Trump Was Not The First President To Compare Himself To Jesus

Heather Cox Richardson

On Tuesday morning, on his social media outlet, former president Trump encouraged his supporters to buy a “God Bless The USA” Bible for $59.99. The Bible is my “favorite book,” he said in a promotional video, and said he owns “many.” This Bible includes the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Pledge of Allegiance. It also includes the chorus of country music singer Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless the USA,” likely because it is a retread of a 2021 Bible Greenwood pushed to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of 9-11.

That story meant less coverage for the news from last Monday, March 25, in which Trump shared on his social media platform a message comparing him to Jesus Christ, with a reference to Psalm 109, which calls on God to destroy one’s enemies.  

This jumped out to me because Trump is not the first president to compare himself to Jesus Christ. In 1866, President Andrew Johnson famously did, too. While there is a financial component to Trump’s comparison that was not there for Johnson, the two presidents had similar political reasons for claiming a link to divine power.

Johnson was born into poverty in North Carolina, then became a tailor in Tennessee, where he rose through politics to the U.S. House of Representatives and then the Senate. In 1861, when Tennessee left the Union, Johnson was the only sitting senator from a Confederate state who remained loyal to the United States. This stand threw him into prominence. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln named him the military governor of Tennessee. 

Then, in 1864, the Republican Party renamed itself the Union Party to attract northern Democrats to its standard. To help that effort, party leaders chose a different vice president, replacing a staunch Republican—Hannibal Hamlin of Maine—with the Democrat Johnson.

Although he was elected on what was essentially a Republican ticket, Johnson was a Democrat at heart. He loathed the elite southern enslavers he thought had become oligarchs in the years before the Civil War, shutting out poorer men like him from prosperity, but he was a fervent racist who enslaved people himself until 1863. Johnson opposed the new active government the Republicans had built during the war, and he certainly didn’t want it to enforce racial equality. He expected that the end of the war would mean a return to the United States of 1860, minus the system of enslavement that concentrated wealth upward. 

Johnson was badly out of step with the Republicans, but a quirk of timing gave him exclusive control of the reconstruction of the United States from April 15, 1865, when he took the oath of office less than three hours after Lincoln breathed his last, until early December. Congress had adjourned for the summer on March 4, expecting that Lincoln would call the members back together if there were an emergency, as he had in summer 1861. It was not due to reconvene until early December. Members of Congress rushed back to Washington, D.C., after Lincoln’s assassination, but Johnson insisted on acting alone.

Over the course of summer 1865, Johnson set out to resuscitate the prewar system dominated by the Democratic Party, with himself at its head. He pardoned all but about 1,500 former Confederates, either by proclamation or by presidential pardon, putting them back into power in southern society. He did not object when southern state legislatures developed a series of state laws, called Black Codes, remanding Black Americans into subservience.

When Congress returned to work on December 4, 1865, Johnson greeted the members with the happy news that he had “restored” the Union. Leaving soldiers in the South would have cost tax money, he said, and would have “envenomed hatred” among southerners. His exclusion of Black southerners from his calculus, although they were the most firmly loyal population in the South, showed how determined he was to restore prewar white supremacy, made possible by keeping power in the states. All Republican congressmen had to do, he said, was to swear in the southern senators and representatives now back in Washington, D.C., and the country would be “restored.”

Republicans wanted no part of his “restoration.” Not only did it return to power the same men who had been shooting at Republicans’ constituents eight months before and push northerners’ Black fellow soldiers to a form of quasi-enslavement, but also the 1870 census would count Black Americans as whole people rather than three fifths of a person, giving former Confederates more national political power after the war than they had had before it. Victory on the battlefields would be overturned by control of Congress.

Congressional Republicans rejected Johnson’s plan for reconstruction. Instead, they passed the Fourteenth Amendment  in June 1866 and required the former Confederate states to ratify it before they could be readmitted to the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment put the strength of the national government behind the idea that Black Americans would be considered citizens—as the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision had denied. Then it declared that states could neither discriminate against citizens nor take away a citizen’s rights without due process of the law. To make sure that the 1870 census would not increase the power of former Confederates, it declared that if any state kept men over 21 from voting, its representation in Congress would be reduced proportionally. 

Johnson hated the Fourteenth Amendment. He hated its broad definition of citizenship; he hated its move toward racial equality; he hated its undermining of the southern leaders he backed; he hated its assertion of national power; he hated that it offered a moderate route to reunification that most Americans would support. If states ratified it, he wouldn’t be able to rebuild the Democratic Party with himself at its head. 

So he told southern politicians to ignore Congress’s order to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, calling Congress an illegal body because it had not seated representatives from the southern states. He promised white southerners that the Democrats would win the 1866 midterm elections. Once back in power, he said, Democrats would repudiate the Republicans’ “radicalism” and put his plan back into place. 

As he asserted his vision for the country, Johnson egged on white supremacist violence. In July, white mobs attacked a Unionist convention in New Orleans where delegates had called for taking the vote away from ex-Confederates and giving it to loyal Black men. The rioters killed 37 Black people and 3 white delegates to the convention. 

By then, Johnson had become as unpopular as his policies. Increasingly isolated, he defended his plan for the nation as the only true course. In late August he broke tradition to campaign in person, an act at the time considered beneath the dignity of a president. He set off on a railroad tour, known as the “Swing Around the Circle,” to whip up support for the Democrats before the election. 

Speaking from the same set of notes as the train stopped at different towns and cities from Washington, D.C., to New York, to Chicago, to St. Louis, and back to Washington, D.C., Johnson complained bitterly about the opposition to his reconstruction policies, attacked specific members of Congress as traitors and called for them to be hanged, and described himself as a martyr like Lincoln. And, noting the mercy of his reconstruction policies, he compared himself to Jesus.  

It was all too much for voters. The white supremacist violence across the South horrified them, returning power to southern whites infuriated them, the reduction of Black soldiers to quasi-slaves enraged them, and Johnson’s attacks on Congress alarmed them. Johnson seemed determined to hand the country over to its former enemies to recreate the antebellum world that northerners had just poured more than 350,000 lives and $5 billion into destroying, no matter what voters wanted. 

Johnson’s extremism and his supporters’ violence created a backlash. Northerners were not willing to hand the country back to the Democrats who were rioting in the South and to a president who compared himself to Jesus. Rather than turning against the Republicans in the 1866 elections, voters repudiated Johnson. They gave Republicans a two-thirds majority of Congress, enabling them to override any policy Johnson proposed.

And, in 1868, the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, launching a new era in the history of the United States.

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