Of the 44 presidents in U.S. history, we know of 17 who passed through McLean County, from Millard Fillmore (the 13th president) to Barack Obama (the 44th). Of these 17, the most divisive figure, without question, was Andrew Johnson. To say his brief Sept. 7, 1866, stop in Bloomington was a disaster, politically speaking, is putting it mildly. After all, how often does a sitting U.S. president get chased out of town by an unruly mob?
A Democrat from Tennessee, Johnson was the only Southern U.S. senator to remain in the Union during the Civil War. In the 1864 presidential election, Republicans, in a conciliatory gesture to both Northern Democrats and moderate Southerners, picked Johnson as Abraham Lincoln’s running mate.
In April 1865, assassination vaulted Johnson into the White House, and it was only a matter of time before the stubborn, ill-tempered Tennessean clashed with Radical Republicans in Congress who favored punishing Confederate leaders and extending civil and political rights to some 4 million ex-slaves. Johnson, on the other hand, favored the rapid reincorporation of the former Confederate states into the Union, with little or no regard to the rights of African Americans. “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men,” Johnson told the governor of Missouri.
On Aug. 27, 1866, President Johnson embarked on an unprecedented 18-day speaking tour in an attempt to rally Northern Democrats to his cause of limited Reconstruction. The tour, which became known as the “Swing Around the Circle,” took the president and his party on a circuitous route from Washington, D.C. to New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh (and many cities and towns in between) and back to the nation’s capital. The large party accompanying Johnson included cabinet members Secretary of State William H. Seward and Postmaster General Alexander W. Randall, as well as potential rival Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
The “Swing” began well enough, but by the Sept. 3 stop in Cleveland, rancorous crowds began jeering the president, saving their enthusiasm for Grant, the war hero many Republicans embraced as the true heir to the martyred Lincoln. After Chicago the increasingly embattled Johnson and his party traveled south to St. Louis on the Chicago & Alton Railroad, with brief stops in Bloomington and elsewhere along the line.
For its part, The Pantagraph, a devoted supporter of Lincoln and now Grant, made no effort to hide its disdain for the current president, referring to Johnson as “His Accidency” or “The Presidential Demagogue.”
On Sept. 7, a Bloomington crowd of some 4,000 mostly Republican supporters gathered to watch the president’s train pull into the west side C&A depot. Grant appeared at the rear platform to shake hands with supporters, generating, according to The Pantagraph, “the wildest excitement we have ever witnessed.” After Grant stepped back inside the train, outnumbered Democrats countered with calls for Johnson. The president stepped out and attempted a speech but found it impossible to continue in the face of “deafening cries” for Grant. Randall scolded the unruly opposition before backing down himself amid a chorus of “hisses and groans.” Someone then called for three cheers for Grant, and the ensuing celebration was such that a number in the crowd were injured. Johnson reappeared, managed a few lines between “huzzahs” for Grant, and as he waited for the crowd to quiet down the train unceremoniously pulled out of the depot.
As a final indignity, the president’s train passed an effigy strung from a telegraph pole, the figure holding “a loaf of bread in one hand, and a lump of butter in the other.” (Political appointees and supporters of Johnson’s were said to comprise the “Bread and Butter Brigade.”)
The Pantagraph applauded the “spontaneous outburst of Illinois indignation,” aimed at Johnson and his policies. “The Copperheads,” declared the newspaper, employing the derisive term for Northern traitors during the Civil War, “know that our people have become thoroughly disgusted with the president’s insolent insults, and that the time has come for him to be met by a stern rebuke.”
In the end, the “Swing Around the Circle” was an abject failure, as the 1866 midterm congressional elections ended in a landslide for Republicans, the party increasing its already formidable majority in Congress. Even so, Johnson and the Radical Republicans remained at odds, with the intractable stalemate coming to a head in 1868 when the U.S. House of Representatives impeached him, though the Senate voted for acquittal by the narrowest of margins—a single vote.