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The oft quoted and misquoted aphorisms about being doomed to repeat history have always confused me. History exists, as do similarities and differences with the past, regardless of what the current population “knows.” Also, since when are all similarities or repetitions assumed to be “doomed” and inherently bad? Nevertheless, I find the threats to the peaceful transfer of power to be deeply troubling, as this peaceful transfer of power is a hallmark of a democratic system. I am not alone in being troubled. Among historians, the current presidency has more than a few historians thinking about Andrew Johnson.


Johnson disagreed with the Republicans over civil rights for freed slaves, and worked to undermine the Republicans in power by trying to win over the southern democrats by blocking civil rights legislation. But Johnson also did something else that no one had ever done before – he began a personal campaigning tour by train. Confident in his ability as a stump orator, Johnson believed that if he only talked directly to the people, they would support his Reconstruction policies. Johnson was quite wrong. He delivered an almost identical speech in each location, so it did not take long for pro-Republicans to parody his remarks. Hecklers in Cleveland and St. Louis ignited his temper and caused him to make poor arguments and “indiscreet” statements. In locations like Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, hostile crowds shouted him down. The Republican newspapers denounced Johnson as a “vulgar, drunken demagogue who was disgracing the presidency.” Instead of persuading voters in the north, Johnson turned northern voters against him. In the November midterm election, Republicans retained control of every state in the north and increased their majority in Congress. Johnson vetoed bill after bill, and Congress overrode his vetoes and ignored his protests. Johnson was also impeached, but not removed from office.


Historian Albert Castel concluded this about Johnson, “few presidents faced a greater challenge than he did, and none failed more completely than he to meet that challenge successfully….Johnson quested for power all of his adult life; but when, through tragic circumstance, he gained the highest power, he proved incapable of using it in an effective and beneficial manner.”


Heather Cox Richardson, historian of U.S. history at Boston College, and author of “Letters from an American,” wrote this on October 9, 2020:
In all of this—except the Russia part—President Trump looks oddly like President Andrew Johnson, who took over the White House after Abraham Lincoln’s death at the hands of an assassin. Johnson was a former Democrat, and could not stand the idea of the Republican government ending systemic Black enslavement and leveling the playing field among races. He wanted to reclaim the nation for white men. Convinced he was defending America from a mob and that his supporters must retake control of the government in the midterm election of 1866 or the nation was finished, Johnson became increasingly unhinged until he began to compare himself to both the martyred Lincoln and Jesus Christ. He called his congressional opponents traitors who should be executed.
Egged on by the president, white supremacist gangs attacked Black Americans and their white allies, convincing Johnson that his party would sweep the midterms and he would gain control of the government to end Black rights.
Voters heard Johnson, all right. They were horrified by his attacks on the government and the violence he urged. It was an era in which only white men could vote, but even so, they elected to office not Johnson’s white supremacists, but Johnson’s opponents. And they didn’t just elect enough of those reasonable men to control Congress… voters gave them a supermajority.


I tend to agree with Castel and Richardson’s views of Johnson as a poor leader in an important time period during a national crisis. In fact, I’ve always thought that even his Presidential portrait seems to exhibit his distaste for the job. He looks like he just smelled a fart. When weighing leadership, historians examine personal background, historical context, personality, how leaders managed conflict and disagreements, and how leaders respond to circumstances and criticism. As far as I’ve read, no historical figure has ever received a perfect review. Even a rave review is hotly contested. Then again, as far as I know, no human has ever been perfect, which is why I get so confused when people insist on portraying themselves as ideal and perfect with no mistakes.


It will certainly be interesting to see what this current democracy will decide in the coming week.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

19 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Wow. Interesting. And now the parties are reversed.

  • Tom says:

    I see Heather Cox Richardson’s opinions fairly regularly as a Facebook ‘friend’ frequently posts them. She may be an intelligent woman and respected historian, but in her hatred of Trump she has become unhinged and no longer sees reality for what it is. In her list of ‘similarities’ to Andrew Johnson, I see nothing that Trump has actually done. She falls into the same trap as so many Trump-haters – there is more than enough about Trump that is truly reprehensible that you don’t need to imagine things being worse than they are. In my view, people like her hurt their own case because most reasonable people read her complaints and realize that it’s a gross exaggeration.

    I do not know how the election will come out, but I expect that a Trump win will result in significantly more violence and efforts to undermine the peaceful transfer of power (continuance in that case) than would a Trump loss.

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Thanks for your perspective, Tom. I suppose historians are allowed their own opinions as well. Good thing I did not just rely on one source for this post. Is historian Albert Castel incorrect in his evaluation of Johnson?

      • Tom says:

        I’ve not much knowledge of Andrew Johnson beyond the basics; I suspect Castel is right about Johnson. And I can’t really disagree with applying his assessment to Trump either, except that I don’t see Trump as “quest(ing) for power all of his adult life”. I think he loves fame and attention and yearns for respect. From what I know of him, despite his being a wealthy New Yorker, the wealthy, upper crust sophisticates of New York have always looked down on him as an uncouth rube so, while his wealth buys him access to many things, he’s never been accepted by that class of people. I suspect at least a small part of his running for president is an “up yours” to them. Perhaps in the end it’s their fault – if those snobs had just let him into their ‘club’ he would not have inflicted himself on the rest of us.

        To a large degree, he’s the proverbial dog who caught the UPS truck and, yes, he’s failed miserably at many important parts of a job that I suspect he didn’t really want and didn’t think he would get. In fact, his accomplishments are mostly in areas in which he’s generally uninterested so he’s happy to let other people do the work (re-shaping the courts being the best example).

        So, my comment was not to claim that Trump has been a good president, just to point out that making claims about him (and those who vote for him) that are at best exaggerations, but more accurately are just as dishonest as anything Trump says is hardly helpful.

        Cox runs off this list about Johnson, suggesting that Trump is doing the same (note to Dan – I’m not finding the credible references):
        + “could not stand the idea of . . . ending systemic Black enslavement” — Not quite.
        + “wanted to reclaim the nation for white men” – you need to twist the pretzel pretty aggressively to get there with Trump, unless she’s saying that believing that the foundational principles of the US are worth defending constitutes ‘reclaiming the nation for white men’. If that’s the case, them I guess I’m guilty of that as well.
        + “called his congressional opponents traitors who should be executed” – haven’t heard Trump make that call; an insulting tweet is not quite the same as execution.
        + “Egged on by the president, white supremacist gangs attacked Black Americans and their white allies” – not a lot of that going on, although there are few wackos – but if she’s going to make this argument then she’s also got to explain the ongoing rioting that continues in Portland (as one example), unless somehow Trump is responsible for that too.

        In short (actually, I do realize this hasn’t been that short): yes, Donald Trump is an incompetent boob that has no business being president. But he’s not Adolph Hitler – here’s a clue for Heather Cox Richardson: she’ll know that it’s Hitler when the jack-booted dudes show up and disappear her for what she’s written; that hasn’t happened and it ain’t gonna happen. And in she knows it ain’t gonna happen. When people like me who are out here just living our lives take 20 minutes in the evening to catch up on what’s going on in the world and see a screed like what she generally seems to produce, we quit after about the third paragraph because it’s hard to take her seriously.

        Just my opinion.

        • Tom says:

          One more thing: to be clear Ms. Koerselman, if this comes off an attack on you, then I apologize, that’s not the intent. I enjoy your writing here and find your essays engaging and thoughtful. I’ve just seen the wedge get driven deeper and deeper to the point where people can’t even go to church together because they can’t tolerate where other church members choose to put their political support. The blame is always put on Trump for the division and, while he certainly deserves his share of the blame, the informal sampling that makes up my personal experience is that the more hateful and intolerant comments come the anti-Trump side of the aisle. And hyperbole such as what Ms. Cox produces is a big part of what drives the wedge.

          I’ve heard the phrase somewhere that “anger is the devil’s cocaine”, and have come to believe that it’s true (I’ve never tried cocaine; I have been angry). It feels so good to be angry, especially when we’re sure we’re right – righteous anger is exhilarating! But it very quickly becomes addicting and progressively poisons more and more of life, and that’s what I see going on. I hear it in how people talk to each other about politics these days; I see it in Facebook comments; I see it in some of the essays posted on The Twelve, and it’s the only thing on which I will post push-back comments on this blog because I think it’s important to call it out.

          (You’ll have to trust me that I’m not writing this in anger )

    • Daniel Bos says:

      Heather Cox Richardson documents nearly every sentence with a credible reference.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Dr. Koerselman,

    It’s a representative republic, not a democracy.

    As I stated in this blog on January 17, 2020, President Trump will get 20% of the AA vote.

    At that point, will anyone here perhaps take some time to self-reflect and consider that maybe all this “TRUMP IS A RACIST!!” talk might just be slander?

    Whatever happens, everyone, remember that God sits on the throne yesterday, today, and forever.

    • MRZ says:

      RE “and consider that maybe all this “TRUMP IS A RACIST!!” talk might just be slander?”
      answer – No.
      just because 20% (if it is that) find some reason to vote Republican does not mean Trump is not racist. there may well be another reason they are voting the way they do – maybe the abortion issue, maybe something else. but that does not mean Trump is not a racist.
      by their actions you will know and I believe his actions are pretty clear.

      and if anyone knows what slander is it would be Trump. is there anybody he hasn’t slandered?

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Marty,
      I did not realize I called Trump a racist. Are we reading the same post?
      Also, I cannot speak for “anyone here.” Just myself and my take on various sources in the past and present.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        Of course I read your post. From today. Don’t be obtuse. It doesn’t take take a great leap of logic to see that your comparison (via Richardson) of President Johnson to the Current Occupant was based on Richardson’s opinion that the two men shared similar retrograde views of AA people.

        But, maybe I am mistaken, and you don’t agree with Richardson’s comparison. If so, I apologize.

        So… you don’t think Trump is a racist?

    • Noah says:

      The difference between the terms representative republic and democracy in this case are pure semantics. Obviously the US isn’t a direct democracy, but we are a representative constitutional democracy. We vote for our leaders who then vote on policies for us.

      Dr. Koerselman never made any claims about whether or not Trump is a Racist. You inferred it.

      As for Trump’s racist rhetoric, it is quite apparent. I can link to several articles that catalogue his racist statements, if you’d like. They are fair and even throw out claims of racist rhetoric if there isn’t enough evidence to back them up as all good seekers of the truth should do.

  • Rebecca,

    I never saw the similarities between these two before. What an astute observation. Thank you for this. It gives me the desire to re-read what I have read about Andrew Johnson. What a wonderful teacher you are! Thank you.

  • DanD says:

    Agree with Tom & Marty

  • Darryl De Ruiter says:

    And with this final straw, this camel’s back is broken. Not because I feel convicted by what the article is about, because I’m not, but rather because I have read one more totally biased political article in this blog. I am a lifelong reformed Christian and I am fine with people exercising their free speech to express their personal opinions and even beliefs about a political candidate or party. I am not fine with reading such opinions and beliefs in a blog that I hoped would be challenging me to grow in my faith, in my understanding of who God is, and in my role as a follower of Jesus. This indictment is not against this author nor the previous authors who shared their political viewpoints, regardless of party leanings or arguments, but rather against the editor(s) of the Reformed Journal.com blog who have allowed this infiltration of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah into what was to me a respectable and valuable resource. I’m out!

    • Jeff Carpenter says:

      Not a fan of Kuiper’s “every square inch” concept, then–so political discussion remains unto itself, shuttered up in a smoke-filled room—or is that the consistory? So much for being salt and light if the church doesn’t discuss or speak up/speak out on issues that affect our neighbors as well as ourselves.

    • Jim Brink says:

      Darryl, it troubles me that you see the Christian faith this way and that, as you say, your camel’s back has been broken. Based on sentiments which have been expressed in response to other articles on these pages I know you are not alone in how you feel. If I may ask, is it that you feel political points of view should not be expressed in the exercise of growing one’s faith or another person’s faith? Perhaps I’m not hearing you correctly but it does seem your position is that growing in our faith should be the primary task of the Reformed Journal without any other distractions or “blah, blah, blah” as you say. But what do you say? How would you describe or define this process of sharing and growing in our faith? What is fair game and what is not when it comes to a discussion of our faith? Can we together acknowledge that issues pertaining to justice, the social, emotional and economic well-being of our brothers and sisters, Christian stewardship to our planet and the redemption of all creation is a testament to the second greatest commandment our teacher and Lord has called us to perform. Agreed, we must be careful about judging others, but acting as a lame duck in the face of what any one of us might consider to be an assault on loving one another is not what the Lord asks of me. My reformed faith tells me that God is sovereign over every sphere of life (remember Calvin, Kuyper, Dooyewerd) including education, history, science, philosophy, economics, religion, to name a few, and, yes, even politics. In my view, politics has been relegated for too long to the sidelines (except, some might say, for the evangelicals). It shows. Now, in my mind politics can be an honorable place in which we should be able, as in so many other of life’s spheres, to showcase our faith, rather than hold our nose. I can identify with your sentiment that in the case of our present election, politics has become more putrid in so many ways. This should only show why Christians should be all the more seeking the redemption of politics in our nation by incorporating it into our faith-talk and faith-walk.

      • Darryl says:

        Jim, Thanks for reply and questions and comments. I am all for political discourse and even political argument and disagreement but in this setting I would expect it to be in the context of a sovereign God who, despite anything anyone says, is still in the throne. I too believe in God’s sovereignty over every sphere of life (including politics) but there was no mention of him in this article, nor previous ones on similar topics. I want to be challenged in my thoughts and beliefs and I am in agreement with you that as Christians we do need to discuss politics, especially as pertaining to how our involvement in such can help us better carry out God’s commandment of love, especially to our neighbors. I’m fine with that, I want that, I need that. Unfortunately, as in this case, just reading a one-sided opinion about a person and offering zero suggestions for change leaves me feeling….disappointed. I can get as much of that as I want on Facebook. I have much higher hope and expectations from the Reformed Journal.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Perhaps a more centrist historian’s perspective would suffice: historian and presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin on what leadership should look like— . . . having qualities of “humility, empathy, resilience, self-reflection, growing in office, acknowledging errors, shouldering blame for others, he (DT) doesn’t measure up.” No hatred, obvious or implied, in a judicious statement. On the other hand, HCR is keeping record of the nearly-daily excesses not only of DT but also of cabinet and other administration operatives, including AG Barr, often with historical perspective, always with sources, most often the words and public actions of those being critiqued. I don’t like what she reports either—because it shouldn’t be happening.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Rebecca, I really like what you wrote. I read all of your entries. There is a light that shines from God on your words. Keep it up.

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