The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This book is so timely that I can’t even predict how someone will read the phrase “this book is so timely” in the gap between writing this review and posting it. So timely. You might want to read it for that reason. You might want to avoid it for that reason, but if so, definitely read it later, because this is good stuff. Wineapple does not fall into common historian traps like referring to white Southerners as simply “Southerners”; she is willing to state flat out when one of her subjects is known to be lying and when they might or might not have been lying but definitely were wrong.

The first section, about the Reconstruction before impeachment proceedings, made me think a lot about the essential problems of forming a civil society with people who don’t think you’re human. I feel that most American schools under-teach the Reconstruction. The end of the Civil War is presented as a triumph; the path to the Civil Rights movement sort of a hand-waving muddle. Culturally there is a focus on a narrative of progress: no longer slaves! full civil rights! Yay! Wineapple goes into clear and succinct detail on the sorts of crimes that did not end with the Civil War–in fact in some directions intensified–and their impact on Black Americans for more than 150 years. Even if you have some background in this material, she handles it well. It’s very clarifying, too, how a person can consider themself to be on the right side–can even be, more or less, on what history will consider the right side–and still not have done the self-examination enough to grow in their treatment of other people, their perspective on others’ needs. This book is a thorough demonstration of how choosing the right side is not enough, dreaming of a just nation is not enough.

There are characters in this narrative, compelling, astonishing characters. Thaddeus Stevens and his family of choice, Frederick Douglass, Vinnie Ream, Ulysses S. Grant and his incredibly touching friendship with William Tecumseh Sherman. No perfect people, but fascinating ones, well-drawn.

The impeachment itself is a parade of dead ends, times when people were ready to give up, things not making a lot of sense. It ends abruptly. But it’s an incredibly useful perspective to have, in a century where Nixon and Clinton shape our view of censured presidents and what good censuring them does. You don’t have to trust the process. It doesn’t always result in the most justice for the most humans. But there are things that are worth doing even if they can’t be completed. Even if there’s still more to be done 150 years later. Having a torch to pass along is better than extinguishing it.

Also, Andrew Johnson: screw that guy, man. I have all sorts of more nuanced historical take here–and so does Brenda Wineapple, way more nuanced than mine–but really it’s probably never a bad moment to roll your eyes at that guy. Blech.

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