May 17

This Day in History

Presidential

May 17, 1827:

Andrew Johnson marries Eliza McCardle

On this day in 1827, future President Andrew Johnson marries a shy, quiet, 16-year-old daughter of a shoemaker named Eliza McCardle. He was 18 years old.

Johnson met Eliza while looking for a job as a tailor in Greeneville, Tennessee. The couple married in Warrenton, Tennessee, and settled down to raise a family in Greeneville. Her emotional stability balanced Johnson's quick temper. While Eliza had been educated, her husband came from a poor family and never went to school. Eliza helped Johnson develop his woeful reading and writing skills and encouraged him to enter politics, even though she had no interest in the subject herself.

While Johnson's career took him from mayor of Greeneville (1834) to the Tennessee legislature (1835) and then to the U.S. House of Representatives (1843), Eliza stayed in Greeneville to raise their five children and run the household finances. Johnson came home to serve as Tennessee's governor from 1853 to 1857, but then returned to Washington as a U.S. senator in late 1857. In 1860, Eliza reluctantly moved to the capital. When the Civil War broke out in 1860, Eliza moved back to Greeneville and then to Nashville while her husband served as the military governor of Tennessee.

By the time her husband was chosen to be Abraham Lincoln's second-term running mate in 1864, Eliza was suffering from increasingly poor health that was described as consumption (it is not known if she had tuberculosis). During the Civil War, she was in constant fear for her husband's life, but that was just one of her worries. The couple's middle son, Charles, had died in 1863 from an alcohol-related accident and a year later she sought medical help for their eldest son Robert, who was also an alcoholic. In 1864, their daughter Mary's husband died of an ailment that was also then labeled as consumption.

Although Eliza and Andrew had trouble with their sons, their daughters Martha and Mary were a great support during Johnson's presidency. In 1865, Eliza was thrust into the role of first lady with the death of Lincoln. Lincoln's assassination made Eliza even more afraid for her husband's safety and she bravely agreed to move back to Washington to be at his side. Because of her poor health and her extreme dislike of her public role, Eliza let her eldest daughter Martha assume official White House hostess duties. When Johnson faced impeachment in 1868, Eliza's constant presence in a sitting room across from his office in the White House had a calming effect on her husband. Johnson was acquitted and served out the rest of his term.

When Johnson's presidency ended, the couple returned to Tennessee. Eliza's health declined further after their son Robert failed to overcome his alcoholism and committed suicide in 1869. Johnson was re-elected to the Senate early in 1875, but died of a stroke in July of that year. Eliza, who was too ill to attend her husband's funeral, died six months later on January 15, 1876.

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