Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, August 2015). A paperback edition is now available.
A USA Today poll published in the last week of July demonstrates that the nation is bitterly divided over the utterances, actions, and policy direction of President Donald Trump, unmatched since the days of Presidents John Tyler (1841-1845) and Andrew Johnson (1865-1869). The only other time equivalent would be the outbreak of the Civil War under Abraham Lincoln six weeks after he took office in 1861, a unique situation.
Both Tyler and Johnson faced fierce opposition from the first days and months of their Presidencies, with both having succeeded to the White House after the deaths of William Henry Harrison after one month in 1841, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln six weeks into his second term in 1865, respectively. Both found that the party that had elected them to the Vice Presidency turned against them with ferocity once they came to office and asserted themselves in a manner that engendered large scale opposition. Both had been Democrats who ran for Vice President on the Whig Party line in 1840 and the Union (Republican) Party line in 1864, respectively. They share their Democratic Party heritage with Donald Trump, who had been a Democrat before he joined the Republican Party.
Both Tyler and Johnson had served in public office for a long time, while Trump had zero experience in government, although regularly commenting over many years on public affairs. Both Tyler and Johnson had difficult personalities, as does Trump, with Tyler being faced with the mass resignation of the Cabinet officers he had inherited, with the exception of Daniel Webster, who stayed on as Secretary of State. Johnson inherited a Cabinet which included Radical Republican Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, which led to an impeachment inquiry and then formal impeachment charges and a trial in the US Senate. Tyler had faced an impeachment vote during his term as well, but was able to avoid the specter of a vote after the Democratic Party regained control of the House of Representatives in the 1842 midterm election. He remained unpopular, as he was unable to gain adequate support from the party he had abandoned. Something similar happened with Andrew Johnson, though Democrats did help to save Johnson when he faced an impeachment trial (as they had saved Tyler when he faced impeachment).
Tyler nominated four different individuals a total of seven times for two Supreme Court appointments, but none of them were approved; Tyler finally got one nominee, Samuel Nelson, only in his last month in office, while Johnson had one appointment rejected, and became unable to put anyone on the Court due to legislation that established a smaller Supreme Court, preventing a Johnson nominee from being approved. This made Johnson one of only four Presidents to fail to have a Supreme Court appointment—the others being William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Jimmy Carter. Trump’s one accomplishment has been that he was able to gain a Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch, but only with changes in the filibuster rules of the Senate.
Tyler incurred opposition from the beginning of his time in the Presidency when he asserted that he was President in every sense of the term, due to Harrison’s death, with the Whig Party under Henry Clay challenging him, and calling him “His Accidency”. When he opposed the Whig Party plan to re-establish the National Bank, he lost further support. He had one accomplishment in foreign affairs, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, which established the US-Canadian boundary. He also began the annexation of Texas, but only with the support of incoming Democratic President James K. Polk. Toward the end of his life, Tyler gave up his citizenship in the United States to back the Confederacy as a member of the Confederate House of Representatives. So when he passed away in 1862, Tyler was regarded as a traitor. The US government refused to fly the American flag at half-staff in his honor as is customary.
Johnson became a pariah soon after assuming the presidency by opposing Radical Reconstruction in the South; instead, he backed the “Ten Percent Plan” of Abraham Lincoln, which had been condemned by the Congressional Republicans. When he also ignored the rise of violence and the creation of the Ku Klux Klan and other groups that promoted intimidation of newly freed African Americans in the Southern states and their adoption of “Black Codes” to take away basic civil rights, Congress, overriding his vetoes, voted to retain the Freedmen’s Bureau, establish the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and adopt the 14th Amendment.
When Johnson conducted a “Swing Around The Circle,” an unprecedented campaign tour by the President before the midterm elections of 1866, in which he used incendiary language against his Radical Republican critics and opponents, the new Congress, more anti-Johnson then the earlier one, stripped him of his control of the military, and his right to fire a cabinet member, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who had been put into office by Lincoln. The end result was the move to impeach Johnson for violation of the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson survived a vote in the Senate by just one vote. His only accomplishment was the purchase of Alaska, which was arranged by William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s holdover Secretary of State.
Donald Trump has had a very confrontational six months, and there has been a lot of quiet anger in the halls of Congress on the part of the Republican Party due to his refusal to control his utterances or actions to avoid alienating Congressional leaders. Trump is seen as an outsider who hijacked the party, and there are many conservatives outside the party structure, as well as Republican officeholders who seem ready to break with Trump as the investigation into the Russian collusion matter moves forward. Trump hasn’t helped his case by his Twitter rants, which have included threats to back challengers to those Republicans in the US Senate who refuse to support his health care legislation. Many have been alarmed by his attacks on his own staff and Cabinet officers, the intelligence agencies, the news media, and the judiciary. A sign of the discontent was the decision of Congress to back sanctions on Russia that tie Trump’s hands.
Otherwise, nothing significant has occurred, other than his well-laid plans to repeal the 20th century by executive orders that undermine some of the key accomplishments of past presidents (and not just Barack Obama). Trump seems to be making war on American institutions and values. We are on the precipice of a constitutional crisis far greater than those at the time of John Tyler and Andrew Johnson, and possibly the greatest since the Civil War. Even Watergate seems pale by comparison in the minds of many historians.
In the 2017 C Span Presidential poll of scholars Tyler was rated 39th and Johnson was rated 42nd out of 43. Trump is on the way to being number 44 out of 44, lower than James Buchanan, who was at the bottom of this poll of experts. It seems certain that Trump’s presidency will mark the nadir of this institution, making everyone near the bottom, including Tyler and Johnson, as well as Buchanan, look better by comparison. Many assume Trump will not serve a complete term, once the investigations go further than they have, or after Trump makes the blunder of firing the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, which would escalate the conflict between the President, his party, and Congress at large.