Sunday, April 25, 2010

Radio Memories: False Mirrors

History is ultimately story; a narrative based on that most imperfect of sources, the human mind, and its most unreliable contents, human memory.

Our Sunday series of Radio Memories posts has usually tried to modestly sharpen our understanding of history by unearthing buried relics from the dearly departed art form of radio drama; a re-examination of stories fallen through the cracks of memory, hopefully illuminating a side of ourselves that had been forgotten. So much of learning involves re-learning, after all; remembering hard-earned lessons too quickly forgotten, too readily mis-understood.

Family memories of the days before television inevitably include stories of the hours spent devouring the audio art of theatrical radio: radio drama, the theater of the mind. Comedy, adventure, thrillers, romance... a wide variety of programming involving sound effects, mood music, evocative acting and provocative story-telling, of such power that decades later a request to share those memories inevitably sparks the warmest of smiles, the fondest of memories, from those fortunate enough to have experienced them firsthand, through the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.

One engaging series that deserves more attention is CBS' valiant attempt at making history interesting to those under the mistaken impression that history was, somehow, a boring subject. The brainchild of the mercurial humorist Goodman Ace, You Are There was premised on a delightful whimsy tailor-made for the imagination-based medium of radio drama: what if CBS' news department had been in operation at the major events in past history, using the same pool of correspondents that had recently covered the epic Second World War?

Last April we offered the You Are There episode on the suspenseful capture of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth; in a related sequel this Sunday we jump ahead a few years to the dramatic high point of Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson... and the beginning of a false memory, a distortion of history.

When we know anything about the impeachment of President Johnson at all, we might think that he was bullied and bruised by extremist "Radical Republicans", by "...a Congress, determined to avenge the devastation and slaughter of The War, turned its anger on President Johnson for advocating Lincoln's policy of a charitable peace, based upon his well-remembered words, 'with malice towards none'," as John Charles Daly himself sets the stage in the February 27 1949 broadcast below.

I respectfully propose that we all think a second time about how trustworthy that memory might be.

Let's look at Andrew Johnson's life, as prologue to the re-enacted concluding chapter presented on the You Are There show.

Democrat Andrew Johnson was one of the 12 slave-owning Presidents of the United States, although he is one of the four who did not own slaves while serving as President. Elected mayor of Greenville Tennessee in 1834, he started his political career by helping pass a new Constitution for that state which denied freed blacks the right to vote. After representing Tennessee in Congress in the 1840s, where he voted in favor of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, he became Governor of Tennessee in 1853. As Governor he signed into law legislation that required blacks freed from slavery to be deported; not to another state, but deported to Africa.

During the fractious 1860 Presidential election, the Democrat Party split in two, seeing the Southern States nominating former Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as Presidential candidate, since the candidate selected at the Democratic National Convention, Illinois Senator (and perennial Lincoln rival) Stephen A. Douglas was viewed as not bigoted enough on the issue of slavery to be worthy of support. The split enabled the candidate of the newly-formed Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, to win the Presidency with only 40% of the vote.

Johnson supported Breckenridge in that contest.

Despite his support for slavery, professed again and again on the Senate floor, War Democrat Andrew Johnson nevertheless remained loyal to the Union. He continued to represent the state of Tennessee as its military governor through the early years of the Civil War. In 1862, Johnson persuaded the Republican President to exclude his state from Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, ensuring that slavery would continue in the Southern state of Tennessee, as it would in Northern slave states.

President Lincoln faced a tough re-election campaign in 1864: in an effort to broaden their appeal to War Democrats the party name was changed from Republican to the National Union Party, and the convention selected Johnson to fill Hannibal Hamlin's Vice Presidential seat. What followed was a curious choice for a party founded on abolishing slavery, but ends justify means in politics then as today, it seems: it was thought that Democrat Andrew Johnson would attract enough northern Democrat votes away from Peace Democrat candidate General McLellan to help make up for increased defections in the Republican ranks. The most pro-abolitionist wing of the party, known as the "Radical Republicans", were disappointed with Lincoln's slow moves to end slavery during the war, and in particular his vetoing of the "Ironclad Oath", a measure that would prevent slavery-supporting Confederates from holding political office after the war. They set up a new party of their own, the Radical Democrat Party, and held their convention a month before the Republicans had scheduled their own. Former Lincoln-supporting abolitionists such as Wendel Phillips turned once again to the original Republican Presidential standard-bearer, John C. Fremont, as their candidate.

The assasination of Lincoln in April of 1865 thrust Democrat Johnson to the Presidency, and with Congress recessed until December of that year, the immediate burdens of forging peace fell upon the former slave-owner's shoulders. The state governments installed under his approach to "reconstruction" saw former Confederate combattants emerge in positions of political prominence, enabling the exact opposite result intended by the "Ironclad Oath" favored by the Radical Republicans: the Southern states returned to office the same kind of pro-slavery Confederate Democrats that had been in power prior to the war. These Democrat politicans promptly enacted 'black codes' calculated to circumvent the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which had abolished slavery in the United States.

When the Republican-dominated Congress finally reconvened, they tried to renew the authority of the wartime government office of the Freedman's Bureau, charged with providing medical aid, food and shelter to the freed black slaves. President Johnson vetoed the bill to renew, but his veto was successfully over-ridden by the Senate, despite every single Democrat voting to sustain Johnson's veto.

Reacting to the Southern Democrats black codes, which stripped millions of blacks of their legal rights, Republican Congressmen passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, in an attempt to guarantee the right to vote for anyone born in the United States of America. President Johnson vetoed the Act, but the Senate once again overrode his veto, as did the House, allowing the Act to become Law.

In January 1867 President Johnson vetoed a bill to grant the right to vote to blacks living in the District of Columbia, the very capital of the country. His veto was over-ridden by the Senate and the Congress the following day.

The "Radical Republicans" tried to thwart Southern Democrats' efforts to continue to deny blacks the right to vote, through the First Reconstruction Act in early March 1868. This Act was vetoed by President Johnson; once again the Senate and Congress managed to over-ride his veto.

The Second Reconstruction Act of March 1868 was also vetoed by President Johnson; this time his veto was over-ridden the same day, March 22nd.

Two more Reconstruction Acts were vetoed by the President, and twice more his vetoes were over-ridden by an increasingly frustrated Senate and Congress.

In his State of the Union message delivered on December 3rd, 1867, President Johnson devotes paragraph after paragraph to his views on why it was such a mistake to give black-skinned citizens of the US the right to vote:
The morality is always false which excuses a wrong because it proposes to accomplish a desirable end. We are not permitted to do evil that good may come. But in this case the end itself is evil, as well as the means. The subjugation of the States to Negro domination would be worse than the military despotism under which they are now suffering.
It is not proposed merely that they shall govern themselves, but that they shall rule the white race, make and administer State laws, elect Presidents and members of Congress, and shape to a greater or less extent the future destiny of the whole country. Would such a trust and power be safe in such hands?
This is the historical background leading to Johnson's impeachment by the Congress, and the history-making vote in the Senate dramatized in this Sunday's installment of Radio Memories, below. Keep the above record in mind as you listen to the demonizing of the "Radical Republicans", determined to right the wrongs of history and establish the equal rights so long denied so many citizens of the Republic of the United States of America.

History is story, based on memory. Memory is faulty, in need of constant renewal; lack of such refreshing of memory in this case has resulted the story of President Andrew Johnson's impeachment becoming distorted like a funhouse mirror, re-shaped to serve the pressing political needs of the present age.

In his mammoth 1,200-page chronicle of another President Johnson, "The Years Of Lyndon Johnson Vol 3: Master Of The Senate", Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert A. Caro describes the 1865-1868 period as "[f]our years of struggle between a Congress dominated by Radical Republicans determined to solidify the equality of races and humble the Confederacy and a President more interested in reconciliation than revenge..." [page 24]

"Reconciliation", indeed. But, it's the "story" that we all know, the faulty memory we seem fated to remember.

Another author, Bruce Bartlett, recently revisited the historical record to refresh his, and our, memory on this chapter of North America's story. Bartlett summarizes his findings on the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson as follows:

"The textbooks still portray Johnson as the injured party and Republicans as the bully -- using extra-constitutional methods to usurp presidential power.
In fact, Congress had ample grounds for impeachment. It's mistake was in believing that it had to find Johnson guilty of violating the law to justify removing him from office, rather than simply saying that Johnson was not doing his job properly and removing him for that reason. But Johnson hadn't really broken the law, and the specific grounds upon which the House based impeachment were extremely weak. The Senate was right not to convict on them."
["Wrong On Race", Chapter 2, page 37]
The 1868 Presidential election was won by Republican candidate (and former US General) Ulysses S Grant; when the 15th Amendment was passed the following year, guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race. The last gasp of Reconstruction occurred in 1875, with the passing of Republican Senator Charles Sumner and Republican Benjamin Butler's Civil Rights Act, legislation designed to curb the ongoing discrimination against blacks in the South.

Unfortunately the many Republican attempts to bring equal rights to blacks in the South were undone in 1876, with the election of the next GOP President, Rutherford B. Hayes. The world got to hear quite a bit about the Hayes-Tilden disputed election of 1876 as it witnesed the disputed Bush-Gore election of 2000; what we didn't hear much about, was the compromise agreed upon to help resolve the deadlock in various southern state legislatures. Federal troops stationed in the former Confederate states were finally withdrawn, and with them went the will to enforce the various anti-discrimination measures enacted by the Republican-dominated Congress over the previous decade. In their place came the Jim Crow segregation policies, poverty, illiteracy, and misery that characterized the Democratic "solid south" record on race for almost a full century.

It took another Civil War, this time within the Democratic Party itself, to finally see the stirrings of conscience, the beginnings of justice, and the promise of peace.

In fact, broadcast as it was in the aftermath of the 1948 Presidential election, the listeners to this show would have been familiar with the latest Democratic Party split: the formation of the States Rights Democratic Party, or "Dixiecrats"... southern Democrats determined to preserve the "southern way of life" in the face of Democrat President Truman's stalled efforts to finally, finally, see a country where every citizen could vote.

And could rightfully say, as he looked in his mirror, that he presided over the Land of the Free.

Previous 2010 Radio Memories posts:

Great Gildersleeve: 1947 Easter show
Lux Radio Theater: Hitler's Children
Biography In Sound: The Story Of Science Fiction
Mr President: Romance In The White House
Frontier Fighters: George Pickett
Destination Freedom: Citizen Toussaint [Toussaint L'Ouverture]
Ports Of Call: Haiti

For a list of our 2009 Radio Memories listings, go here.

1 comment:

truepeers said...

We forget because it's convenient or pragmatic; we remember because we have to recover something we too conviently forgot; but we re-member not quite in the same way as the earlier memory of the figure we forgot. We are always in search of a figure to serve.

Thanks for an interesting post.