Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Some books do not live up to their titles

Andrew Johnson is a President who history has decided was a complete failure. A new book by Howard Means, The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days that Changed the Nation, examines the first part of Johnson’s presidency. A book about Reconstruction and Johnson is long over due. If anyone knows of a good one, let me know. I will tell you now this one is not that book.

I think it suffers most from the subtitle. No where in this book is any sort of day numbering system. What 45 days the subtitle refers to is beyond me. The book bounces from the night Lincoln was murdered to Johnson’s boyhood, to his Reconstruction policy, to his impeachment, all of which takes much longer than 45 days. It also never proves any sort of case that Johnson changed the nation. His reconstruction policy failed, and was outright rejected by Congress, he did not bring about black sufferage, he did not heal the wounds of a war that still divides America to this day, he did not convict Jefferson Davis of treason, he did not even capture John Wilkes Booth alive. Beyond that he tried 8 people for the murder of Lincoln in a military tribunal and hung them all, many of which were probably innocent.

That is not to say the book is all bad. I did learn some things about Andrew Johnson. I do think Mr. Means correctly shows why Andrew Johnson was so insistent on killing the traitors prior to becoming President and so lenient after becoming President. He does a good job to show the difference between Johnson’s Reconstruction Plan and Lincoln’s. He exposes the myth of Abraham Lincoln by quoting Radical Republican leaders who were happy Johnson was now President and Lincoln out of the way. He does not try to hide Johnson’s faults such as his blatant racism, but does try to show his qualities as well.

In the end this book is un-inspiringly written, but well researched. If you buy the book do not think you are going to get anything promised in the sub-title. That may really help your attitude as you read the book.