Andrew Johnson (1865-1869): The Train Trip that Backfired

This article is a part of our series From Lighthouses to Electric Chargers: A Presidential Series on Transportation Innovations

When Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president and vehement slavery opponent, was elected president in 1860, Hannibal Hamlin from Maine served as his vice president. But for the 1864 election, as the Civil War was starting to wind down, the Republican party leaders replaced Hamlin with Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from the southern state of Tennessee. Johnson had been a U.S. senator who supported the U.S. government during the war, and his selection was seen as a message of national unity. 

On the evening of April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head by a Confederate sympathizer and the next morning, Johnson was sworn in as president. 

 Lincoln was the first president whose body was transported by a funeral train. The nine-car train traveled from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, passing through 180 cities. His body was taken to public places along the route and exhibited in an open casket where people waited for hours to pay their respects. More than seven million saw the train or hearse as it passed them by. The photo below shows the funeral train in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 

 President Johnson, a former slaveowner, was more lenient to the former Confederates than most lawmakers preferred. In 1866, Congress passed legislation guaranteeing the rights of former slaves and barring discrimination based on race or color. But Johnson vetoed it. Congress then overrode the president’s veto with the necessary two-thirds vote in the House and Senate, marking the first time in U.S. history that Congress overrode the veto of a major piece of legislation.  

During his less than four years in office, Congress overrode 15 of Johnson’s vetoes. By comparison the three most recent presidents (Obama, Trump, and Biden) have had only had two vetoes overridden, combined. 

Not only did President Johnson veto civil rights legislation and pardon Confederate leaders, but his actions resulted in the oppression of former slaves and the return of high-ranking Confederate officials to power. He also opposed the 14th amendment to the Constitution which, when adopted in June 1866, gave every American equal protection under the law. 

 In advance of the 1866 midterm elections, President Andrew Johnson thought his oratorical skills could help elect candidates who supported his agenda. So, he decided to travel around the nation on an 18-day summer tour, escorted by, among others, his Secretary of State, Secretary of Navy, and the wildly popular Civil War hero General Ulysses S. Grant. 

His tour was unprecedented. Previous presidents had usually avoided political campaigning because it was seen as undignified. But Johnson thought if Americans could hear him explain the need for reconciliation and speedy restoration with the southern states, they would support legislators who promoted similar views.  

Since the U.S. had more than 30,000 miles of railroad tracks by the 1860s and relatively fast steamships that could navigate the Hudson and Mississippi Rivers, Johnson and his entourage could travel through ten states in a relatively short amount of time.  

The tour’s nickname, “Swing Around the Circle” came from the train and steamship route that the campaign took. Starting in Washington, D.C., the president traveled north to New York, west to Chicago, south to St. Louis, and then east back to Washington, D.C.  

He deliberately avoided the New England states where his policies towards the former Confederate states were vehemently opposed. Johnson was trying to woo voters towards Democrats and moderate Republicans, not the so-called Radical Republicans in the north who were controlling Congress. 

 President Johnson addressed thousands of people at numerous points along the trip including in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, Louisville, and Pittsburgh. His stops were not limited to the nation’s largest cities, though. For example, in the state of New York, he addressed large crowds at train stations in Canandaigua, Genoa, Little Falls, Seneca Falls, and Utica.

The president’s speeches initially received overwhelmingly positive media coverage. However, the crowds became hostile as he headed west, where Radical Republicans began to heckle him. Instead of ignoring the hecklers, Johnson foolishly engaged and argued with them. A turning point occurred in Cleveland when newspapers across the country widely reported that the president had lost his temper and said, “I don’t care about my dignity.” 

At times, Johnson compared himself to Jesus because he had pardoned repentant Confederate leaders, while likening the Republicans to those who had betrayed Jesus. The crowds, Johnson was disappointed to learn, were often more interested in seeing General Grant. 

As the tour continued, he lost the support from newspapers that had previously praised him. For instance, the New York Herald wrote, “It is mortifying to see a man occupying the lofty position of President of the United States descend from that position and join issue with those who are dragging their garments in the muddy gutters of political vituperation.” Talk of impeachment began to gain traction. 

The New York Herald, a newspaper that once strongly supported Johnson, wrote, “It is mortifying to see a man occupying the lofty position of President of the United States descend from that position and join issue with those who are dragging their garments in the muddy gutters of political vituperation.” 

Below, a political cartoon published after Johnson’s return reveals his diminishing reputation. 

The Republican party, led by his political enemies, would go on to a landslide victory in the congressional elections, and the House of Representatives would proceed to impeach him in February 1868. The articles of impeachment referred to Johnson’s behavior on his Swing the Circle trip and noted that he made “certain intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues” against Congress. 

Andrew Johnson was one of only three U.S. presidents to ever be impeached. Bill Clinton and Donald Trump are the only other members of this not-so-illustrious club.  

Presidents now routinely fly around the country campaigning for their fellow party members before Congressional midterm elections, but they have learned how to keep their composure when interrupted by hecklers.

This article is a part of our series From Lighthouses to Electric Chargers: A Presidential Series on Transportation Innovations


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