American history will probably never produce a thornier personality than Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln's misunderstood presidential successor and the overseer of a misshapen Reconstruction. Johnson's legacy is tainted even those who know little about him presume he was possibly our worst chief executive ever. Howard Means' The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation is not designed to right Johnson's reputation, but this surprisingly important, sometimes powerfully crafted volume puts his strengths and flaws into context.
Means offers solid biographical background and explains why Johnson was impeached and nearly thrown out of office in 1868, the final year of a term made problematic from its outset by Lincoln's assassination. Yet the bulk of this book focuses on the six weeks following Lincoln's death, when Johnson, an anti-secession Democrat and former governor and U.S. senator from Tennessee, was thrust into unlikely power on the heels of his scandalous public inebriation on Inauguration Day, March 4, 1865. Fortunately, Johnson, as Lincoln knew for certain, was not a drunk. From beginnings even humbler than Honest Abe's, Johnson a tailor originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, and later hardscrabble East Tennessee proved antagonistic toward aristocrats and particularly Southern plantation owners, believed in spending public monies in service to the common man, and, in fact, because of his own determined rise from poverty, was blessedly incorruptible.
Alas, he was also lacking vision, stubborn as a mule, and a somewhat reluctant pragmatist when it came to the slave question, a position that earned him the enmity of powerful Republican Radicals who sought a more punitive approach to the makers of the Southern rebellion. Once he took office, Johnson turned out to be flexible enough to adhere to Lincoln's own with malice toward none credo. But without Lincoln's people skills and great imaginative wisdom, Johnson ran afoul of those both to his left and right. Means' contribution to the Johnson record is a fascinating portrait of a complex man chosen by fate to tackle possibly the toughest assignment in U.S. political history save maybe for Lincoln's own.