He - his design was to create a new party and bring the most conservative element back into the government for the express purpose of keeping, as he said over and over, the South as a white man's government.

CONAN: We're talking with Annette Gordon-Reed about her new book in the American President series from Times Books, "Andrew Johnson." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And, of course, Andrew Johnson, the first American president to be impeached and then held trial, of course, in the United State Senate and he survives impeachment by one vote. You report the consensus of history, that it was a bad idea. Republicans were wrong to have impeached him. You, though, come to the conclusion, no, they just impeached him for the wrong thing.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, they impeached him for the wrong thing. They adopted the wrong theory of impeachment. And I talk a little bit about that, the broad view and the narrow view. The broad view suggesting that when - that there's - you don't have to have a commission of an actual crime to impeach a President, and the narrow view saying that it had to be a crime. He had to violate a specific law. And all I was saying is that once they made the decision to go with the narrow view, his acquittal was pretty much foregone. I mean, that there was, you know, that he was actually going to win given the political climate.

And also, he didn't have that much longer to go, you know, if you think about it. He just, you know, had another year on his term, and impeachment is a very, very - it's a major thing. Americans, for most of American history, have sort of reviled and sort of been reluctant to do that for the president, at least. We've only done it twice.

CONAN: And there was no 25th Amendment, so there was no new vice president.

Ms. GORDON-REED: No, no.

CONAN: The president who would've succeeded had Johnson been convicted in the Senate, people were pretty scared about that.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Oh, absolutely, (unintelligible). He was a person who is much more radical. He believed in crazy things like women's votes and - which, you know, made him like a Martian. So people were actually quite frightened, more frightened of what was to come. And so there were lots of political reasons that he wasn't thrown out of office.

But given the record that I describe, and you, sort of think of would people tolerate these kinds of things in a president, I think there were other reasons that - a stronger case could've been made for his removal from office. But it wasn't to be.

CONAN: This email from Alison(ph). Thanks so much for this topic. As an AP U.S. history student, I think it's important to examine the administration of Andrew Johnson and the factors that led to his rather negative reputation.

However, I'd be interested to hear your view on whether or not, assuming you're taking the widely held stance that Reconstruction was a failure, it was, in fact, Andrew Johnson's poor leadership or rather his views and policies that led to the ultimate demise of Reconstruction.

Ms. GORDON-REED: That's a very good question. I think it was a combination of both. I think the president - when in times of any kind of crisis, the country looks the American people typically look to the president, not the Congress, not the Supreme Court, for leadership. And if Johnson had not been so stubborn, if he had not had his personal views about allowed his personal views about blacks, his personal views about the South and putting the South back to where it had been before, to color his judgment, to sort of listen to other people about where the United States should be going, I think it would have I think it could have been different.

If he'd been willing to compromise - and he was unwilling to compromise - and that's a tough thing in a president. And it's a tough thing when a president is in the circumstances that he was in at that particular moment. It's such a critical juncture in American history. If he had I say in the book - if he had been president at some other time, you know, he could just have been some sort of 19th century presidential nonentity. It wouldn't have mattered. But it mattered a great deal at this particular moment.

CONAN: Yeah, he could have been Franklin Pierce.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GORDON-REED: Or Franklin Roosevelt.

CONAN: There is yes. There is one thing that finds I found very instructive. The one great campaign the positive thing that he did as a legislator in the United States Senate was fight for the Homestead Act, which would have given poor whites the opportunity to get federal land.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, yes, that's you know, he was for I mean, in terms of some of his beliefs, he was for empowering white people, giving them land. He was for the common man. It was Jacksonian democracry. This is what Jacksonian democracy was about. It was the rise of the common white man.

And he also favored education. Here is a man who did not learn to read until the end of his teens and his wife taught him how to write. And so, he thought that public education was very, very important. The only problem is that it was solely, racially based. His progressivism was racially based. And he didn't see why land was important to the freed slaves or why education was important. Although he did say that we should educate blacks up to a particular level. But then whites should educate themselves more so that they would always keep you know, stay ahead of blacks.

So there were good things about him and bad things about him. So and he was an extraordinary person, as anybody who makes it to the presidency would have to be.

CONAN: And we did get this email from Ellen in Fairbanks: It was during the presidency of Andrew Johnson that Alaska was purchased from Russia. All the credit goes to Secretary of State Seward. I think A.J. may have had something to do with the purchase. We have a statue of Eisenhower for signing statehood, a city, a peninsula, ice field for Seward, nothing for Johnson. Too bad.

This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.