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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Seventeenth President • 1865-69
Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson

Johnson, a southerner whose first loyalty was always to the Union, almost lost his life while trying to prevent his home State, Tennessee, from seceding. A tailor by trade, he rose by dint of self-education and the exercise of his political talent and courage to high office. Succeeding the martyred Lincoln, he faced the critical problem of "reconstructing" the South. But his policies clashed with the program of the dominant Radical Republicans in Congress. As a result, he suffered impeachment, the first President ever to do so, and barely escaped being removed from office.

The second of two sons, Johnson was born amid humble circumstances at Raleigh, N.C., in 1808. His father, a janitor-porter-laborer, died in an accident when he was only 3 years old, after which his mother was impoverished, even subsequent to her remarriage in 1814. As a result, Johnson never attended school nor received any sort of formal education, though in adolescence he did learn to read.

In 1822 his mother apprenticed Andrew and his brother to a tailor. Two years later, when the former was 15 years old, they both ran away from their master, first to Carthage, N.C., and then to Laurens, S.C., where they operated tailor shops. In 1826 they returned to Raleigh, but that same year the family moved westward to Greeneville, Tenn.

At first unable to find employment there, Andrew spent a few months in Rutledge, Tenn., and possibly other cities working at his craft. Early the next year, he went back to Greeneville and opened his own shop. Later that same year, he married Eliza McCardle, who tutored him in reading and taught him to write. In time, she was to bear three sons and two daughters.

Eliza Johnson
Eliza Johnson

Johnson achieved modest prosperity in business, took part in local debates, and became active in civic and political affairs. He held the positions of alderman (1828-30), mayor (1830-33), State legislator (1835-37 and 1839-41), State senator (1841-43), U.S. Representative (1843-53), Governor of Tennessee (1853-57), and U.S. Senator (1857-62).

During all these years, though a Jacksonian Democrat, Johnson often pursued an independent course and was never a party loyalist. Always favoring the cause of the common man and opposing the plantation aristocracy in Congress, to no avail he persistently advocated enactment of a homestead bill to provide free land to the poor.

Because of Johnson's close southern ties, secession created a personal crisis for him. His home was in the South. He had been born and raised there. He owned eight household slaves. And he accepted the existence of slavery, which he felt was a unique institution beyond the control of Congress. Yet, reflecting the strong Unionist sentiment in eastern Tennessee and believing secession to be unconstitutional, he chose to fight for preservation of the Union.

Andrew Johnson reviews Union Army
Andrew Johnson reviews the Union Army at the end of the Civil War. This parade, which followed Pennsylvania Avenue, lasted two days (May 23-24, 1865). (Library of Congress.)

To prevent his State from seceding, right after Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861, Johnson made a desperate trip back home from Washington to plead his case—despite threats to his life. En route, in Virginia, he almost lost his life to a lynch mob. In the eastern part of his State, for he dared not appear in the pro-secessionist western part, he met favor from some groups and hostility from others. Faced with the wrath of his opponents and possible capture by Confederate troops following the outbreak of war, he finally headed back to Washington via Kentucky. After Tennessee seceded in June 1861, he was the only Senator from the South who stayed in his chair. This brought him instant applause in the North and scorn in the South.

In 1862, after Union forces captured Nashville and a portion of western Tennessee, Lincoln appointed Johnson as military governor of the State. Two years later, Johnson was nominated as Lincoln's running mate on the victorious ticket of the National Union Party, the wartime label used by the Republicans, who were seeking to win the allegiance of prowar Democrats.

Cartoon criticizing Johnson's veto of the New Freedmen's Bureau Bill (1866), which sought to protect the freedom of black men in the South. He is pictured as a drunkard who takes bribes to pardon ex-Confederates. Lincoln, "the Great and Good," looks on scornfully. (Lithograph, 1866, by A. Hageboeck, published by I. A. Wetherby, Library of Congress.)

When Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Johnson took over a task virtually as onerous as conduct of the war: Reconstruction of the South, or the restoration into the Union of the seceded States and the establishment of satisfactory social and economic relationships between whites and the newly freed slaves. He adopted what he believed would have been Lincoln's moderate program, which was based on faith in the people of the South.

Included would be the pardon of all ex-Confederates who took an oath of allegiance except for former leaders and men of wealth, who could be pardoned only by the President; and bringing the seceded States back into the fold as quickly as possible on condition that they forswear secession and ratify the 13th amendment (1865) to the Constitution, which abolished slavery. Standing behind Johnson on Reconstruction were most northern Democrats and moderate Republicans.

Johnson inevitably clashed with the Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Benjamin Wade in the Senate. They sought what Johnson regarded as a punitive peace, involving land confiscation and redistribution to blacks; disenfranchisement of ex-Confederates; and full suffrage and legal equality for blacks, as well as economic and educational opportunities for them.

Facsimile of ticket to Johnson's impeachment proceedings. (Library of Congress.)

The Radicals, who were motivated by a combination of morals and politics, believed their program represented realization of the major aim of the war, the abolition of slavery and the guaranteeing of full citizenship privileges to the freedmen. On the other hand, the Radicals surely also recognized that such policies would insure Republican influence in the South. Other northerners, who resented the return of many prewar southern leaders to key posts, including Congress, and the imposition by southern legislators of many restrictions on blacks, tended to go along with the Radicals. Furthermore, most northerners were in no mood to relinquish economic gains made during and as a result of the war.

As time went on, the conflict between the President and the Congress mounted in intensity. Veto followed veto, usually based on Johnson's feeling that the rights of the States were being violated. Vituperation followed vituperation. As the Radicals gained in strength, they passed one act after another over the Presidential veto and made abortive attempts to impeach him. They refused to seat southern Senators and Representatives; passed measures restricting the powers of the Presidency; and created legislation, including the 14th and 15th amendments, that emphatically stated the legal equality of blacks, guaranteed their civil liberties, and forbade discrimination against them.

Johnson executed the letter, if not the spirit, of these laws. In an unprecedented attempt to gain public backing for his position, in the summer of 1866 he toured the East and Middle West, but the Radicals won overwhelmingly in the fall congressional elections. The next March, they placed the Southern States under military rule until they met certain conditions, including approval of the 14th amendment.

Finally, when Johnson tried to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who sided with the Radicals, the House impeached Johnson, largely on the basis of his alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act. Amid exceptional controversy—the real issue being whether Congress or the President would direct Reconstruction—the Senate tried him in the spring of 1868. He was acquitted by only one vote. After the trial, the Radicals continued their legislative efforts but ultimately secured neither equal rights for blacks nor Republican control of the South. Johnson resisted the Radicals throughout the remainder of his term, but his power and reputation were seriously impaired.


Andrew Johnson National Historic Site

While Johnson was preoccupied with the Reconstruction turmoil, his able Secretary of State William H. Seward made notable gains. In 1866, reasserting the Monroe Doctrine and bolstered by the dispatch of 50,000 troops under Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to the Mexican border, he soon helped persuade the French to withdraw from Mexico, where they had installed a monarch.

The next year, Seward purchased Alaska from Russia—an action that had also been contemplated in the Polk, Pierce, and Buchanan administrations. For the sum of $7,200,000, the United States acquired a vast territory, rich in natural resources, but many people initially reacted by referring to it as "Seward's folly." The Senate quickly ratified the purchase. Other expansionistic projects proposed by Seward came to naught.

Johnson did not seriously seek renomination by either the Democrats or Republicans, and at the end of his term retired to Tennessee. He nevertheless kept active in political affairs. In 1875 he took a seat in the U.S. Senate, where he was greeted with applause. But, serving only a few months, he died at the age of 66 while visiting the rural home of one of his daughters, about 40 miles from Greeneville.

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Last Updated: 04-Feb-2004