Andrew Johnson’s Early Years
Andrew Johnson was born on December 29, 1808, in a log cabin in Raleigh, North Carolina. His father, Jacob Johnson (1778-1812), was a porter at an inn, among other jobs, and died when Andrew was 3, while his mother, Mary “Polly” McDonough Johnson (1783-1856), was a laundress and seamstress.
Johnson, who grew up poor and never attended school, was apprenticed to a tailor by his early teens. In 1826, he moved to Greeneville, Tennessee, and established himself as a tailor. The following year, Johnson married Eliza McCardle (1810-1876), the daughter of a shoemaker. The couple had five children. Eliza Johnson helped her husband improve his rudimentary reading and writing skills, and tutored him in math. Over time, Andrew Johnson became prosperous enough to buy property and acquire several African-American slaves, who worked in his home.
Johnson Enters Politics in Tennessee
Johnson’s political career began in 1829, when he was elected alderman in Greeneville. That same year, Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), a fellow Democrat and Tennessean, became the seventh U.S. president. Like Jackson, Johnson considered himself as a champion of the common man. He was resentful of rich planters and favored states’ rights and populist policies.
A skilled orator, Johnson became mayor of Greeneville in 1834, and was elected the following year to the Tennessee state legislature, where he spent much of the 1830s and early 1840s. In 1843, he was voted into the U.S. House of Representatives. While in Congress, Johnson introduced what would become the Homestead Act, which granted tracts of undeveloped public land to settlers (the act finally passed in 1862).
Slavery became an increasingly important issue during Johnson’s time in Congress in the 1840s, and Americans were split over whether to extend the “peculiar institution” to the nation’s newly acquired western territories. Johnson, a strong supporter of the U.S. Constitution, believed it guaranteed individuals the right to own slaves.
Johnson left Congress in 1853 to become governor of Tennessee. He vacated the governorship in 1857 to take a seat in the U.S. Senate. During the 1850s, as the struggle over states’ rights and slavery in the territories further intensified and divided the North and South, Johnson continued to believe in the right to slave ownership. However, as some Southern leaders began calling for secession, he advocated for the preservation of the Union.
Andrew Johnson and the Civil War
In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln, a former U.S. congressman from Illinois and member of the anti-slavery Republican Party, was elected America’s 16th president. On December 20 of that same year, slaveholding South Carolina seceded from the Union. Six more Southern states soon followed, and in February 1861, they formed the Confederate States of America (which would eventually include a total of 11 Southern states). Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, and just over a month later, on April 12, the U.S. Civil War broke out when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. That June, Tennessee voters approved a referendum to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy.
Johnson, who had traveled across Tennessee speaking out against secession, was the only senator from the South to remain loyal to the Union after his state seceded. He resigned from the Senate in 1862 when Lincoln appointed him as Tennessee’s military governor. In this role, Johnson tried, with mixed success, to re-establish federal authority in Tennessee.
Johnson’s Brief Tenure as Vice President
When Lincoln sought re-election in 1864, he chose Johnson as his running mate over Vice President Hannibal Hamlin (1809-91), a former U.S. senator from Maine. As a Southern Unionist and “War Democrat” (the name for those Democrats who stayed loyal to Lincoln), Johnson was deemed a good fit for the ticket. Lincoln defeated his opponent General George McClellan (1826-1885) by an electoral margin of 212-21, and garnered 55 percent of the popular vote.
The president and new vice president were sworn into office on March 4, 1865. Johnson, who was recovering from typhoid fever, drank some whiskey before the ceremony, believing it would make him feel better. Instead, he gave a slurred, semi-incoherent inaugural address, leading to persistent rumors that he was an alcoholic, although he was not.
On April 9, at Appomattox, Virginia, General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) surrendered his Confederate army to General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), effectively ending the Civil War. Five days later, on April 14, while Lincoln was attending a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., he was shot and fatally wounded by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865). By the next morning, Lincoln was dead at age 56. That same day, Johnson was sworn in as president at his Washington hotel by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Salmon Chase (1808-1873).
As it happened, Johnson himself escaped death, because the assassin Booth’s original plot had also targeted the vice president and U.S. Secretary of State William Seward (1801-1872). Seward was attacked but survived, while Johnson’s assigned assailant, George Azterodt (1835-1865), lost his nerve at the last minute and did not go after Johnson.
Andrew Johnson’s Challenging Presidency
Once in office, Johnson focused on quickly restoring the Southern states to the Union. He granted amnesty to most former Confederates and allowed the rebel states to elect new governments. These governments, which often included ex-Confederate officials, soon enacted black codes, measures designed to control and repress the recently freed slave population. When the U.S. Congress convened in December 1865, it refused to seat the newly elected Southern members, and Johnson found himself at odds with the legislature, particularly the Radical Republicans, who viewed the president’s approach to Reconstruction as too lenient.
In 1866, Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the Civil Rights bill, legislation aimed at protecting blacks. That same year, when Congress passed the 14th Amendment granting citizenship to blacks, the president urged Southern states not to ratify it (the amendment nevertheless was ratified in July 1868). During the 1866 congressional elections, Johnson launched a multiple-city speaking campaign, dubbed “a swing around the circle,” in which he attempted to win support for his Reconstruction policies. The tour proved to be a failure, and the Republicans won majorities in both houses of Congress and set about enacting their own Reconstruction measures.
Hostilities between the president and Congress continued to mount, and in February 1868, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson. Among the 11 charges, he was accused of violating the Tenure of Office Act by suspending Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814-1869), who opposed Johnson’s Reconstruction policies. That May, the Senate acquitted Johnson of the charges by one vote.
Johnson did not run for reelection in 1868. He had hoped the Democrats would choose him as their presidential nominee, but they opted instead for Horatio Seymour (1810-1886), a former governor of New York. Civil War hero Ulysses Grant, the Republican candidate, won the election and became the 18th U.S. president.
Johnson’s Later Years
Johnson’s interest in politics and public office did not end once he left the White House in March 1869 and returned home to Tennessee. That same year, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, and in 1872, lost his bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He persisted and won election to the Senate in 1875. Johnson was the only ex-president to accomplish this feat; however, his Senate tenure was brief. He died at age 66 on July 31, 1875, after suffering a stroke while visiting family in Carter County, Tennessee.
Johnson was buried in Greeneville with the American flag and a copy of the Constitution.