The Avenger Takes His Place Review
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Itís easy to find books about the Civil War and/or Abraham Lincoln. But I dare you to try to find one about Reconstruction or the president who led the nation through it that wasnít written solely for people working on a doctorate in history. Howard Means tries to write that book with The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation.

Means has picked a difficult subject for this book. President Andrew Johnson was an anomaly in American politics. He was a Southerner in the Senate, and he chose to stay there after the start of the Civil War. He was born into poverty and basically sold into slavery when his mother signed him into apprenticeship with a local tailor, but he owned slaves when he became a wealthy adult. Johnson was cast by earlier historians as one of the strongest presidents because of his handling of Reconstructionóbut, more recently, heís been portrayed as one of the worst presidents of any generation because he didnít go far enough in giving more rights to the newly emancipated slaves.

Means clearly falls in step with the latter group of historians, and his depiction of Johnson is decidedly harsh. Several times, he brings up Johnsonís intoxication at Lincolnís last inauguration. He also continuously points out how stubborn Johnson was and how he would often hold on to a grudge for years on end. And he can never quite admit that Johnson was uniquely positioned to bring the Confederate States back into the Union with minimal bloodshed.

The book takes several side trips while telling the story of Johnsonís first 45 days in office. Thereís a lot of ink devoted to the conspiracy behind the killing of Lincoln without really fleshing out the theory that Johnson was involved with Booth on some level or another. Johnsonís past and the shaping of his politics take up more pages than do his actions as a sitting president.

Though itís fast-paced and easy to read, this book falls short of the mark. It has some big holes in the pacing and story telling, but itís still a decent enough introduction to Reconstruction America.

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