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

Andrew Johnson, the so-called accidental president, is often cited among America's worst leaders.

Annette Gordon-Reed is inclined to agree. In her book Andrew Johnson, she calls attention to the opportunities he missed that might have helped resolve racial inequities that still plague the U.S. today.

Though Johnson and his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, came from similar backgrounds, "there was a great difference in native talent," Gordon-Reed tells NPR's Neal Conan. While Johnson was clearly intelligent, Lincoln "was a genius, one of those extraordinary people who only come along once in a millennia."

So, though Gordon-Reed thinks the comparison between the two presidents is a little unfair to Johnson, she also doesn't pull any punches in her assessment of Johnson's faults.

"He had a vision of America as a white man's government," Reed says. "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." That meant, to Johnson, that once the hostilities ended, the country would go back to how it was before the Civil War, only without slavery.

But that didn't mean Johnson saw great improvements for the lives of black people. He thought they'd be "not citizens but serfs, totally under the dominion of white people, except white people would not have the capacity to turn them into legal chattel."

Gordon-Reed also investigated a number of stories that have circulated about Johnson since the time he took office. For example, the allegation has been made that one of his slaves was his mistress, and that she bore him children.

"As you can imagine, in political campaigns people throw lots of things around," says Gordon-Reed. The woman in question was Dolly, whom Johnson bought when she was a teenager. "Within a few years, she had two children that were listed as mulatto in the census, and she was listed as black," she explains.

Gordon-Reed wasn't able to ascertain with certainty whether the story is true, but "in deference to Dolly, a teenage enslaved girl," she thought it was worth mentioning in the story of Johnson's life.

She also looked into the allegation that Johnson was somehow connected to the plot that murdered Lincoln. She didn't find evidence to support that rumor but has an explanation for its existence. "When somebody that famous and that beloved dies, it's very hard for people to accept that just an ordinary person killed them."

People wanted to believe there was a bigger explanation -- such as a coup involving Johnson -- for why Johnson escaped injury, but Lincoln was killed and Secretary of State William Seward was injured.  Gordon-Reed believes John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirator, George Atzerodt, meant to kill Johnson, too, but that Atzerodt just got drunk instead.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.