Andrew Johnson

The effort to impeach him failed. More on that in a moment.

Andrew Johnson was a Democratic senator from Tennessee when the Southern states moved to secede in 1861. He delivered a fiery pro-Union speech on the floor of the Senate, speaking over the course of two days. His words were widely published in newspapers, and he became quite popular among the Unionists in the North. In the South he was villianized. Tennessee seceded with the other Southern states, but there were strong pockets of pro-Union resistance there, especially in the eastern part of the state. When the Union achieved battlefield victories in Tennessee, Lincoln appointed Andrew Johnson military governor.

Fred Michmershuizen

By 1864, the Civil War was entering its fourth year. The death toll was continuing to rise and there was no end in sight. Many were growing tired of the conflict, and it was looking like Lincoln was going to be defeated for re-election by George B. McClellan, the general he had fired for delaying too much. It was under these circumstances that Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s vice president during his first term, a fellow Republican from Maine, was dumped from the ticket and replaced by Andrew Johnson. The pro-Union southern Democrat. They ran on the “National Union Party.” Later that year, after General Ulysses S. Grant won important victories in Virginia and General William Tecumseh Sherman took Atlanta, the tide turned once and for all in the Union’s favor and Lincoln was easily re-elected, with Andrew Johnson as his new vice president.

In his second inaugural in March 1865, Lincoln was magnanimous, offering some of the most eloquent words ever spoken by an American. But moments earlier, the incoming vice president appeared to be drunk, and he gave an incoherent, rambling speech in which he embarrassed himself and mortified everyone present. To everyone’s shock and horror, Lincoln was assassinated a month later, and Andrew Johnson became the 17th president of the United States. Unfortunately for the 3 million newly freed people of color, Andrew Johnson was a racist. Even by 19th Century standards, he was a racist.

Lee had just surrendered to Grant, meaning it was time to figure out how to put the country back together again. Congress was ready to work with the new president, but Andrew Johnson wanted to do it his own way. He was stubborn and did not want to listen or collaborate. Earlier, Andrew Johnson had led everyone to believe that he was going to be harsh on the secessionists and punish them. But he ended up issuing broad amnesty and offering thousands of pardons. Meanwhile he offered nothing, literally nothing, for the formerly enslaved, who had literally nothing and were desperately in need of some assistance, an education, and most importantly some land to farm. Congress passed a Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and a Civil Rights Bill, which Andrew Johnson vetoed. His vetoes were then overridden by Congress. This became a pattern. Congress kept passing laws, Andrew Johnson kept vetoing, and Congress kept overriding.

It got really nasty between Congress and the president. So nasty that Andrew Johnson became the first American president to face an impeachment trial in the Senate. Congress had passed a law called the Tenure of Office Act, requiring the president to get Senate approval before firing any cabinet secretaries. Andrew Johnson challenged this law by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, which set up a huge battle of wills and all sorts of drama. There were 11 articles of impeachment, nine of which had to do with the Tenure of Office Act.

In the end Andrew Johnson survived by a single vote. But it was 1868 already, and his presidency was almost over anyway.

Here are a few more facts about Andrew Johnson:

  • Born in a log cabin!
  • He came from poverty. He looked at the Civil War as a class struggle between rich industrialists in the north aligned with plantation owners in the South, versus the common working (white) man.
  • He married Eliza McCardle, and they had several children. Eliza was frequently sick and almost never appeared at White House events as “first lady.” One of Johnson’s daughters served as hostess.
  • They were married by Mordecai Lincoln, a cousin of Abraham Lincoln!
  • He was a tailor. He was sometimes referred to as a “mudsill,” a derogatory term used against him because he once had a shop with a dirt floor.
  • He entered politics as an alderman and then mayor of Greenville, Tennessee. He subsequently was elected to the Tennessee state legislature, then to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served four terms. When he was redistricted out of office, he ran for governor of Tennessee and won. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1857. In those days Senators were chosen by state legislatures, not by direct popular vote. When Tennessee seceded in 1861, Andrew Johnson remained in the Senate.
  • After his presidency he ran for the United States Senate from Tennessee and lost. Then he ran for the House and lost. Then he ran again for the Senate and this time he won. Six months later he died.
  • One more note: During the Andrew Johnson presidency, Secretary of State William H. Seward (who had served in the office under Lincoln and stayed on) purchased Alaska from Russia. So in addition to botching Reconstruction we can also thank Andrew Johnson for Sarah Palin.

This biography, “Andrew Johnson,” by Annette Gordon-Reed, part of the American Presidents Series, was clear and concise but, for me, just a bit too short. The books in the American Presidents Series are generally quite good, but they are limited to 200 pages or less. For such a consequential president I subsequently decided to add another volume to my reading list. But that will be a book report for another day.

The Boys in the Band

I thought this was a really good production. Better than I was expecting, and definitely better than the reviews led me to believe it was going to be. This is an old play, set in 1968. Judy Garland was still alive when this play takes place. This is pre-Stonewall, when you could get arrested for dancing with another man in a bar or wearing drag in public. Texting had not yet been invented! People used the telephone to call each other. And rotary dial phones, at that!

Boys in the Band review

These guys gave excellent acting performances. I thought Jim Parsons (the guy who plays Sheldon in Big Bang Theory), was really good. He injured his foot and had been performing in a walking cast, but he did not have the cast on yesterday, that I could tell. The only one I was disappointed in was Zachary Quinto, as Harold, which was really surprising to me because he played a bitchy gay guy so well in American Horror Story. I just didn’t buy into his portrayal, although he delivers some of the play’s funniest and best-timed lines, to great effect. I must mention that it was especially fun for me to see Matt Bomer (Donald) strip down and take a shower. And the Cowboy was hot in his tight jeans and boots. I thought the sexiest one was Andrew Rannells, as Larry.

I’ve seen Boys on stage here in NYC twice before, plus the movie and even a “making of” documentary a few years back. It’s not the most uplifting work. In fact, when I had first seen the movie way back in the days before RuPaul and the TV show “Glee,” I found the characters rather sad and pathetic, behaving like self-loathing drama queens. They lash out at each other with bitchy put-downs, often referring to each other as “she.” Somehow, in this reworking, the creative team behind this production got it to work better. I didn’t walk out feeling so despondent. In fact, I was quite moved. This version has been shortened and revamped — turned into a one-act play. The cast this time is made up entirely of out gay actors. They made me laugh, and they made me cry. Judging by the reactions of the other audience members, I got the feeling that many were seeing “Boys in the Band” for the first time.

This is playing at the Booth Theater (named after the actor Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes!) After the performance Frank and I stood with a crowd of about 80 other fans in Shubert Alley to see the performers come out the stage door. We saw Tuc Watkins, Brian Hutchinson, Robin de Jesus and Matt Bomer emerge, and all were very courteous and gracious with the theatergoers, signing autographs and doing selfies with many. It amazes me how any actor can do this after every performance. Before the show, Frank saw Charlie Carver (who plays the cowboy) go in.

I don’t say this often about many Broadway shows, but if you get a chance to see this, definitely go!

Generations of Captivity by Ira Berlin

Of all the atrocities of slavery — from being forced to work from sunup to sundown, six days a week, with no pay, for life; to being raped, beaten, branded, mutilated and tortured; and to being subjected to all manner of racial degradation and humiliation — none was more horrible than the forced separation from family members. This happened all the time. Young children were literally torn from the arms of their mothers, often never to be seen or heard from again. (Before he even learned to walk and talk, Frederick Bailey, who would later change his surname to Douglass, was taken from his mother to be raised by his grandmother. Later he was separated from his grandmother as well.) Every enslaved person lived in constant fear that a brother or sister, a parent or child, even a wife or husband, could be sold, at a moment’s notice, for any reason — or for no reason at all. Being sold south was the worst.

Ira Berlin book review

For many hundreds of years — from the moment settlers first came to the New World until the end of the Civil War — forced unpaid labor and human exploitation existed in this country. In “Generations of Captivity,” a comprehensive history of slavery in North America, author Ira Berlin describes the difference between free societies, societies with slaves, and slave societies — all of which existed at one time or another, and often simultaneously.

As the author explains, slavery often transformed itself, depending on what crops were being grown and where. In Virginia there was tobacco, and in South Carolina rice. Sugar was grown in the Caribbean, where conditions for the enslaved were most brutal and almost always resulted in death within a few short years. When planters in the tobacco-growing states realized their cash crop was too difficult to grow and that it depleted the soil too much, they gave up on it and switched over to grain crops, which were less labor intensive. But further south, a whole new generation of landowners started growing cotton, so vast numbers of enslaved people were forcibly migrated against their will to Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. This great migration, similar to the Trail of Tears that the American Indians were subjected to, resulted in even more forced separation of family members.

Berlin writes that after the Civil War ended, most of the newly freed people immediately began searching for lost family members. Travel, word of mouth, even placing ads in newspapers were some of the methods used to help locate missing relatives. Sometimes those efforts were successful, many other times not. (In another book I read that Harriet Tubman, who had been separated from a sister before she escaped to the north and became a hero of the Underground Railroad, was never able to locate the sister even after slavery had been abolished.)

This book, “Generations of Captivity,” is one of many on the history of slavery. I learned so much from reading this, and I benefited from the helpful maps and tables included in it.

Academy of General Dentistry meeting in New Orleans

Fred Michmershuizen work sampleI just got back from the annual meeting of the Academy of General Dentistry, which was held this year in New Orleans. Dental Tribune published two editions of our at-show newspaper, “today,” at the event. One issue was done in advance, and the other on-site. I photographed many of the meeting’s participants, including a couple of DMDs from Pennsylvania, pictured above, and also on the cover of the live issue, shown here. If you click on the image of the “today” cover it will open up as a PDF via Dropbox.

My article from the meeting is posted to the Dental Tribune site here.

The meeting was held at the Hyatt Regency. We stayed in a trendy new hotel in the warehouse district, and I walked to the meeting each day through Lafayette Square, which is named for the Revolutionary War hero Lafayette but has a statue of Henry Clay in the center. (I got terribly confused by this.) Also in Lafayette Square there is a much less impressive statue of Benjamin Franklin. After the meeting I also walked around in the French Quarter and Jackson Square. It’s nice to tack on a bit of sightseeing on these work trips.

Lafayette Square New Orleans
Statue of Henry Clay in Lafayette Square, New Orleans.
Lafayette Square, in New Orleans, is named for the Revolutionary War hero from France.
Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans. (Photo by Fred Michmershuizen)

Frederick Douglass

Had Frederick Douglass lived long enough to see a black man elected president, he would have been elated. Then, when he saw that racists had concocted a hateful conspiracy theory about that first black president’s birth certificate, Douglass would have been saddened but hardly surprised.

Frederick Bailey was born into slavery, but he escaped to freedom in the North and reinvented himself as Frederick Douglass — an activist, author, orator and public figure. He wrote three autobiographies, was editor of four different newspapers, gave countless speeches, and was a prolific writer. He got to know eight presidents (two of whom were assassinated).

Douglass grew up on a plantation on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. From an early age, it was apparent that he was gifted with a brilliant intellect. He was owned by Thomas Auld, who sent him to live with his brother, Hugh Auld, in Baltimore. It was Hugh’s wife who taught a young Frederick to read. Baltimore at the time was what Ira Berlin, in his book “Generations of Captivity,” would have called a society with slaves (as opposed to a free society or a slave society), meaning that free and enslaved blacks, and whites, often lived and worked together and intermingled with one another. An owner could rent out his slave or even send him to work for wages, keeping all or most of the wages for himself. In Baltimore Douglass was sent to work in the shipyards as a caulker, but after numerous disputes he was sent back to the plantation. It was from there that he escaped, by train, with Anna, a free black woman, whom he married and had children with. He and Anna went to Massachusetts and eventually settled in Rochester, N.Y. Years later, their home was destroyed by arson and Douglass moved his family to Washington, D.C.

Almost immediately after escaping to freedom, Douglass began working with abolitionists, of whom there were various factions and different schools of thought. He forged lifelong friendships — and rivalries — with many, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriett Beecher Stowe, Ida Wells and many others. Unlike many in the movement, Douglass thought that slavery could and should be ended from within the framework of the U.S. Constitution.

During the Civil War, Douglass helped recruit black soldiers for the Union Army. After the war, Douglass witnessed not only the abolishment of slavery but also the granting of citizenship and the right to vote for blacks under the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution, respectively. But true racial equality, sadly, was elusive. Douglass watched with alarm as blacks in the South were terrorized by lynchings, and he witnessed the establishment of widespread and systematic voter disenfranchisement of blacks in the South, which would persist long after his death, well into the 1960s.

He died at home on February 20, 1895, when he was in his late 70s. Earlier that day, he had delivered a speech on women’s rights after being led to the podium by Susan B. Anthony.

Here are some additional facts about this important figure in American history:

  • He was tall, handsome and strong. When he was a slave, he proved to an overseer in a high-stakes wrestling confrontation that he could not be overpowered physically.
  • He crossed the Atlantic many times but never got seasick.
  • He had light-colored skin and frizzy hair, which eventually turned white.
  • He was quick to take offense at the most trivial of slights, usually when someone acted in a condescending manner toward him or his family.
  • He had the ability to mimic others, a talent he used to great effect during speeches in which he would mock slave owners and others.
  • On many occasions during his speeches, racists in the back of the room heckled him. Sometimes they threw rocks or rotten eggs at him.
  • He frequently worked within the system. President Grant appointed him on a mission to Santo Domingo. President Hayes appointed him marshal for the District of Columbia, and President Benjamin Harrison appointed him ambassador to Haiti. He was also named president of a bank for freedmen, which failed.
  • After Anna died, Douglass got married again, to a white woman named Helen Pitts. Together, they traveled extensively throughout Europe, even venturing as far as Greece and Egypt.

Frederick Douglass book review

After reading most recently about Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee — men who fought to maintain a slave society — I wanted to read about someone who fought for racial justice and equality. I found the biography “Frederick Douglass” by William S. McFeely to be immensely enlightening. I finished it on the plane back from New Orleans, and the final pages brought tears to my eyes. Reading this well-researched book, I felt I got to know the subject as a human being. The author does not hold back in pointing out his subject’s mistakes and weaknesses, of which there were many. Most importantly, however, McFeely describes the lifelong quest of Frederick Douglass — to establish and maintain full legal, political and social equality for all, regardless of skin color. It’s work that remains, to this day, unfinished.