A Conversation with Emma Murphy (part three)

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Murphy Ranger Hat(part three of five)

We continue our conversation this week with Emma Murphy, a park guide at Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. Emma started her job at the park back in February, so she’s still learning her new park and her new subject matter.

Chris Mackowski: Now that you’ve found yourself at Andrew Johnson, what do you like about the park? What have you discovered about it that has excited you so far?

Emma Murphy: There’s so much in the Johnson story that influences Andrew Johnson himself in his push against Congress during his presidency—there’s a lot of that in his growing up in Tennessee but also because of the political ramifications of being a Democrat from a Unionist territory. 

Something that is difficult to reconcile—for us and the public—is his view on race and his view on how the Constitution should read. I hate to say this because it always burns off into the reasons for the Civil War, but Johnson is super-focused on States Rights: the right for a state to run their own Constitution to then reapply to the Union. He wanted it not to be Reconstruction, but reconciliation only, and not much of a rebuilding and reconstructing. He wasn’t concerned with destroying the lifestyle from before the Civil War started, in the Antebellum Period. He wasn’t focused on trying to pull it apart and make a social, political, and economic change to the American South.

That’s hard for us to reconcile with because we always hear about Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, but not of Johnson, who is like the polar opposite of Lincoln, not just in personality, but in political views. So that’s really exciting to try and bring forward a lot of the story.

Obviously, a lot of the story we tell is about his impeachment because he’s the first one to get anywhere close—only acquitted by one vote. It’s a very dramatic story. But there’s a lot that can get left out from right after the Civil War is over to his impeachment trial.

Something I didn’t realize until I was researching his presidency was that he was trying to charge the Confederate hierarchy—not only the placeholders, but also the Confederate leaders—with treason, and when you bring out the word “treason,” it makes you cringe, but Johnson is ranting and raving against the South and ex-Confederates. He wanted to bring up charges on Robert E. Lee, and the only person who stopped him was Ulysses S. Grant—and that blew my mind.

The whole conversation on reconciliation, not reconstruction—and what the ramifications of it were even all the way up to today—kind of centers around how the Civil War ends and the definition of victory and defeat for both sides. Johnson is really trying to take a stand against the Confederacy, but not necessarily the social hierarchy. I am super pumped to bring that into the tours of his homestead, of his house, because the house itself is kind of a representation of not only the country, but of himself and his family. It is damaged and destroyed during the Civil War, by both sides, and the Johnsons have to go back and rebuild the house after his presidency. A lot of that has to do with what he wants to present to the public, but he also wants to provide for his family, for the town of Greeneville. In a way, what he’s trying to present to the country is a way to go back to normal, but when Congress isn’t controlled by Johnson’s party, what is normal for Johnson is not normal for the rest of Congress or the rest of the country. East Tennessee is kind of a pocket of Union territory, Union sentiment. It is difficult to spread that idea over the entire South. It’s almost impossible.

CM: You mentioned he was an advocate of States Rights, but it’s sort of a different vision of States Rights than the view the Confederate states had set up as their reason for seceding.

EM: It’s the right of the states to change up their constitutions, with only three things that needed to be added to be admitted back into the Union. First, basically, ratifying the 13th Amendment. Then taking an oath of allegiance. Then a proclamation that said that anyone who could have possibly been an ex-Confederate could not have $20,000 worth of property—so he’s taking the war out on the plantation and planter class. If you have certain amount of money, you’re not allowed to vote and you won’t be able to have representation in Congress. But if you take this oath of allegiance and write into your state constitution that you disregard and basically erase any sort of secession sentiment—as long as you met those requirements, you would be allowed back into the Union and have a representative in Congress.

CM: That was very similar to Lincoln’s “Let ‘Em Up Easy” philosophy, wasn’t it?

EM: It’s based off of Lincoln’s initial push to have the freemen have some rights, but Lincoln doesn’t get far enough to where he can define that, so the Radical Republicans are pushing really hard to try and get the Freemen’s Bureau Act and enfranchisement for these African-Americans who are now no longer in bondage, but also have no representation in Congress. What the Radical Republicans are afraid of is that the planter class, these white citizens, are going to be reinstated in their powerful places in their governments and be able to reintroduce laws to disenfranchise African-Americans—basically set up Black Codes, which they did. And the Republicans don’t want that, so they fight Johnson to keep the states from rejoining the Union if they only ratify the 13th Amendment. Republicans also want the states to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments and take in the Civil Rights Act and the Freeman’s Bureau.

So Johnson and Congress keeping have vetoes back and forth, back and forth. Because Johnson is vetoing this, and it’s not just because of his view on race—he flat out admits that he doesn’t believe in the equality of the races—but it’s more on the principle that he doesn’t want the states to be controlled and be told what to do from a big government. He is against that.

So, to Johnson, the Freeman’s Bureau and demands about who has the right to vote is unconstitutional because it should be the state’s right to designate who has the right to vote and who doesn’t. He’s basically stepping back and saying, “In South Carolina, if they decide to let these freemen vote, then have it, but if the state decides not to, the state doesn’t have to.” But Congress does not want that.

The Southern states want to basically reinstate the old social hierarchy, and that, unfortunately, ends up happening because—I guess this is kind of personal opinion—there’s so much time between when Johnson starts presidential reconstruction until Congress starts Congressional reconstruction. When Johnson is in, while Congress is out of session, he’s throwing out all these proclamations, amnesty policies, to say to Congress, “You didn’t have to do anything, I did it. Ta-da.”

Johnson described himself as Moses leading the way for African-Americans, but in reality, he’s not giving them any right to vote or right to citizenship at this point. He wants it to remain at state level. But that takes so long and a lot of it floods up against the policies that Congress is trying to pass, which is why there are so many vetoes. That’s why Congress ultimately brings in and ratifies the Tenure of Office Act, because they’re sick and tired of Johnson not cooperating, so if he isn’t cooperating, let’s just take him out of office and we can get our way.

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The Tenure of Office Act sets up the showdown that leads to Johnson’s impeachment. In tomorrow’s segment, Emma will explain more about that—which is happening 150 years ago right now.