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Andy’s “Swing Around The Circle”… And Its Possible Meaning For Today

September 27, 2018 Frontpage No Comments


I’ve mentioned in these pages before that I’m a history buff; not an expert, not a historian, just a plain old buff. I love it, I read it, and I look for lessons from it. Some lessons are cautionary tales, some are not. Sometimes we only find out which after the fact.
By my calendar there are only five weeks left before the 2018 midterm elections. The economy is great, the nation is prosperous, and we seem to be on the road to victory in numerous international challenges that seemed out of reach only a few short years ago. So why do the polls indicate that the Republicans may lose the House and perhaps the Senate as well? Are we really looking at the possibility of a blue wave?
I wondered why and began looking at history for some semblance of an answer. It offered this.
In the White House during the 1866 midterm elections was one Andrew Johnson. He had grown up in North Carolina and later moved to the Tennessee frontier where he plied his trade as a tailor and entered local politics. An entertaining and persuasive stump speaker, he rose from alderman, to mayor, to governor, and finally to the Senate.
It was in the Senate that Johnson became a national hero. When Tennessee was considering secession, Sen. Johnson, at great personal risk, campaigned across the state trying to stop its secession movement. When the battle was lost, Johnson refused to secede with his state and became the only Southern senator to remain in the Senate, loyal to the union.
Early in the presidential election year of 1864, it was believed that Abraham Lincoln’s reelection chances were dim. In an attempt to broaden its base, the Republican Party restyled itself as the National Union Party in an attempt to capture the votes of union Democrats and border state residents. And, to achieve that end, it chose a Southern Democrat, Andrew Johnson, as its vice-presidential nominee.
Lincoln’s reelection was assured in September when General William Tecumseh Sherman dealt the South a near fatal blow, capturing Atlanta. A little over a month after Lincoln’s inauguration as vice president, a bullet from John Wilkes Booth’s Deringer raised Johnson to the presidency.
The daunting question of the day was Reconstruction — how were the states of the Confederacy, and its leaders, to be treated and what was to be done with the newly freed slaves? Following a lenient program of Reconstruction, Johnson stated that he wanted to “bind up the nation’s wounds” while the Republicans, who controlled Congress, were more interested in helping the former slaves and punishing the Confederate states.
Thus the battle lines over Reconstruction were drawn, and as the fight wore on more and more moderate Republicans joined the radicals in opposing Johnson.
The break between Johnson and Congress intensified when he vetoed the bill that continued the Freedmen’s Bureau. Three cabinet members resigned and Congress overrode the veto, the first such override in over twenty years.
The upcoming midterm elections then were seen as a referendum on the Johnson presidency; and the president, who was never known to back down from a fight, accepted the challenge. Having earned a reputation as a good stump speaker, he embarked on a speaking tour of the central Atlantic and Midwestern states, dubbed the “Swing Around the Circle.” It was the president’s attempt to move moderate Republicans away from the party’s radicals
It was a disaster.
The trip began well enough with the president greeting the crowds in a dignified manner, and speaking from a prepared text. In the early part of the Swing, he was enthusiastically received, and the newspapers gave him positive coverage. All the while his opponents criticized the tour as beneath the dignity of the presidency; this was, after all, a time when presidents and presidential candidates did not personally campaign, but left the speechifying to surrogates.
In his remarks he often repeated the same autobiographical litany of how he rose from humble origins to the presidency; a litany that was repeated over and over in the newspapers, so upcoming audiences knew what to expect. As the tour moved west it was met by political opponents who began to heckle from the audience by mocking the litany of humble origins.
Then, against his advisers’ suggestions, he started departing from his prepared texts and began using an outline from which he could adlib. And adlib he did. In response to cries, jeers, and heckling from the crowds, he began to reply in what must charitably be described as an undignified manner. He compared — often by name — his political opponents with the forces of Hell; he criticized Congress, often suggesting it was illegal, and, to some, he often appeared intoxicated (as he had at his inauguration as vice president, but that’s another story).
He told crowds that he fought traitors in the South and now he would fight traitors in the North, suggesting that many were in Congress. During one speech a heckler shouted out, “Hang [Confederate President] Jeff Davis?” and the president replied, “Why don’t you hang [Congressman] Thad Stevens and [abolitionist] Wendell Phillips?”
He often compared himself to Christ and his opponents to Judas. When one adviser told him to maintain his dignity, he reportedly replied, “I don’t care about my dignity.” Overheard by a reporter, or perhaps made-up, the remark was more grist for the newspaper mill.
His over-the-top language and appearance only increased the heckling, turned off the crowds, and caused prominent local officials, including the governor of Ohio, to refuse to meet with him when he arrived in their towns.
At one point he was even baited into defending the police who violently broke up a peaceful demonstration of freed blacks in New Orleans who were protesting the state’s Black Codes, which denied them the right to vote, by blaming the riot on Radical Republicans.
General Grant, who, reluctantly, started the Swing with Johnson, left in mid-tour. By the time Johnson got back to Washington one wag estimated that the Swing cost Johnson a million Northern votes.
The midterms went overwhelming against Johnson with the Radical Republicans, now supported by the moderates, winning over 60 percent of the House and Senate seats, practically sealing Johnson’s impeachment fate two years later.
In fact, one of the eleven articles of impeachment included one (Article X) that he “did attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt, and reproach the Congress of the United States . . . [and] deliver with a loud voice certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues, and therein utter loud threats and bitter menaces, as well against Congress.”
Johnson, of course, was acquitted by one vote in the Senate; did not receive his Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and ultimately lost two attempts at a political comeback. However, in January of 1875 the Tennessee legislature, by a margin of one vote, elected the former president senator. Thus, he became the only former president to serve in the Senate.
In July of that year, after serving in only one brief session of Congress, he died after suffering a stroke. He was 66.
Interestingly, Johnson’s biographers suggest that in person or at meetings he was very dignified, and more often than not, warm. It was his off-the-cuff public speaking that oft got him into trouble, and on occasion, caused a violent reaction.
Interesting history, but is it a cautionary tale or not?
You decide.
(You can contact Mike at

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