A reply guy from 1934 had a hot take about Andrew Johnson
I asked for your spicy opinions about the North Carolina-born, first-to-be-impeached, semi-officially worst president ever. You tried, but sorry, the hottest take was written 87 years ago.
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I was doing some historical research a while back, and ran across a man named Stanley Wohl. If he were alive today, he’d probably be a Twitter reply guy, or one of those people who comments too much on Facebook. But in 1934, he had to settle for sending letters to magazine editors.
Wohl was 39, split his time between Greensboro and Raleigh, and worked for the state utilities commission. In his spare time, he wrote in to news magazines, reacting to stories he’d seen in their previous issues. “I don’t think the campaign to reduce the number of counties in North Carolina will get very far,” he wrote in one letter to an editor in May (I agree, 100 is a nice round number.) In June, he sympathized with people who did not want to witness executions by electric chair. (I don’t want to witness them either!) “I certainly should like to see some other teams meet in the World Series next year,” he wrote in October, complaining that New York, St. Louis, and Chicago always seemed to get in. Boring! In November: “The continued success of Duke University football teams is due, in my opinion, to the low charging line, particularly on defense.” That’s right: Duke used to be good at football!
Wohl seemed to have an opinion on everything, so someone let him write a whole article on a topic that he was passionate about. And thus, in August of 1934, Wohl praised a guy who does not get a lot of praising: Andrew Johnson. The headline: “The Most Underrated of All Our Presidents.”
The article, aside from the headline, is fairly unconvincing and unremarkable (and unable to be directly linked to, if you’re wondering). But here’s the summary: Nobody talks about Andrew Johnson anymore! Did you know he was born in Raleigh in 1808? Did you know that, as a Congressman, he sponsored the Homestead Act, which gave free land to settlers looking to move west? But mostly, did you know he was once very, very poor? “In all political history,” Wohl wrote, “no man had fought his way from so low a start in life to so high an office.”
tl;dr: You were wrong about Andrew Johnson, said Stanley Wohl, the political Skip Bayless of 1930s North Carolina.
This may not square with the Andrew Johnson you may have been hearing about lately, what with the impeachment and all that. If you’re not up on his story, let me summarize. He was born in North Carolina! He was also a terrible president. Siena College’s Research Institute does a poll of presidential experts every four years, and in the latest one, back in 2018, Johnson came in dead last. Again. Sorry James Buchanan, better luck next year.
Johnson was born in Raleigh in 1808. After his childhood, he bolted for Tennessee, where he kept getting elected to a slew of progressively higher offices. In 1864, he became Abraham Lincoln’s running mate, and won. “The inauguration went off very well,” a senator wrote after watching Johnson’s swearing-in, “except that the Vice President Elect was too drunk to perform his duties & disgraced himself & the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech.”
Six weeks later, Lincoln was murdered and Johnson became our 17th president. He’s most famous for being the first president to be impeached, but was acquitted in his senate trial by one vote. He was extremely divisive, and did not stand for re-election in 1868. But he regrouped after returning home to Tennessee, and later became the only former U.S. President to win a senate seat. His triumphant return to Washington didn’t last long. In July 1875, just four months after taking office, Johnson had a stroke and died at age 66.
So here’s the thing about people who end up being bad: If you go online and say “well, actually, you are wrong about that person,” people yell at you, and then people yell at the people yelling at you. Then an algorithm rewards you for creating such sweet, culturally-damaging engagement. And so, in that vein, I asked you all if you had any hot takes about our 17th president. While nobody disputed the fact that he was just the worst, several of you did have opinions:
The argument here is that Johnson was not just a tailor, but a DAMN SPIFFY ONE. In Johnson’s own words: "When I was a tailor I always made a close fit, and was always punctual to my customers, and did good work." Later, someone wrote a song about him, called “The Tailor of the Potomac,” where Johnson metaphorically made a coat for Uncle Sam early on, but people had grown weary of him by the end.
Johnson’s father died when he was three, and his mother ended up committing her son to be an apprentice to a tailor in Raleigh at age 14. While he worked, employees and customers would come in to talk to and read to Johnson, who was illiterate. This, apparently, led to a lifelong love of learning, even though he never had a formal education.
This did not lead him to love his apprenticeship. He was legally bound to that tailor, James Selby, until age 21. But Johnson ended up leaving town when police started looking for him after he threw some rocks at a tradesman’s home. Guess you can’t TP a dude’s house before modern toilet paper is invented.
Johnson didn’t much care for the apprenticeship either, but he pretty much had to do it. In fact, Selby took out an ad in the newspaper offering a reward for his return. Rather than go back, though, Johnson moved to Carthage, North Carolina, and later Laurens, South Carolina. A few years later, Johnson did come back to Raleigh. But by then, Selby had sold his shop, and had no need for an apprentice, but since Johnson couldn’t settle with Selby over having left his apprenticeship early, nobody in town would hire him. Hence, he left Raleigh for good and moved with his family to Greeneville, Tennessee. There, he opened his own tailor’s shop in 1826 at age 18, and called that town home for the rest of his life.
And that, kids, is how this state ridded itself of Andrew Johnson.
Which begs the question:
Look, folks, it’s not me! I’m not the one who’s officially trying to claim him for North Carolina! Johnson is right there on a government-commissioned statue of all of this state’s presidents. There he sits in the center of Raleigh, in the shadow of the old capitol, next to James K. Polk (Also left for Tennessee!) and Andrew Jackson (potentially a South Carolinian, eventually left for … Tennessee).
There is a tendency for cities and states to claim people who were born there, regardless of how long they lived in them. I was born in Warren, Ohio, which means that if I get to crow about being born in the same hospital as Dave Grohl (cool!), I then have to sheepishly admit that Roger Ailes was also born there.
Also, if you subscribe to the theory that Tennessee is merely part of Long Carolina, then there’s really nothing you can do.
I, surprisingly, have not watched one moment of The Bachelor this season, so I had to look this reference up. Apparently The Bachelor said he’s country because he’s from Raleigh, and people from North Carolina are not havin’ it:
Johnson himself did get a good amount of screen time, albeit long after his death. There was a dramatic Hollywood movie made in 1942 about his life:
I did not know about this film before now, and I’ll be honest, I was not prepared for Sexy Andrew Johnson today.
You know else who was in that movie, though? Lionel Barrymore! Mr. Potter himself! That should have been a warning that Johnson’s was not a wonderful life, amirite guys?
Hoo-ee, there’s a lot to unpack here. Some historians have tried to make the case that nobody could have followed Abraham Lincoln and been successful, because trying to bring the country back together after the Civil War was a thankless, nearly impossible job. But that view has taken a back seat over the last few decades to the fact that Johnson was a racist. In 2018, the National Constitution Center summed his views up in a blog post which asked whether Andrew Johnson was the worst president in American history:
In Johnson’s case, Lincoln was a tough act to follow, and his failed role in obstructing much of the GOP’s Reconstruction plans was a tough pill for historians to swallow.
After becoming president, Johnson fought with his own Cabinet and party members over the scope of readmitting secessionist states and the voting rights of blacks.
Johnson favored a very lenient version of Reconstruction and state control over who could vote, according to their race. He also openly opposed the 14th Amendment.
Although Johnson had supported an end to slavery in the 1860s, he was a white supremacist. “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men,” he wrote in 1866.
Johnson, early on, was seen as Northern hero, since he remained in the U.S. Senate even after his state, Tennessee, seceded from the Union. So, when Lincoln made him vice president, it seemed like a good choice. It, um, was not.
It wasn’t like he was a guy with an even-keeled temperament either. During one campaign early on in Tennessee, Johnson was told to stay out of a particular town, lest he be gunned down. But Johnson went anyway, and when he rose to speak at a rally there, he strode to a platform, pulled a pistol out of his pocket, and placed it on the podium. Then he spoke: “If any man has come here tonight for the purpose of assassinating me, I do not say — let him speak. I say, instead, let him SHOOT!” The crowd was silent for 30 seconds before erupting into cheers. Nobody shot him.
(Also, by the way, during this process I have learned that if you tweet about Andrew Johnson, this Bot-or-Maybe-Not might find you.)
There is, though, one very good take that came from me asking for Andrew Johnson takes:
By the way, I was curious about whatever happened to Stanley Wohl, the hot take thrower from earlier. After Wohl’s story was published, his letter writing burst slowed down considerably. In 1937, his wife Helen decided to run for the General Assembly, then reconsidered, dropped out, set her sights higher, and ran for state treasurer, making her the first woman in North Carolina to run for a major statewide office. Wohl himself ended up becoming a political writer for the Charlotte Observer, and eventually moved to Maryland, where he and Helen bought and renovated the historic Brice House in Annapolis. Their son, Martin, became a famous economist. Helen and Stanley Wohl both died in the 1970s.
I wondered why Wohl was ready to defend Johnson. It turns out that, earlier in his life, he was gathering material to write a book about him. Apparently, it was never published. Sometimes, maybe, the best shots are the ones you don’t take.
Enjoyed reading this. I learned something I did not know.
As someone born and raised in Greeneville, TN (and now for full clarity living in Greenville, SC) I can attest that growing up I had no knowledge that Johnson was considered the worst President. I do remember this piece: https://www.cc.com/video/j4e10c/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-impeach-of-a-town