Among the 45 American presidents, there is certainly one person easily associated with the notion of a tragic flaw that could become a perfect character of one of Shakespeare's tragedies - this is Andrew Johnson, possibly, one of the most controversial historical figures in the American history. His political carrier has been looked at both in the highly positive and extremely negative light. He is famous for his stubborn character and an unyielding position which some see as an advantage, while others - the majority - believe to be a tragic flaw. In the best Shakespearean traditions, this tragic flaw brought about Johnson's downfall - he almost got impeached, but also had a certain beneficial effect upon the American politics: his conflict with the Congress served as a crash-test for the political system of the United States, which helped test its weak points and develop an effective strategy of self-regulation.
Few people would call Johnson a consistent, reliable president. At first, he had a reputation of a very radical politician. Coming from a poor Southern family, Johnson was known to hate the rich plantation owners and was supposed to be quite extreme in his views. His reputation made him very popular among the northerners. However, when elected, Johnson quarreled with the party he belonged to and adopted such a mild and tolerant attitude to the defeated secessionists that the opposition feared of the complete loss of all the achievements gained thanks to the victory of the North in the war. Johnson unexpectedly vetoed the bills passed by the Congress concerning the conditions for the readmission of the South into the Union, as well as on the civil rights of the African Americans. Moreover, he dismissed Stanton, the Secretary of War. The Senate did not agree with this rash decision and announced the reasons for Stanton's dismissal unworthy of respect. As a result, Stanton was restored to the position. The House of Representatives decided (by a majority of 126 votes to 47) to initiate prosecution against Johnson. This is how the impeachment proceedings started. However, in March 1868 the Senate did not manage to form the majority of two-thirds, necessary for a conviction ("Andrew Johnson"). Though the impeachment never took place, Johnson came to be notoriously known for his racism and lack of political foresight.
Johnson failed to see that the former slaves were the huge social potential essential for the dynamic development of his native country. As a result, nowadays his name is most often associated with the Congress' struggle to impeach him. But his life is also a quintessentially American saga of success and failure that could be written only in the Brave New World. Gordon-Reed notes that "Johnson's story has a miraculous quality to it: the poor boy who systematically rose to the heights, fell from grace, and then fought his way back to a position of honor in the country. For good or ill, 'only in America,' as they say, could Johnson's story unfold in the way that it did" (Gordon-Reed 144). Obviously, Johnson is in a way an embodiment of the essentially American way of climbing the career ladder. His private tragic flaw is a symbol of the tragic flaw of the American Dream as a whole. In his 1955 essay "On privacy" William Faulkner offers a definition of the American Dream: "We will establish a new land where man can assume that every individual man - not the mass of men but individual men - has inalienable right to individual dignity and freedom within a fabric of individual courage and honorable work and mutual responsibility" (Faulkner 33). Thus, as Johnson's life illustrates, the tragic flaw of the American Dream is that by living it to the fullest, being persistent, strong, and literally unstoppable, an individual often happens to infringe the rights of his fellow human beings. Andrew Johnson followed his American Dream, climbed the political ladder, and became President, yet because he was not able to challenge his political ideals, he failed to realize that the African American population also had their indispensable right for freedom and dignity.
Thus, Johnson's stubbornness and inability to compromise are obviously the President's tragic flaw. These qualities helped him make his way from the very bottom of life to the pinnacle of the political Olympus. They taught him to never give up and always defend his position. Yet, the lack of flexibility also took the form of political shortsightedness. Johnson was so sure of his political and social views that they acted as blinders preventing him from seeing the long-term perspective. Giving the former slaves equal rights with the other Americans and enabling them to lead a fulfilled and useful life would have completely changed the political image of Andrew Johnson and also advanced the prosperity and social peace in the country created by and for the immigrants. Had he worked together with the Congress to restore the economic and social balance in the country, he would have been remembered by the generations to come with much more warmth and gratitude.
Andrew Johnson is certainly not the best example for the modern American politicians to follow, yet, his life and downfall - quite reminiscent of King Lear's authoritative, shortsighted position founded on the immense sense of entitlement - seem to be a very useful lesson for them. As James Ford Rhodes explains, "He [Johnson] had intellectual force but it worked in a groove. Obstinate rather than firm it undoubtedly seemed to him that following counsel and making concessions were a display of weakness" (Rhodes 589). The tragic flaw Johnson never wanted to recognize and fight ruined his historical reputation, but it also helped activate the political "immune system" of the USA, making Johnson a character worth a Shakespearean tragedy.
"Andrew Johnson." Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 28 Apr. 2017, www.biography.com/people/andrew-johnson-9355722.Faulkner, William. "On Privacy. The American Dream." Harper's Magazine, July 1955, pp. 33-38.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. Andrew Johnson: The 17th President, 1865-1869. Times Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2011.Rhodes, James Ford. History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 ... Macmillan Co., 1904.
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