“We are swinging ’round the circle of the Union.” — Andrew Johnson

July 29, 2010


President Barack Obama’s foray into New Jersey and New York yesterday certainly was inspired at least in part by the Congressional elections coming up in November. The president obviously was trying to bolster his own party — which clearly is in political trouble along with Obama himself —  and he was trying to undermine the Republican Party by accusing it of obstructionism with respect to such things as unemployment benefits. This kind of politicking is routine for modern presidents, although one has to wonder what effect it has in the 21st century, when the public is supersaturated with political messages.

Obama probably wasn’t conscious of it, but when he set off from Washington yesterday, he was emulating what, for him, was an unlikely model — namely, Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of these United States.


Johnson, who was Obama’s philosophical opposite in many ways, was the first president to conduct a campaign trip of that kind, but he did it to a fare-thee-well and with disastrous results that affected governance in the United States for decades. The short version of the story is that Johnson — a Democrat who had been elected vice president on a fusion ticket with the Republican Abraham Lincoln — abruptly succeeded to the presidency just as the Civil War was ending. He and the Republican majority in Congress were at odds over management of the defeated Confederate states and the former slaves and their disagreements degraded into an ugly struggle. There is no telling how Lincoln, with all of his political acumen, would have fared if he had survived to work things out with Congress on his own, but his death elevated the blunt and stubborn Johnson to the presidency under circumstances that he did not have the temperament to handle.


In an effort to uphold Democratic candidates for Congress and attract support from moderate Republicans, Johnson embarked in the summer of 1866 on an unprecedented 18-day grand tour — a “swing around the circle,” as he called it — that took him to 22 cities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky, with brief stops in other spots. He traveled with a large and glittering entourage that included such Cabinet members as Secretary of State William Seward, and military officers including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, and Admiral David Farragut.


The trip went well as long as Johnson was in the friendly East, but things deteriorated when he reached Cleveland and started to encounter hostile audiences and exchanged insults with them as though he were still stumping for a legislative seat back in Tennessee. He opened himself to criticism and ridicule and did more damage than good for his objectives. The Republicans swept the Congressional elections, gaining a majority large enough to take control of the process of Reconstruction with no fear of presidential interference. In addition, as relations between Johnson and Congress became even worse, the House of Representatives impeached the president and included in the charges against him the intemperate speeches he made during the campaign tour. The legislative momentum was so great that the presidency was reduced in power and importance until the end of the 19th century.

Johnson was an admirable American in many respects, but at the end of the Civil War he was the Wrong Man at the Wrong Time, if ever there was one. He was acquitted of the impeachment charges, which were absurd on the face of it, and he eventually was reelected to the Senate — the same one that had  tried him — where he was greeted with flowers and applause. We Americans are nothing if not forgiving. And although his campaign trip was a failure, it is a testament to his grit and self-confidence that he attempted it at all.

Extraordinary photograph shows Andrew Johnson at a banquet honoring him during the "swing around the circle." This event may have been held at Delmonico's in New York City. Johnson is in the center of the photo, between Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles (in the white beard) and Gen. Grant.


4 Responses to ““We are swinging ’round the circle of the Union.” — Andrew Johnson”

  1. Congrats! Just saw you at #1 on Blog Surfer! Go, Charles!

  2. shoreacres Says:

    A very interesting read about Johnson. It’s impossible to hear the story – including his reelection to the Senate – without pondering the truth of a folksy saying common in these parts. “What goes around, comes around”, we say, and politicians especially should take heed.

    I can’t help smiling at a bit of irony here. When President Obama began stumping to ensure passage of the bill extending unemployment benefits, he introduced Americans to three individuals said to be more than deserving of those benefits.

    The revelation of Leslie Macko’s criminal past will no doubt occasion some of the same sort of criticism and ridicule faced by Johnson, even though Obama’s objective has been met.

    The vetting disasters in this White House have been so remarkable it’s impossible not to wonder if temperment isn’t in play here, just as it was with Johnson.

  3. bronxboy55 Says:

    You have a gift for bringing these flat historical characters back to life and substance. I especially enjoyed the image of the President of the United States exchanging insults with his audience — just another example of how things have changed. On the other hand, there are similarities, too. In the bottom photo, the man seated next to Grant appears to be talking on his cell phone. Lincoln would have never tolerated that.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I’ve been a student of Andrew Johnson since I was about 14. When I was in the eighth grade I made a joke about Johnson’s drinking. A student teacher, Margaret Della Sala, reprimanded me and said I shouldn’t make denigrating remarks about a person I knew little about. I wasn’t especially scholarly at that time, but her comment touched a nerve. I went to the Paterson Public Library and took out three books about Andrew Johnson. That began a lifelong pursuit. In fact, he was the subject of my master’s thesis. I have since become acquainted with his family. There isn’t any doubt that his presidency was unsuccessful, but — like the rest of us — he was a very complex personality. Historians and biographers have taken widely disparate views of him — some describing him as stupid and diabolical and others describing him as heroic and inspiring.

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