• Susannah Colt

AN UP-CLOSE VIEW OF HOW HISTORIES ARE WRITTEN - My father's relationship to Andrew Johnson

Now that Trump is former President Trump, the historians are debating whether he should be declared the “Worst President in American History,” replacing Andrew Johnson or James Buchanan for that exalted honor. I’m not qualified to chime in on that debate.

My half-sister, who is a direct descendent of Andrew Johnson (great, great, great-granddaughter), received a phone call from a reporter asking for her thoughts on the subject of Johnson’s place in history. She had no comment. Her relationship to Johnson is the reason why I’ve recently become very interested in his life and presidency.

Having a familial connection to a historical figure, especially one who has garnered so much controversy, has made me question how history is written. Who gets to make history, who gets to decide who makes history and who gets to write history? How do people learn about history? In essence, I find history to be a bit of a mystery.

When my father, Thomas C. Colt, Jr., married Johnson’s great, great-granddaughter, Belle Willingham, in 1933, Johnson was hailed as a hero at that time. They were married in Richmond, Virginia, where Belle was born. Jim Crow laws were everywhere in Richmond (the former Capitol of the Confederacy).

My father was born in Orange, New Jersey in 1905. His grandfather fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. There was slightly more mixing of the races in the public schools my father attended in Orange until he was enrolled in private boy’s preparatory schools and then attended Dartmouth College, both all-white schools. My father had slightly more liberal tendencies, which he had to suppress to a certain extent when he ended up moving to Richmond during the depression.

My father fell head over heels in love with Belle, a beautiful belle of the south with a very interesting family history. I’m certain part of the attraction was her connection to a famous president, a president whose reputation had been reinvigorated after the U.S. Supreme Court found the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional, which was one of the causes of Johnson’s impeachment (see, My Turn “Through the lens of the Johnson impeachment” Jan. 22, 2021).

Belle’s mother, Martha Willingham, had been taught to revere her great-grandfather and never strayed from considering him a true hero of the Civil War era. She went to her grave, which was at the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Greeneville, thinking of him as one of the greatest presidents of the United States. When she died in 1969, President Nixon sent a telegram to Belle stating her mother’s “patriotism, courage and devotion to America matched his [Andrew Johnson’s], and inspired many of her fellow citizens to perpetuate the historic role of a dedicated American President.”

Tennessee Congressman James H. Quillen also wrote to Belle stating “I shall never forget Andrew Johnson and his descendents (sic) for he was one of our greatest presidents and his service to mankind is a shining example for others to follow.”

Quillen’s characterization of Johnson as “one of our greatest presidents” was consistent with the tone and tenor of the majority of the biographies written about Johnson prior to 1960.

The first biography to reassess Johnson’s reputation as a patriot was written by Eric McKittrick in 1960, entitled Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. McKittrick would describe Johnson as a racially insensitive failure. Since then there have been several biographies that would also seriously challenge Quillen’s assessment by Hans L. Trefousse (1989), Paul H. Bergeron (2012), and Annette Gordon-Reed (2011), to name a few.

I decided to read one of the early biographies to see how Johnson was depicted, so I read Andrew Johnson – Plebian and Patriot by Robert W. Winston, 1928. I had never read a book by an unapologetic white supremacist before and it practically made my eyes bleed. He declared Johnson a “National Hero” who tried to save the South from being “Africanized.” Need I say more?

In 1942, MGM studios released a movie depicting the life of Andrew Johnson entitled “Tennessee Johnson.” My father, Belle, and Martha attended the Washington, D.C. premiere at Loew’s theater, which featured an appearance by Ruth Hussey, the actress who played Johnson’s wife, Eliza. As descendants of the president, they were treated like royalty. My father, who was on leave from the war, appeared in his Marine dress blues while the ladies wore their finest gowns.

The opening credits of the movie states: “The form of our medium compels certain dramatic liberties, but the principal facts of Johnson’s own life are based on history.” I found the movie completely white-washed the facts. The word “slavery” was uttered just once during the entire 2-hour movie. The question is whose history did they base the movie on? After reading Winston’s biography, I’m guessing the screenwriters got their information from that book.

Would my father have picked up on the historical errors in the movie, which were plentiful? Did my father know that famous actors of that time period, Zero Mostel, Vincent Price and Ben Hecht, among others, would petition the Office of War Information to destroy the film in the interest of national unity? They strongly objected to the way the film portrayed Thaddeus Stevens, who had been a fierce and devoted abolitionist.

One movie critic hailed the movie saying, “Before “Tennessee Johnson” is retired to the archives of M.G.M., its hero’s country will discover that he was a grievously maligned man.” Another critic was less solicitous saying, “All you have to do is read a couple of hundred of the better history books to discover for yourself that there is plenty to be said on either side or all sides.”

My father was apparently swept away by the dramatic liberties as evidenced by the fact that two days later he took my half-brother, Tommy, to see the movie explaining to his 8 year-old son that Johnson was his ancestor. When Tommy returned to school and bragged about Johnson, the children just said, “So what.”

When Clinton was being impeached in 1998, my half-brother was interviewed many times by many newspapers. In an article, Tommy was quoted as saying “At school I was taught that Andrew Johnson was a bad president because he was impeached. At home, I heard that he was a wonderful president because he saved his country. It was very confusing.”

I agree, history is confusing and requires one to be doggedly discerning, especially in this day and age when information/disinformation is so plentiful. Plus, it is important to remember that Hollywood sacrifices truth to “dramatic liberties” and should not be our only source for historical education.

I cannot ask my father or my half-brother what they think about Johnson today because they are both long gone. My half-sister is just exasperated stating, “Being related to him has never been an uplifting experience.” Perhaps we all need to be mindful of the fact that we do not get to choose our ancestors.

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