Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson were the sixteenth and seventeenth Presidents of the United States of America respectively. While the pair differed in several regards, both leaders ended their terms prematurely. It is widely known that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, but few Americans can recall his successor. Andrew Johnson, the Vice President at the time, is said to have accepted the role of President at Lincoln’s bedside and under the influence of alcohol. Johnson later explained his consumption of liquor as an attempt to combat exhaustion and his own ailing health. Perhaps he should have reconsidered taking up residence in the White House for this and other reasons because Andrew Johnson would become the first American President to be impeached. For a critical analysis of these two Presidents, it is important to consider the backgrounds, personalities, worldviews, leadership styles, motivation, and records of success and failure for Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.
Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 and spent most of his childhood in Kentucky. His father’s hard work as a farmer resulted in relative affluence for the time and area. Falling on harder times, later related to slavery and difficulty with land ownership in the region, Lincoln and his family were forced to move several times throughout his childhood and adolescence. By all accounts, Abraham Lincoln remained focused on his studies and contributions to the family. At the age of nine, Lincoln’s mother died. Andrew Johnson also experienced the death of a parent, his father, during his childhood. Johnson’s mother attempted to earn money for the family, but he spent most of his childhood in poverty. While Lincoln’s development of work ethic seemed less forced, Johnson’s mother committed him to an apprenticeship program during his early teenage years. Feeling confined and yearning his independence, Johnson ran away and secured a job of his own as a tailor. Compared to many politicians during the nineteenth century, it is interesting to note that neither of these two Presidents came from particular prosperity or wealth. Both worked hard from an early age and both were familiar with hardship and loss long before they began their political careers.
The motivation of the pair can also be compared and contrasted. Both seem to demonstrated an internal drive to learn and lead. Interestingly, both received little or no formal education and both taught themselves to read. Lincoln would use his literacy to become a lawyer then a politician. He identified slavery as a danger to the growth of America. This was not a popular belief at the time but his oratory skills seemed to contribute to his ability to influence others. Lincoln also seemed driven by his belief in “free labor”, the notion that opposed slavery and meant that hard work should equal increasing prosperity. Andrew Johnson also vehemently opposed preferential treatment of the wealthy. His political motivation seems to stem from this belief and his loyalty to the Union during times preceding, during, and after the Civil War. The backgrounds and motivations of Lincoln and Johnson combined to form the world views that would lead them through their political career. Both men were deeply passionate about their causes, but their perspective on the root of issues seemed to differ. Lincoln was most concerned about justice and freedom, while Johnson prioritized loyalty and allegiance.
The personalities of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson undoubtedly contributed to their leadership styles and the impression they would make on American history. According to both documented historical accounts and folklore, Lincoln is known for his charisma, loyalty, and strong character. “Honest Abe” is still viewed as a role model for today’s children. Andrew Johnson’s personality is not remembered by historians as favorably. He is said to have been courageous and passionate, but inflexible and sometimes aggressive. While both leaders used speaking frequently as a tool to sway other politicians or the general public, it was Lincoln’s avenue to success and Johnson’s road to despair. Johnson’s intolerable temperament often exceeded his control and his speeches became too confrontational. Congress members and political enemies would later use his lack of tact to motivate his impeachment from Presidency.
Despite his unfortunate end, Andrew Johnson did enjoy some success during his term as leader. The purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 eventually proved to be exceptionally profitable for the United States, especially with the discovery of gold. Johnson’s dedication to rid the country of traitors and Confederates is also viewed by some historians to have been an asset to the reunification of the United States. Lincoln’s victories include the abolishment of slavery and resolution of the Civil War, and several well-documented public addresses. It could be argued that he was better prepared for his role of President because Johnson fell into the role only after Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln, too, endured his share of failures. Few people realize this President was defeated in several elections before his rise to Presidency. Unlike Johnson, Lincoln likely made adjustments following his losses that resulted in future success. The weaknesses of Andrew Johnson compiled and eventually led to not one, but two, attempts by the Congress to impeach him from the office of President. Although Johnson narrowly retained his technical position, he was unable to exert any political power at the end of his Presidency. Years later, Andrew Johnson would claim another political office as Senator but his death preceded his service.
Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln rose from somewhat similar backgrounds to become starkly different leaders with matching viewpoints on several important issues of the time, like slavery and the Union. While Lincoln easily charmed and influenced, Johnson had a more difficult time channeling his temper into constructive paths to change. Lincoln’s personality strengthened his political career and Johnson’s became a burden. Remembered very differently by American historians, both political figures made lasting changes in the country.
Abraham Lincoln. In Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. (n.d.). American Council of Learned Societies 1928-1936. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale
Andrew Johnson. In Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. (n.d.). American Council of Learned Societies 1928-1936. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale
Trefousse, H.L. (1989). Andrew Johnson: A biography. New York, W.W. Norton.
Miller, William Lee (2002), Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography. New York, Knopf.