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Andrew Johnson, Speech before Washington's Birthday Meeting, Washington, D.C., February 22, 1866

President Andrew Johnson, speaking on Washington's Birthday in Washington, D.C., February 22, 1866, artist's impression, detail
In a remarkable speech before a largely Democratic meeting outside the White House in Washington, D.C., said to be delivered extemporaneously, President Andrew Johnson made what amounted to a declaration of war on Radicals in Congress. This came three days after Johnson had somewhat unexpectedly vetoed the Freedmens' Bureau Bill which sought to expand the powers of the agency, especially in the South. Up to this moment, moderate Republicans like the bill's sponsor, Senator Lyman Trumbull, had hoped and expected to work with the president on Reconstruction policy. This speech was filled with fiery rhetoric that condemned Republican leaders across the board as traitors "engaged in the work of breaking up the Government by amendments to the Constitution." Stating melodramatically that he was prepared to share the fate of Abraham Lincoln to defend the nation against the concentration of powers in Washington, Johnson pledged to fight the Radicals but ended his talk on a curiously pessimistic note, saying "When your country is gone, and you are about, look out and you will find the humble individual who now stands before you weeping over its final dissolution." The response to the speech in the press was that of shock. The response in the Congress was to unite previously moderate Republicans, like Trumbull, with Radicals like Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, and open the conflict over Reconstruction that would result in the unprecedented overturning of presidential vetoes and the eventual impeachment of Johnson himself. (By John Osborne)


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