Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 17th in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
America was just beginning to recover from the bloodiest war in its history when Andrew Johnson took the oath of office—and a firm stance against progressive thought.
Johnson, the 17th president of the United States, took office on April 15, 1865, just hours after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. He inherited a nation in the final throes of the Civil War and still deeply divided over issues of race and slavery.
“The great issue of the time was how to restore the South to the Union and what changes to impose,” said Michael Les Benedict, emeritus professor of history at The Ohio State University. “There was a great deal of conversation about race and Southern states were still governed by white supremacists who used racism as a way to undermine efforts to reconstruct the nation.”
Johnson implemented his own reconstruction policies, which directed seceded states to hold elections and re-establish civil governments. But Southern states re-elected former leaders and enacted Black Codes designed to deprive African Americans of civil liberties.
Northern outrage over the Black Codes shifted Congressional power to the radical Republican Party, fueled by sympathetic and progressive views toward people of color. Johnson sided with the South, vetoing bills that sought to override racist actions, including the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the first federal law to define citizenship and extend equal protection under law to all citizens (excluding Indians on reservations).
In his veto message, Johnson asked whether it was “sound policy to make our entire colored population” U.S. citizens. “Four million of them have just emerged from slavery into freedom,” he said. “Can it be reasonably supposed that they possess the requisite qualifications to entitle them to all the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States?”
Johnson also opposed the 14th Amendment, which affirmed civil rights and citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including former slaves but excluding non-taxed Indians. The amendment prohibited states from denying any person “life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”
In a special message to Congress, Johnson voiced “grave doubts” about the amendment and questioned whether “the action of Congress (was) in harmony with the sentiments of the people.”
Conflicts with the Republican-dominated Congress culminated in Johnson’s impeachment by the House of Representatives in February 1868. The first president to be impeached, Johnson was acquitted in the Senate by one vote. But he had already earned a reputation for his strong opposition to federally guaranteed rights for people of color, Benedict said.
“Johnson was a racist and could not imagine African Americans as citizens or equals,” he said. “His tendencies were always racist.”
Born in a log cabin in North Carolina in 1808, Johnson was a tailor’s apprentice and later opened his own shop in Tennessee. He served as a brigadier general during the Civil War and as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives, a U.S. senator and governor of Tennessee before running for vice president with Lincoln in 1864.
A member of the National Union Party, Johnson served only one month as vice president before Lincoln was assassinated. He completed Lincoln’s second term, from 1865 to 1869.
During his 47 months in office, Johnson negotiated the purchase of Alaska for $7.2 billion, expanding the country by 586,000 square miles, and issued a formal proclamation establishing Thanksgiving as a holiday.
He also oversaw 38 treaties with Indian nations, including the Medicine Lodge Treaty in 1867, which relocated Southern Plains tribes to reservations far away from white settlements. The treaties, signed by the Kiowa, Comanche and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho at Fort Larned, Kansas, came after a Congressionally established Indian Peace Commission determined that the U.S. government had contributed to Indian warfare by failing to fulfill treaty obligations.
Courtesy National Park Service
An aerial view of Fort Larned from the east.
In his third annual message to Congress, in December 1867, Johnson spoke of the need to relocate Indians to “reservations remote from the traveled routes between the Mississippi and the Pacific.” Calling the Plains Indians “warlike” and “instigated by real or imaginary grievances,” Johnson said the territories should be exempt from Indian outbreaks and that hostile tribes should not be allowed to interrupt construction of the Pacific Railroad.
“These objects, as well as the material interests and the moral and intellectual improvement of the Indians, can be most effectually secured by concentrating them upon portions of country set apart for their exclusive use and located at points remote from our highways and encroaching white settlements,” he said.
Johnson also oversaw three treaties signed in the spring of 1868 at Fort Laramie, in the Dakota Territory. The Sioux, Crow, and Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho signed treaties calling for peace and friendship with the United States.
In June 1868, the U.S. signed a similar peace treaty with the Navajo at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The agreement ended the four-year forced exile of the Navajo and allowed them to return to their homeland.
By the fall of 1868, however, warfare again broke out as Gen. George Armstrong Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry in a surprise dawn attack of the Southern Cheyenne village of Washita. Hailed as one of the first substantial American victories against the Southern Plains Indians, the massacre left as many as 100 Cheyenne dead.
Johnson did not mention the massacre in his final message to Congress, in December 1868. Instead, he encouraged the “aboriginal population” to abandon their “nomadic habits” in favor of agriculture and industry.
“Whilst we furnish subsistence and instruction to the Indians and guarantee the undisturbed enjoyment of their treaty rights, we should habitually insist upon the faithful observance of their agreement to remain within their respective reservations,” he said. “This is the only mode by which collisions with other tribes and with the whites can be avoided and the safety of our frontier settlements secured.”
Johnson left office in 1869 and was succeeded by Ulysses S. Grant. He died in 1875 at age 66.