The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

Norton. Aug. 2021. 312p. ISBN 9781324004752. $26.95. HIST
The impeachment of Reconstruction-era president Andrew Johnson (1808–75) is usually described as a conflict between the president and the Radical Republicans faction in Congress, over the firing of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. In this engaging study, Levine (English, Univ. of Maryland; The Many Lives of Frederick Douglass) places the renowned abolitionist and speaker Frederick Douglass (1817–95) at the center of Johnson’s presidency and impeachment. What emerges is a more complicated picture of Reconstruction, told from the viewpoint of Black Americans including Douglass, Frances E. W. Harper, and staff of the Christian Recorder (the newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church). Douglass believed that in order for Reconstruction to succeed, it needed to include full citizenship and voting rights for Black Americans; he consistently pushed Johnson and Radical Republicans to address the issue. Levine writes that in the eyes of Douglass and many others, Johnson’s trial was a referendum on his racism, and the failure to convict Johnson demonstrated white Americans’ complicity in disenfranchising Black Americans and the country’s inability to confront its history.
VERDICT Recommended for readers who enjoy 19th-century history or presidential studies, and those seeking to understand the failures of Reconstruction. This thorough account adds a much-needed perspective on Reconstruction and Johnson’s presidency; it speaks to the ongoing battles over voting rights and racism.
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