Abraham Lincoln in the presidential chair was regarded by many of the politicians of his party as an "unutterable calamity"; and while the news of Lincoln's assassination was received with expressions of genuine grief, the accession of Vice-President Andrew Johnson was looked upon as a "Godsend to the country." As the Civil War came to a close, Lincoln opposed severe punishments for the leaders of the Confederacy; he urged respect for the rights of the southern people; he desired to recognize the existence of a Union element in the South, to restore the states to their usual relations with as little ill-feeling as possible, and in the restoration process to interfere but little with the normal powers of the states. Johnson, on the contrary, "breathed fire and hemp." "Treason," he asserted over and again, "should be made odious, and traitors must be punished and impoverished. Their great plantations must be seized, and divided into small farms and sold to honest, industrious men." For a time it seemed that the curtain would go down on the tragedy of Civil War only to rise immediately on the execution of the Confederate leaders and the confiscation of their property. A large and active group of Washington politicians believed in the necessity of a stern accounting with the "rebels." Lincoln's gentleness seemed to these bitter northerners like a calamity; Johnson's vindictiveness like a Godsend to the country. In the conflict between the policy of clemency and the policy of severity is to be found the beginning of the period of reconstruction.

Andrew Johnson was a compact, sturdy figure, his eyes black, his complexion swarthy. In politics he had always been a Democrat. So diverse were his characteristics that one is tempted to ascribe two personalities to him. He was a tenacious man, possessed of a rude intellectual force, a rough-and-ready stump speaker, intensely loyal, industrious, sincere, self-reliant. His courage was put to the test again and again, and nobody ever said that it failed. His loyalty held him in the Union in 1861, although he was a senator from Tennessee and his state as well as his southern colleagues were withdrawing. His public and private integrity withstood a hostile investigation that included the testimony of all strata of society, from cabinet officers to felons in prison. Later, at the most critical moment of his whole career, when he had hardly a friend on whom to lean, he was unflurried, dignified, undismayed.

Although Johnson was born in North Carolina, the greater part of his life was spent in eastern Tennessee. His education was of the slightest. His wife taught him to write, and while he plied his tailor's trade she read books to him that appealed to his eager intellect. When scarcely of voting age he became mayor of the town in which he lived and by sheer force of character made his way up into the state legislature, the federal House of Representatives and the Senate. President Lincoln made him military governor of Tennessee in 1862. In 1864 many Democrats and most Republicans joined to form a Union party, and in order to emphasize its non-sectional and non-partisan character they nominated Andrew Johnson as Lincoln's running mate. And now this unschooled, poor-white, slave-holding, Jeffersonian, states-rights Democrat had become President of the United States.

It was scarcely to be expected that a man who had fought his way to the fore in eastern Tennessee during those controversial years would possess the characteristics of a diplomat. Even his friends found him uncommunicative, too often defiant and violent in controversy, irritating in manners, indiscreet, and lacking flexibility in the management of men. The messages which he wrote as President were dignified and judicious, and his addresses were not lacking in power, but he was prone to indulge in unseemly repartee with his hearers when speaking on the stump. He exchanged epithets with bystanders who were all too ready to spur him on with their "Give it to 'em, Andy!" and "Bully for you, Andy!" giving the presidency the "ill-savor of a corner grocery" and filling his supporters with amazement and chagrin. The North soon looked upon him as a vulgar boor and remembered that he had been intoxicated when inaugurated as Vice-President. Unhappily, too, he was distrustful by nature, giving his confidence reluctantly and with reserve, so that he was almost without friends or spokesmen in either house of Congress. His policies have commended themselves, on the whole, even after the scrutiny of half a century. The extent to which he was able to put them into effect is part of the history of reconstruction.

The close of the Civil War found the nation as well as the several sections of the country facing a variety of complicated and pressing social, economic and political problems. Vast armies had to be demobilized and re-absorbed into the economic life of the nation. Production of the material of war had to give way to the production of machinery, the building of railroads and the tilling of the soil. The South faced economic demoralization. The federal government had to determine the basis on which the lately rebellious states should again become normal units in the nation, and the civil, social and economic status of the negro had to be readjusted in the light of the outcome of the war. Most of these problems, moreover, had to be solved through political agencies, such as party conventions and legislatures, with all the limitations of partisanship that these terms convey. And they had obviously to be solved through human beings possessed of all the prejudices and passions that the war had aroused: through Andrew Johnson with his force and tactlessness; through able, domineering and vindictive Thaddeus Stevens; through narrow and idealistic Charles Sumner and demagogic Benjamin F. Butler; as well as through finer spirits like William Pitt Fessenden and Lyman Trumbull.