When Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated the 18th President of the United States on March 4, 1869, his immediate predecessor refused to attend any ceremonies for the new president and his incoming administration. The animosity between the two men had reached a boiling point, despite Grant having served in Andrew Johnson’s Cabinet as the U.S. secretary of war. The outgoing president opted to host a final Cabinet meeting during Grant’s inauguration and then rode out of town, rather unceremoniously.
Nearly a century and a half later, we face similar regional, political and cultural divisions. With President TrumpDonald TrumpMcConnell circulates procedures for second Senate impeachment trial of Trump Trump suggests building own platform after Twitter ban Poll: 18 percent of Republicans support Capitol riots MORE’s announcement Friday that he will forgo attending President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenUS judge blocks Trump administration’s restrictions on asylum eligibility McConnell circulates procedures for second Senate impeachment trial of Trump Top Trump official rescinds then reissues resignation letter to say departure is in protest MORE’s swearing-in on Jan. 20, he becomes the first living president since Johnson not to attend his successor’s inauguration. Speculation is mounting that Trump will likely host some kind of counterinaugural event during Biden’s swearing-in, similar to Johnson’s White House Cabinet meeting. Unfortunately for Johnson, the advent of network television was still many decades away, saving news executives from making difficult decisions on coverage and robbing the outgoing leader of his final insult toward the new administration.
Grant’s inauguration was the first set in front of the recently completed Capitol Dome finished in January 1866. Even during the height of the Civil War, with the Confederate capital less than 100 miles away in Richmond, Va., no Southern soldier was able to breach the Capitol and display the “Stars and Bars” of the flag of the Confederacy. That 150-year record ended Wednesday when insurrectionists backing Trump’s ill-fated pleas to remain in office ransacked the U.S. Capitol.
The manner in which Trump’s presidency is ending is not the only similarity between him and the 17th president. Around this time last year, the Senate was preparing for the coming impeachment trial of Trump, only the third time the upper chamber had met to hear articles of impeachment against a sitting president. In 1868, Johnson became the first sitting president to be impeached at the hands of the House of Representatives. Similar to Trump and former President Clinton, the Senate eventually voted to acquit after a contentious trial.
Both Johnson’s and Trump’s impeachments occurred in the final year of their first term, casting a long shadow over their attempts to retain their office. Johnson, a Democrat, failed to garner the nomination of his party during the 1868 Democratic National Convention held in New York City, despite his deep level of support among Southern white voters. Trump, a Republican, has drawn from a similar base of support, largely Southern whites who helped him retain states such as Florida and North Carolina as well as the Deep South. Keenly aware of geopolitical dynamics between the states, Johnson and Trump both played on racial and economic inequalities in an overt attempt to stay in power, but ultimately came up short.
There is also a now-infamous story that took place earlier in Johnson’s term when a group of his supporters marched to the White House in honor of Washington’s birthday in February of 1866. Addressing the crowd, Johnson spoke for nearly an hour, making only passing references to our nation’s first president while referring to himself more than 200 times. He also used the speech to castigate political opponents, including many Republican members of Congress and leading abolitionists of the time. Remind you of anyone? Can you imagine what Johnson would have done with Twitter?
In the waning days of the Trump administration, the 45th president is taking one final play from Johnson’s playbook, deploying an unprecedented number of pardons. On Christmas Day 1868, Johnson issued a total and complete pardon for the hundreds of thousands of former Confederate soldiers and leaders, “effectively expunging the crime of treason from the record of millions of Americans.” While Johnson still holds the record for total number of pardons, Trump has been making considerable progress in trying to rival his early predecessor, granting amnesty to a whole cast of criminal associates, political allies and many others connected to the current administration.
American historian and Columbia University professor Eric Foner in American Heritage wrote, “Andrew Johnson lacked Lincoln’s qualities of greatness. While Lincoln had been open-minded, willing to listen to criticism, attuned to the currents of northern public opinion, and able to get along with all elements of his party, Johnson was stubborn … and insensitive to the opinions of others. If anyone was responsible for the wreck of his presidency, it was Johnson himself.”
The history books have yet to be written on the Trump era, but an early appraisal of the past four years would likely mirror Foner’s estimation of the Johnson years. If anyone was responsible for the wreck of his presidency, it will be Trump himself.
Kevin Walling (@kevinpwalling) is a Truman National Security Project Partner, Democratic strategist, Vice President at HGCreative, co-founder of Celtic Strategies, and a regular guest on Fox News, Fox Business and Bloomberg TV and Radio.