The coming year will be the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, and the celebrations – rightly – will be myriad. But as the list of Lincoln events grows, I keep thinking of a far less celebrated 200th anniversary that took place in 2008. I would never have known about it, let alone cared, if I hadn’t chanced through Greeneville, Tennessee, last spring.
Greeneville, a small city not far from the Great Smokies, was home to the man who became president when Lincoln was assassinated, his vice president, Andrew Johnson. “But he was impeached!’’ I said to the national park ranger at the Johnson home and museum in downtown Greeneville. “How on earth do you honor that?’’
The ranger smiled – he’d heard this question before – and explained that the focus wasn’t on Johnson’s failings but on his challenges: “He stepped into the worst job in the world,’’ the ranger said, and I realized that ever since grade school, I had simply accepted history’s label of the man and never looked beyond it.
The Johnsons themselves knew it was going to be rough. The museum quotes his daughter, Martha, on the family’s move to the White House: “We are plain people from the mountains of Tennessee,’’ she said, “called here for a short time by a national calamity, and trust too much will not be expected of us.’’
In the course of the next hour, as I was guided through Johnson’s tidy red-brick house on a rainy afternoon when I was the only visitor, I heard another Lincoln-esque up-by-the-bootstraps success story: Johnson had been a tailor by trade. Self-educated (wife-educated, really, since she read to him while he stitched). A passionate politician. A U.S. Senator. A strict Constitutionalist. A Southerner who opposed the Confederacy.
But the impeachment? There was never a hint of personal misconduct, the ranger said. It was a bitter dispute with Congress over a constitutional issue. Johnson said the Constitution gave him the right to appoint his own secretary of war; the Congress insisted he had to stick with Lincoln’s. Johnson actually won, acquitted by just one vote in the Senate. Vindication came 50 years after his death, when a Supreme Court ruling in another case supported his view..
After his presidency, Johnson went back to Tennessee and successfully fought to get reelected to the U.S. Senate – the only former president who ever did. When he died in 1875, he was buried, in Greeneville, as he had asked to be: “Wrapped in an American flag,’’ the ranger said, “with his head resting on a copy of the Constitution.’’
When the weather cleared, I drove up to the top of Monument Hill, where an American eagle on a tall column marks Johnson’s grave. I looked out at the sweet, wooded countryside rolling away to in the distance and thought about the difference between human history and human life.
There was so much more to Andrew Johnson than I’d learned in my American history classes. It made me think how much more there is to any of our lives. History hasn’t got time for anybody’s details – too much ground to cover, too much to sum up. It has to be satisfied with labels. Life – for all its seeming brevity – suddenly seemed far more generous.