It’s not all NSFW content on TehBen.com! This edition of the book club is going to get a little intellectual on your punk asses. Here’s a solemn promise from the outset: this one won’t get TOO political. Judging off the title of the book alone we’re going to evoke some emotions on the current goings-on in the world of American politics, but this story is worth telling within its own context. That’s enough of those comparisons, let’s dig in.
The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation by Brenda Wineapple is an engrossing history of one of the most important moments in American history: reconstruction after the Civil War. This was a period that was never taught too much in school at least from my experiences. It could have been that I just wasn’t paying enough attention in class, but that’s a story for another time. Due to my obsession with Ken Burns documentaries, I have a fairly good grip on the narrative of the Civil War. But once Lincoln was assassinated, I don’t remember learning about much between that point and the 20th century. Andrew Johnson has the honor of being the first president to be impeached, and this was a piece of trivia I actually knew, especially from being raised in the era of Bill Clinton’s trial in the late 1990s, but that was about it. This book spares no detail in setting the stage for how our country came to this crossroads, and all of the important people involved. I’ll try my best to summarize: Abraham Lincoln, seeking reelection in 1864, in the midst of that pesky Civil War, needed to bring balance to his campaign ticket. Johnson, a staunch believer in Union preservation, but from the southern state of Tennessee was just what Lincoln needed to appease the less radical voters. Unfortunately, after his tragic assassination, nothing seemed to go according to plan. Johnson was sworn in as president, and to everyone at the time, seemed committed to the progression and activism required to put the pieces of the country back together. Rebuilding the Union after the Civil War meant progressive ideas that were frankly tough to swallow for people located below the Mason-Dixon Line. After all, there were around 4 million Americans newly freed from the shackles of slavery and looking for their deserved basic liberties and human rights. Post war, more radical members of Congress believed that after a costly conflict to decide its meaning, the Constitution was to be taken literally, for the rights of ALL who lived under it. Johnson however, seemed to have other ideas…
I hope you can forgive my ignorance, but I had no idea Andrew Johnson was such a complete sack of crap. Johnson proclaimed that, “This is a country for white men, and as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.” Of course, Johnson’s line of thinking wasn’t unheard of, but it’s clear through the study of this book that Johnson as president didn’t have the balls to confront everything that was happening around him. Tough decisions needed to be made, not only about freedmen, but about how the former members of the Confederacy were to be confronted and dealt with. While Congress passed numerous Reconstruction Acts to guarantee liberties and keep Confederates from controlling the states, Johnson worked against them, and tried tirelessly to block their execution. As Johnson and members of Congress fought tooth and nail, one could imagine the prospects of the country once again falling apart, and something drastic needed to be done. In 1868, Andrew Johnson was formally impeached.
Ok, enough of the history lesson out of me, I want to examine and talk more about the writing style of the book. It’s a quite interesting blend of informational text combined with lyrical story telling. With quotes and musings of persons of note sprinkled in with the narrative, The Impeachers reads like an entertaining documentary spread out on paper. Despite the vastly intellectual subject matter, the style lends itself to be comfortably read with ease, so long as you spare the time to read it. My only struggle was trying to figure out just the right voice actors speaking the lines in my head.
I’m thinking Adam Arkin for this one.
After the Bill Clinton proceedings in the 1990s, we say the word “impeachment” with a far different thinking than those from generations long before. While the interpretations of impeachment have come a long way from “high crimes and misdemeanors”, the Andrew Johnson trial forever shifted its use to enforce the intended balance of power in our government. It’s truly amazing to me how after over 150 years from both the Civil War and the Johnson impeachment, the vestiges of their respective results plague our thoughts and actions to this very day.
Verdict: The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation by Brenda Wineapple is a brilliantly cultivated history of the struggle between legislative and executive that framed the era of Reconstruction after the American Civil War. Enjoyable to read while still being fully engrossing, this book is well worth the investment of time that it takes for a full appreciation. It’s a heavy handed thing to say in the political climate we’re in, but I think it’s warranted: those who do not learn history, are all but doomed to repeat it.
A special thanks to Random House Publishing Group for generously supplying an advanced review copy to TehBen.com, all views and opinions are my own.