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 February 1868, the House of Representatives charged Johnson with 11 articles of impeachment for vague “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 his 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. Johnson was also accused 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, which 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 to 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: His son, an alcoholic, 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.