President Johnson (man on platform facing left) spent 15 minutes in Geneva in 1866; his railroad car stopped next to the Tompkins House on the northwest corner of Lewis and Exchange streets. Geneva Historical Society
In keeping with our Presidential Visits series, we look at the visit of then President Andrew Johnson and future President Ulysses S. Grant on September 1st, 1866 as part of Johnson’s so-called Swing Around the Circle.
[Of note: the series originated from research done by Rochester N.Y. – Today in History: A historical journal of life in Rochester, NY, List of Presidential Visits. The site is a rich resource but has some omissions: Johnson, Grant, Cleveland, McKinley, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower. Also, Van Buren, Fillmore, and Monroe (forthcoming)]
In April 1865, following Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson (a lifetime Democrat from Tennessee) championed his version of Reconstruction. Even more so than Lincoln, Johnson sought extreme leniency towards the South. Johnson advocated for quick southern readmission into the Union, including ex-Confederate leaders serving in Congress. He opposed the Freedman’s Bureau and the 14th Amendment. As such, Johnson clashed with the Radical Republicans who viewed the South as a defeated nation deserving of punitive actions in which the freed slaves should be granted broad political powers.
In late summer 1866, Johnson undertook the unprecedented task of campaigning for the pivotal 1866 midterm congressional elections that were regarded as a referendum on Reconstruction. The trip was named the Swing Around the Circle because Johnson’s path took a circle from New England to the Midwest (including Rochester). In Johnson’s company was Ulysses S. Grant who would succeed Johnson as President.
Johnson’s goals were to defend his approach and also to promote the creation of a third party for an 1868 presidential run. The trip was a disaster. Johnson’s speeches ridiculed Democrats, Republicans, and blacks, alienating potential supporters. Accused of drunkenness on the later stops on the tour, Johnson sometime referred to himself as a Christ figure or his antagonists as Judas. The Republicans won a landslide in the 1866 elections, setting the stage for Johnson’s impeachment. However, while Johnson mostly lost in New York State, he did carry Monroe County.
To learn more about Johnson’s stop in Rochester on the Swing Around the Circle, I met with Brandon Fess, Librarian in the Local History and Geneology Division in the Rochester Public Library. Brandon focuses on 19th and early 20th century political and economic history primarily before World War I. Brandon has extensively researched the Reconstruction era.
First, I wondered whether the failure of the Circle was primarily due to Johnson’s unprecedented effort at electioneering or his own mismanagement of the tour? I also wondered how the Circle compared with Woodrow Wilson’s tour to sell the Versailles Treaty. Brandon says:
Johnson failed on both accounts, as his electioneering was abnormal for a president in the 19th century, and the tour itself was a rather transparent fraud. The Presidency in the 19th century was a very different office than today, and a sitting president was expected to be a model of decorum. Engaging in the act of electioneering in general was considered below the office, and to do so for candidates who in many cases didn’t even belong to his own party was a violation of the much stronger party discipline of the times. Moreover, the tour itself quickly turned into a farce, with Johnson’s notoriously short temper breaking over heckling from the crowds and Republican leaders in the Midwest failing to even appear at tour stops. While the tour was less personally disastrous than Wilson’s equally ill-fated tour (Wilson returned with ruined physical health), the Swing Around the Circle was every bit as much a political disaster as Wilson’s tour, in that it only went to prove that Johnson’s already weak political capital could not be rebuilt even through a direct appeal to the American people.
Today, Johnson’s inflammatory and confrontation public style on the Circle has been compared to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. However, for Trump, the style galvanized his supporters; while for Johnson his incendiary broadsides actually were cited in his impeachment trial.
See In Vox , Keith E. Whittington’s Trump’s rhetoric is offensive, but is it an impeachable offense? The similarities between Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump. and In The New Yorker, Amy Davidson’s Sorkin’s Summer Reading for the Trump Administration: Ron Chernow on the Midterm Elections of 1866.
From there, Brandon and I went into the archives to find accounts from the Union & Advertiser and the Daily Democrat.
The Union & Advertiser adulatorily reported on Johnson’s stop. The article claims 30,000 enthusiastic supporters gathered at the train station to greet the President. From there, Johnson and company dined at Congress Hall (later renamed as the Brackett House). The story lists the many dignitaries in attendance.
The article even regaled an old Rochester resident who supposedly had met George Washington and was now honored to meet Johnson.The Union & Advertiser declared September 1st, 1866 to be a great day in Rochester history.
In an ironic twist, the article was immediately followed with an announcement that the Radical Republicans — Johnson’s nemesis — were holding a convention in Pittsford, pointing to the fraught debates on Reconstruction in Rochester.
By stark contrast, The Rochester Daily Democrat was highly critical. (The Daily Democrat would become the Democrat and Chronicle in 1870). Its account barely mentioned any of the particulars of the visit: who greeted Johnson, the crowd size and reaction, his dinner at Congress Hall. Instead, the piece was a full throated condemnation of Johnson’s “demagoguery” and the need for congress and the people to reject his policy of extreme leniency — that included allowing the former Vice President of the Confederacy to serve as a Senator from Georgia! Alongside the article, was an ongoing endorsement of Grant for the presidential election yet two years away and for which Grant had yet to show interest.
I asked Brandon about the dichotomous accounts in which one reported Johnson’s visit in a positive light while the other depiction was almost wholly negative. Brandon says:
There are two factors at work in the dichotomous newspaper accounts: the politics of 19th century newspaper writing and the fractured nature of the Republican party in 1866. Newspapers in the 19th century were far more diverse than they were for most of the 20th century, with papers taking explicit political views supported by a dedicated reader base who supported said views. Taking an intensely partisan tact in news articles, not just editorials, was fundamental to this politicized newspaper world. With dedicated reader bases and relatively low overhead, it was possible for communities of even modest size to host several newspapers, with each paper taking a subtle political shade. This is reflected in the two Rochester newspapers you examined – the Union & Advertiser was a Democratic/moderate Republican paper, while the Daily Democrat was, confusingly, the radical Republican paper. Grant was seen as the champion of Radicalism (not personally, but politically), while Johnson’s plans for moderate Reconstruction were anathema to Radicals. Thus, it isn’t surprising to see a Republican paper hammering at the Republican president – he wasn’t the right kind of Republican for them to support.
We also looked at reports from Johnson’s next stop, in Geneva for a quick 15 minute speech.
As reported in the Finger Lakes Times‘ WAY BACK WHEN IN ONTARIO COUNTY: Newspapers not always objective in campaigns , the Democrat and Republican leaning newspapers had divergent accounts.
The Republican Courier gave a brief report of “their” president’s visit — Johnson came, he was welcomed, he spoke — with several sharp words at the end:
The crowd had a good sight at [Secretary of State William] Seward and [General Ulysses] Grant, and caught a glimpse of [Admiral David] Farragut. It was a strange party: Johnson, the Apostate, whose signal incapacity for his office is daily so apparently manifesting itself, Seward, who in time past has done so much and such effective work in the cause of human liberty, now vacillating and weak, and Grant and Farragut, who have proved themselves such true and tried heroes, all traveling in company! The last two veterans, it is remembered, declared that they accompanied the President in obedience to orders.
The Courier held nothing back — “signal incapacity” — and like the Daily Democrat far preferred Johnson’s travelling companion, Grant, to the President.
By contrast, the Gazette praised Johnson for resisting supposedly the radical Republican line: “Our people wish to see the man who, in opposition to party mandates and menaces, acted alone for the public good.” Furthermore, the Gazette pictures radicals as a small rabble deserving indignance:
The conduct of a few, a very few radicals, was reprehensible in premature and persistent calls for ‘Grant’ while Mr. Slosson and the President were speaking, and when Secretary Seward was introduced. The distinguished party are above suffering indignity at the hands of such rabble.
Noting that even a smaller town like Geneva would have multiple newspapers and that the Finger Lakes political milieu was similar to Rochester, Brandon was unsurprised that one paper would be so derisive while the other so supportive — even as Swing Around the Circle was proving to be political suicide for Johnson.
If there was a winner in the Swing, it may have been Grant (even if he didn’t realize it at the time) who had begrudgingly accompanied Johnson. In 1868, a groundswell of support — much premised on Johnson’s unpopularity — swept Grant to the Republican nomination and presidential victory.
In New York, Grant would win Monroe County, but lose in Ontario County (Geneva). Grant would lose New York State to the former New York Governor Horatio Seymour in the 1868 election. Winning by the narrow margin of 1.18%, Seymour was the first Democratic candidate since Franklin Pierce in 1852 to win the state.
In 1872, Grant again won Monroe County. In 1872, Susan B. Anthony cast her famous vote in Rochester for Grant. Anthony did not chose to back the female candidate, Victoria Woodhull.
THE PRESIDENTIAL VISITS SERIES