For the majority of young Americans under the age of 30, the impeachment and trial of Bill Clinton, which took place 21 years ago, is nothing more than history. The near impeachment of Richard Nixon is ancient history. And the impeachment of Andrew Johnson is pre-historic. For this reason, these younger Americans, indeed many older ones, may not recognize the parallels between Donald Trump’s behavior that prompted the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to open an impeachment inquiry, and Andrew Johnson’s activities that led the Republicans in the House to impeach him. And underlying this lack of historical reference is the fact that the rigorous study of history in universities has been declining for more than a decade. Moreover, it hardly helps that history teachers tend to earn less than their counterparts in the hard sciences.
Philosopher George Santayana may have been overstating his case when he mused, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Author Toni Morrison probably was closer to the mark when she stated that “if we understand a good deal more about history, we automatically understand a great more about contemporary life.” Donald Trump may seem to have no antecedent in American history, although he professes to admire Andrew Jackson, America’s first truly populist president. In fact, however, Trump’s behavior and policies are a throwback not only to Andrew Johnson, but to two antebellum presidents, Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan, both of whom are rated among the least effective chief executives in American history.
Millard Fillmore could be termed “the accidental president.” A New York conservative, he was nominated for the vice presidency on the Whig ticket led by the Mexican War hero, “old rough and ready” Major General Zachary Taylor. Elected with Taylor in 1848, Fillmore was catapulted to the presidency 16 months into Taylor’s term when the General succumbed to a still-undiagnosed intestinal ailment in June 1850. Like Trump, who has claimed that he does not have a bigoted bone in his body, Fillmore asserted that he personally opposed slavery. Nevertheless, again like Trump, his deeds belied his words. Fillmore refused to support abolition and instead argued that it was an issue reserved to the states to deal with rather than the federal government. He thereby reinforced the claims of the pro-slavery states. Moreover, he supported the Compromise of 1850, which Taylor had opposed, and which included the Fugitive Slave Law that was the basis for the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case four years later.
Presaging Trump’s determination to free up Asian markets, and to pressure Japan, Korea, and China to lower their trade barriers, Fillmore strongly supported Commodore Matthew Perry’s efforts to “open up” Japan to American trade. In doing so, Fillmore wanted to provide the United States with a leg up over the great European Powers, who had already begun to penetrate the China market and its polity, particularly under the terms of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. Indeed, like Trump, Fillmore was generally hostile toward Europe, and paid more attention to Latin America, if only to assure American dominance in the Western Hemisphere.
Upon leaving office, Fillmore more openly revealed his biases against all but white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. In the face of mass Irish-Catholic immigration that primarily resulted from the Potato Famine that had begun in 1845, Fillmore aligned himself with the rabidly anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party. Here too, the parallels with Trump are unmistakable, only the targets were different.
Fillmore was succeeded by Franklin Pierce, who, like Trump was elected more because of his opponent’s inept campaigning (in Pierce’s case, it was General Winfield Scott) than by virtue of his own qualities. In turn, Pierce was succeeded by James Buchanan, whose indifference to states entering the Union as slave states matched, if not exceeded, Fillmore’s. Moreover, whereas the 1850 Compromise laid the groundwork for the Dred Scott decision, it was Buchanan’s impressing upon a northern Justice to side with his southern colleagues that led to the actual decision in 1857, just days after Buchanan was inaugurated.
Racism by nod and wink is not the only common denominator among Buchanan, Fillmore, and Trump. Like Trump and Fillmore, Buchanan was negatively disposed toward Europe and sought to bully his southern neighbors. He attempted to pressure Britain to limit its presence in Central America, where London controlled what was called British Honduras (now Belize). On the other hand, again very much like Trump, Buchanan was hostile to both Cuba and Mexico. Indeed, Buchanan went even further than the 45th President by seeking to annex Cuba and proposing another attack on Mexico in order to seize that country’s northern states and thereby expand the American southwest. Nevertheless, Buchanan was unable to get his way on both Cuba and Mexico because Congress refused to go along with his plans. Indeed, Congress also refused to ratify an agreement that he reached with Mexico that would have granted American transit rights through that country.
Buchanan foreshadowed Trump in one other respect: like Trump, he was an advocate of high tariffs. Buchanan’s predecessors had supported lowering tariffs, in no small part to accommodate the South, which advocated for free trade. Buchanan, on the other hand, sought to protect northern industries by raising tariffs. To that end, he opposed the 1854 U.S.-British Elgin-Marcy Treaty that provided for reciprocal tariff reductions between the United States and five British Canadian provinces. He also signed the 1860 Morrill Tariff, which reversed what had been a steady American progression toward free trade. At least in Buchanan’s case, it could be argued that American industry needed tariffs to survive in the face of British industrial dominance. In today’s world of global supply chains, however, tariffs and the trade wars that follow in their wake, are far harder to justify, Trump’s predilections notwithstanding.
If Trump’s open hostility toward immigrants, especially Muslim and Hispanic immigrants, echoes that of Fillmore, and his subtle racism reflects that of Buchanan, his defiance of Congress and his readiness to depart from accepted presidential norms closely resembles the behavior that led to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and his avoidance of conviction by only a single vote in the Senate. Upon assuming office, Johnson, a Democrat who was the only southern Senator to support the Union, was elected vice president and succeeded Lincoln after the latter’s assassination. Despite the position he took during the Civil War, Johnson was a bigot; he undertook to roll back whatever gains that African-Americans had hoped to achieve as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union’s victory.
Johnson had no issue with the efforts by former rebel states to restrict black rights and elect only whites, primarily ex-Confederate officials, to public office. The newly elected governments of the formerly rebel states enacted what were called Black Codes that seriously restricted both the movement and employability of recently freed African-Americans. In his first of many clashes with the Republican-dominated Congress, in late 1865, Johnson opposed its refusal to seat newly elected Southern members. A year later, he vetoed two versions of legislation to extend the mandate of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had been created to assist newly freed slaves as well as a Civil Rights Bill that was intended to protect their newly acquired rights. On February 22, 1866, three days after he vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau extension, Johnson denounced the Republican Abolitionists Representative Thaddeus Stevens, Senator Charles Sumner, and reformer Wendell Phillips, as traitors. A little over a century later, Donald Trump would suggest that Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, were both guilty of treason.
Although the Congress failed to override Johnson’s veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, the following month it passed a Civil Rights Act, and, on this occasion, it did override the presidential veto. Not satisfied with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment in June 1866 and sent it to the states for ratification. Johnson lobbied the southern states to oppose ratification, but the amendment was ratified and codified that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” The amendment also terminated the Dred Scott decision.
Johnson continued to clash with the Congress for the next two years. He vetoed several bills including another Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and three Reconstruction Acts—and was overridden each time. In the meantime, three members of his Cabinet who disagreed with his policies resigned, much as Secretary of Defense James Mattis would do during Trump’s second year in office and as National Security Advisor John Bolton would do nine months later. Finally, when Johnson removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and replaced him with General Lorenzo Thomas, Congress declared the president in violation of the Tenure of Office Act, and the House, on a party-line vote, began impeachment proceedings against him. Should the House impeachment investigation into Trump’s conduct as president lead to formal impeachment proceedings, it too is likely to come on a party-line vote.
Trump’s resemblance to Johnson does not end with his bias towards minorities, his clashes with Congress (in Trump’s case, with the House), his dismissal of senior officials who disagreed with him, or his possible impeachment. Like Johnson, Trump is remarkably impulsive, consistently vulgar and defiant of government and indeed societal norms. When in 1866 Johnson attempted a country-wide series of rallies to garner support for his mild approach to the South, he reacted harshly to hecklers in much the same manner as Trump would over a century later. Just as Trump would encourage shouts of “lock her up” (referring to Hillary Clinton, his 2016 opponent for the presidency) Johnson told a crowd in Cleveland, Ohio, “Why don’t you hang Thad Stevens and Wendell Phillips?” And, just as Trump has consistently displayed an air of insouciance regarding his behavior—he famously quipped that he could shoot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue and maintain the support of his loyalists—Johnson replied to those who suggested he comport himself as expected of a president, “I don’t care about my dignity.” Indeed, it was widely believed that Johnson was a drunkard (he was not) and a vulgarian (he was).
As of the time of writing, Trump has not been impeached, and may never be. Unlike Johnson, who faced a hostile Republican majority in both houses of Congress, Trump has maintained the support, whether active or passive, of a sufficient number of Republicans in the Senate to avoid conviction and perhaps even to deter the Democratic majority in the House from initiating impeachment proceedings. Whatever the outcome of Congressional action against Trump, it is clear that there are many historical parallels between Trump and three of the worst-rated presidents in American history.
As was noted at the outset of this essay, the American public at large is notorious for its lack of historical perspective. Most Americans are probably ignorant of the antecedents to the nation’s current political crisis. For that reason, it has long been the mission of the Foreign Policy Research Institute to instill in young Americans, indeed all Americans, a sense of the historical underpinnings of current and alternative national security and foreign policies.
Moreover, FPRI also focuses not only on political history, but on geopolitics and culture as major contributing factors to a robust American posture both domestically and internationally. More than a half century ago, eminent academic and diplomat Robert Strausz-Hupé recognized that history, geography, and culture were crucial factors in understanding the behavior of states and that America’s policies could only be effective if they took all three factors into account. He founded FPRI in order to disseminate his vision both to policymakers and to the general public.
Under the leadership of outgoing FPRI president Alan Luxenberg, FPRI has adhered to Strausz-Hupé’s vision. Indeed, Luxemberg has built upon Strausz-Hupé’s efforts and those of his immediate predecessor, Harvey Sicherman. He has implemented programs to train history teachers, notably the Butcher History Institute; to provide teachers with cultural immersion; to reach out to high school students, especially through occasional historical simulations; and to foster educational programs for the interested public in several locales in addition to its base in Philadelphia.
At a time when partisanship has reached levels that mirror those of the both the immediate antebellum years and the presidency of Andrew Johnson, FPRI offers a sane and sober non-partisan approach to the issues of the day. And in grounding that approach in history, geography, and culture, it demonstrates on a continuing basis that the great experiment that is the United States of America has withstood crises in the past, and will do so yet again, however severe they might seem to those living through them.