Andrew Johnson and the Swing Around the Circle Tour — Mistakes Were Made
When President Trump was impeached last winter, there was constant mention of Trump being the third president impeached, after Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson. Unless you’re a history buff, you’re probably not that familiar with Andrew Johnson. Johnson was the Vice President when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and thus became President.
Johnson at first promised to keep Lincoln’s “ideals” alive, but when Congress started passing progressive laws to help the freed slaves, Johnson, a former slave owner himself couldn’t follow through with the agenda. Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation, pardoned ex confederate officials and mucked up Reconstruction so much, that what appeared as an era of hope for ex slaves turned into black codes and Jim Crow.
By 1866, Johnson had alienated Congress, his own party (Republican) and even his own cabinet (three members resigned in disgust) so much that he was expected to lose what little support he had in Congress that election year. Johnson openly advocated for democratic candidates, though he was the sitting President and a Republican.
Andrew Johnson had a reputation as a masterful stump speaker and came up with the brilliant idea of a presidential political speaking tour. Johnson had the bright foresight of having David Farragut, George Custer, and Ulysses S. Grant stand next to him while he spoke to increase his audience and prestige for the tour. All were heroes of the Civil War, and Grant was the most popular man in the country. It’s the modern-day equivalent of Trump having the Rock, Tom Brady and LeBron James all on stage with him as he gave a speech. No sitting President had ever undertaken such an endeavor like this before Johnson. The tour went over as well as Trump’s 2020 first debate performance, actually it was worse than that.
The Tour was named the Swing Around the Circle tour. It lasted 18 days and had stops in; Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, Springfield, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and other smaller cities. Before the tour even began, people viewed it as undignified and beneath the Office of the President.
Johnson initially received a warm reception in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. The tour turned when Johnson entered the radical Republican Midwest. The Republicans were the more progressive party back then, and the Midwest was like the modern day coastal states for liberal Democrats.
On the Cleveland stop, the crowd had a lot of hecklers, including many ringers who were brought in by the radical Republicans. One of the hecklers yelled “Hang Jeff Davis!” (Davis was the Confederate President) in the middle of Johnson’s speech, Johnson angrily replied, “Why don’t you hang Thad Stevens and Wendell Phillips?” Stevens was a Congressional leader of the radical Republicans and Phillips was a well-known antislavery abolitionist. Modern equivalent of Trump advocating to hang Mitt Romney and Shaun King. While Johnson was leaving the balcony, his supporters reminded him to maintain his dignity. Johnson replied, “I don’t care about my dignity.” The press overheard this, and they printed it in newspapers all over the country.
In St. Louis on September 9th, hecklers again provoked Johnson. Johnson responded by accusing the radical Republicans of inciting the New Orleans riot that summer; compared himself to Jesus, and the radical Republicans to Judas; and defended himself against accusations of tyranny that no one made at the speech. In prior speeches, Johnson compared himself to Jesus too and that like Jesus he liked to pardon repentant sinners (aka former confederate government and military members). This line did not go over well with his more radical party mates.
The next day in Indianapolis, the crowd was so hostile and loud, Johnson could not speak. After Johnson left, violence and gunfire broke out in the streets between Johnson supporters and opponents, one man was killed. In other Midwest cities, spectators drowned out Johnson with calls for Grant, who refused to speak and chants of “three cheers for Congress!”
On September 14 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a temporary platform built for the President’s appearance gave way, sending hundreds into a drained canal 20 feet below. 13 people were killed. Johnson attempted to stop the train he was on and use it as a temporary ambulance to help the injured, but due to conflicting train traffic the train could not stay. The way the accident happened and Johnson then subsequently leaving right after it gave the “appearance” that Johnson had cold heartedly abandoned the scene of an accident with mass casualties. Johnson later donated $500 ($8,318 in 2020) to assist the victims, but the damage of him leaving the scene far outweighed his donation.
The press had a field day with the Swing Around the circle tour. The New York Herald, which had been the most supportive newspaper of the President stated, “It is mortifying to see a man occupying the lofty position of 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.”
Johnson’s fellow Republican opponents took their shots at him too. Stevens referred to the Swing as “the remarkable circus that traveled through the country, cut outside the circle and entered into street brawls with common blackguards.” The radical Republicans also began spreading rumors that Johnson had been drunk at several appearances on the tour. Johnson had been visibly and variably drunk at his Vice Presidential inauguration the year before, it wasn’t that much of a reach to believe the rumors. Reporters and Johnson’s political opponents took these rumors and ran with them, spreading them like wildfire.
By the end of the tour, Johnson had even less support in the north than he started with before the tour. Johnson only allies in Congress were southern Democrats, who were former Confederate rebels.
The Republican party won a landslide victory in the 1866 congressional election. The new Congress would take back control over Reconstruction from the White House and even passed the Reconstruction Acts of 1867.
Johnson openly defied Congress and fought bitterly with them for control of the nation’s domestic policy. Congress responded by trying to impeach Johnson twice, with the second time being successful. They even mentioned the Swing Around the Circle tour in the articles of impeachment. This part of the impeachment articles never came up for a vote in the Senate, mainly because it lacked the votes to pass.
In 1868, though Johnson was the sitting President, he was not nominated as the Republican party’s presidential nominee. Grant was nominated and won the Presidency. Johnson’s frequent clashes with his own party members, subsequent impeachment and embarrassing Swing Around the Circle tour, were cited as reasons he wasn’t nominated.
Mistakes were Made:
A President clashes with Congress and his own party, says a bunch of embarrassing things that bring shame to the office, shows a proficiency for lewd behavior, gets impeached and ends up being the major factor in his political side losing the midterm election. You may think I’m talking about Trump, but all these things apply to Andrew Johnson.
Mistake 1. Know your audience
Johnson speeches were tolerated in the less radical northeast states, but when he got to the Midwest, he was in enemy territory. There is a reason Trump doesn’t throw his big rallies in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago or the Bay area, they would go over as well as Johnson’s did and probably worse. Johnson should have never done stops in those cities.
Mistake 2. Never compare yourself to Jesus or God
This is similar to the mistake John Lennon made when he made the “more popular than Jesus’ quote. Nothing good can ever come from comparing yourself to God or Jesus. Though Johnson stated his claim earlier in the tour. He was in a more neutral or favorable territory, so they let it slide. When he got to the Midwest, those words helped derail the tour. Once you utter those words, you’re demonized and most people dont want to hear what you have to say. You can say the key to happiness in life, but if you start the speech comparing yourself to God or Jesus, you’re going to lose the crowd. Trump has never made this claim, but his claim that, “Nobody has ever done better for the black community,” is just as worse.
Mistake 3. PR? What PR?
Back in 1866, there was no such thing as a White House Press Secretary or a PR (Public Relations) team. Johnson packed his stage with their version of modern day celebrities, but what he needed was a PR person. A PR person would have told him not to engage with hecklers or a crowd or made sure the audience wasn’t so hostile. Though PR gaffes still happen (Trump Tulsa rally), it’s hard to see these same gaffes happening today.
Though Johnson did nothing to cause or contribute to the falling stage incident and tried to help, the optics of him fleeing the scene were just as bad. A PR team also could have dispelled the drunken appearances rumors. A modern day Johnson can just do what Trump does, call out and bash his enemies over Twitter. It’s much better optics than in getting in verbal altercations with hecklers.
When your goal is to raise your popularity and support in a region and instead you end up lowering your support, that’s a failure of the highest order.
Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on October 12, 2020.