On this day in 1875, former President Andrew Johnson, the man who had become president upon the tragic assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, dies of a stroke while visiting his daughter in Tennessee.
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). He went 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 1864, he accepted Abraham Lincoln’s offer to run with him as vice president for Lincoln’s second term. Lincoln was shot on the night of April 14, 1865, and died the next day, making Johnson the 17th president of the United States.
In addition to inheriting the presidency in a dramatic way, Johnson’s presidency itself was marked by spectacle. In February 1868, the House of Representatives charged him with 11 articles of impeachment for vaguely described “high crimes and misdemeanors.” (For comparison, in 1998, President Bill Clinton was charged with two articles of impeachment for obstruction of justice during an investigation into his inappropriate sexual behavior in the White House Oval Office. In 1974, Nixon faced three charges for his alleged involvement in the Watergate scandal.) The main issue in Johnson’s trial was his staunch resistance to implementing Congress’ Civil War Reconstruction policies. The War Department was the federal agency responsible for carrying out Reconstruction programs in the war-ravaged and socially disrupted southern states and when Johnson fired the agency’s head, Edwin Stanton, Congress retaliated with calls for impeachment.
Of the 11 counts, several went to the core of the conflict between Johnson and Congress. The House charged Johnson with illegally removing the secretary of war from office and for violating several Reconstruction Acts. The House also accused the president of hurling libelous “inflammatory and scandalous harangues” against Congressional members. On February 24, the House passed all 11 articles of impeachment and the process moved into a Senate trial. The Senate trial lasted until May 26, 1868. Johnson did not attend any of the proceedings and was not required to do so. After all the arguments had been presented for and against him, Johnson waited for his fate, which hung on one swing vote. By a vote of 35-19, Johnson was acquitted and finished out his term.
When Johnson’s presidency ended, he and his wife Eliza moved back to their home state of Tennessee. In 1869, they suffered tragedy: their son succumbed to alcoholism and committed suicide. In early 1875, he launched a political comeback and was re-elected to the Senate in June of that year, but was never able to assume office. He suffered a stroke and passed away on July 31, 1875.