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Andrew Johnson gets his own $1 coin

February 20, 2011|Andrew Malcolm

Finally, a $1 coin honoring Andrew Johnson, one of the most overlooked U.S. presidents.

OK, maybe James Garfield, who spent six months in office, was more forgettable. Or Warren Harding, the first sitting senator to move to the White House.

Until this minute, millions of Americans had no idea we needed an Andrew Johnson presidential $1 coin, which just came out.

"Beginning today," the U.S. Mint's Daniel Shaver said Thursday, "millions of Andrew Johnson presidential $1 coins will be released into circulation by Federal Reserve Banks across the nation. During 2011, they will make their way into the hands and pockets of many Americans, connecting America through coins to Andrew Johnson and his presidency."

Also countless dresser drawers.

Though popular perhaps with the vending machine industry, $1 coins aren't seen as often as, say, quarters. But there's a reason the Mint churns them out: It can sell collectors a roll of 25 $1 coins for $35.95. (Pause) That's the kind of deal that makes sense only in places like Washington, where some argue we can cut the deficit by spending more.

Andrew Johnson's presidential coin is the 17th in the series, not coincidentally because he was the 17th president, following Abraham Lincoln's 1865 assassination. Andrew (we call him that because it's such an elegant first name) is perhaps best known as the first president to be impeached, though not convicted.

But it turns out his was quite an eventful presidency, pocked by the bitterness of postwar pains and a harsh Washington political climate that makes today's look like "Sesame Street." Johnson was a Southern Republican who held that those rebel states never actually seceded because the Union is indissoluble. And therefore, harsh Reconstruction measures were unnecessary.

Although he represented Tennessee in both houses, Johnson did not get on well with Congress, which overrode many of his vetoes and passed a law saying he could not fire a Cabinet member without Senate approval.

So he did.

Hence, the impeachment proceedings.

Also overlooked: Had there been one more senator voting to convict Johnson, who had no vice president, the pattern of American politics might well have evolved quite differently, with Congress acquiring the habit of ousting uncooperative presidents and, given contemporary succession rules, possibly moving a legislator into the White House.

Johnson, however, survived to finish his term in 1869.

Before leaving, the Johnson administration paid the financially challenged Russian Czar Alexander II the exorbitant sum of $7.2 million for those 664,000 square miles of frozen wasteland in Alaska.

That was both a 2-cent-per-acre thank-you for Russian support of the North during the unpleasantness among states and because Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward could see Russia from their front porch there.

No, seriously, they both had a ridiculous hunch there might be worthy minerals somewhere under the walruses.

During Johnson's tenure, three constitutional amendments were passed: The 13th banning slavery and involuntary servitude; the 14th defining citizenship to include blacks and including the Equal Protection Clause that permitted Brown vs. Board of Education some nine decades later; and the 15th, which made blacks' right to vote explicit, although women would have to wait for a new century.

Here are just a couple of other things that the log-cabin-born, unschooled, well-spoken, former tailor accomplished: town alderman, mayor, state representative, state senator, governor. He was elected vice president in Lincoln's 1864 reelection. OK, but other than that entire lifelong public service career, why does Andrew Johnson deserve his own $1 coin?

Well, as it happens, after being president, Johnson returned to the U.S. Senate, the only ex-senator, former president to ever do that.

So far.

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