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President Andrew Johnson

Updated on January 6, 2017

Son of Jacob Johnson and Mary McDonough, he was born in a one-story log house. Little is known of his ancestry, but his father, an English immigrant to this country, died in 1811, leaving his family impoverished.

The mother remarried, and Andrew, at the age of 10, was apprenticed to a tailor. Denied any formal schooling, he listened avidly to readings from The United States Speaker, containing extracts from orations by British parliamentarians. When his apprenticeship was over, he moved, after some wandering; with his mother to Greeneville, Tenn., where he opened his own tailor shop.

In 1827 he married Eliza McCardle, an intelligent and ambitious girl, who assisted him to secure further education. By her he had five children, and with her help he accumulated a modest competence, including a farm of more than 100 acres.

Political Career

Johnson's lifelong political career began in 1828 with his election as alderman. Twice re-elected, he became mayor in 1830, serving for three years. An admirer of Andrew Jackson and an avowed friend of the workingman, he naturally allied himself with the Democratic Party, and in 1835 was chosen to the lower house of the state legislature. Defeated for a second term, he was again successful in 1839, and in 1841 was elected to the state Senate. He had already made a reputation as a compelling though unpolished speaker, quick in repartee and dangerous in debate. In 1843 he was elected to the 28th Congress, where he remained through five terms. When he was gerrymandered out of his seat in 1853 by a Whig maneuver, he ran for governor of Tennessee and was elected in a close contest. In a successful campaign for a second term in 1855 he took a strong stand against the Know-Nothings, with their anti-Roman Catholic prejudices, and also espoused Stephen A. Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska bill. In October 1857, when he was chosen by the legislature on the first ballot as a United States senator from Tennessee, he remarked, "I have reached the summit of my ambition".

In these successive state and national offices over more than two decades Johnson regarded himself as a spokesman for the common people. Assertive and proud of his plebeian origins, he was never popular with such Southern aristocrats as Jefferson Davis and James K. Polk, and he was unawed by those who claimed the superiority of birth or wealth. In Congress he became the special advocate of the Homestead Act, intended to aid homeless whites, and was resentful when President James Buchanan, whom he did not admire, vetoed the measure passed by the 36th Congress. Although Johnson was the owner of slaves acquired, as he said, "by the toil of my hands", and was opposed to slavery agitation, he supported the Compromise of 1850 and had no sympathy with Southern extremists. In the National Democratic Convention in 1860 at Charleston, S.C., his name was presented by the Tennessee delegation for the presidential nomination, but he received no other support. When his party split over the naming of Douglas, Johnson came out for John C. Breckinridge and Joseph Lane. Through the critical days preceding war, he made it unmistakable that he favored some compromise on the slavery issue.

A controversial figure, lauded in the North as a patriot but stigmatized by his former Southern colleagues as a traitor, Johnson remained in the Senate even after Tennessee cast its lot with the Confederacy. In dramatic speeches on Feb. 5 and March 2, 1861, he defended his position, following his political mentor, Andrew Jackson, in declaring that the Union must at all costs be preserved. He was appointed in December 1861, as a member of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War. Johnson's somewhat anomalous position in Congress was relieved in March 1862, when he was named by President Abraham Lincoln as military governor of Tennessee.

The National Union Convention, held in June 1864, in Baltimore, after nominating Lincoln for a second term, made Johnson, probably the foremost militant Unionist in the South, its vice presidential nominee. Thus a former Jackson Democrat became the running mate of the Republican Lincoln, adding considerable strength to the ticket. Johnson remained during most of the campaign in Tennessee, being largely responsible for the passage (January 13, 1865) of an amendment to the state constitution declaring slavery forever abolished within its borders. During the winter he contracted typhoid fever and while still convalescent came to Washington for the inauguration. In his weakened condition he drank as a stimulant an amount of whiskey which proved too much for him, and he delivered an incoherent and boastful speech which his enemies never allowed to be forgotten.

Presidency

Following Lincoln's assassination, Johnson, on the rainy morning of April 15, 1865, took the oath of office as president of the United States in the parlor of Washington's Kirkwood Hotel.

Here he conducted himself with dignity, announcing later in the day that he would continue Lincoln's policies and retain his cabinet. Tactfully he allowed Mrs. Lincoln to remain several weeks in the White House after her husband's death. Mrs. Johnson being too infirm to act as mistress of the Executive Mansion, her daughter, Mrs. Martha Johnson Patterson, acted as hostess. To members of Washington high society who undertook to patronize her, she said, "We are plain people from Tennessee, temporarily in a high place, and you must not expect too much from us in a social way". But she carried out her duties with charm and grace.

Johnson seemed at first to be successful in his plan for reconstruction. On May 29, 1865, he issued a general proclamation of amnesty, from which, however, 14 classes of persons were Excluded, particularly all those whose taxable property exceeded $20,000. This was an expression of Johnson's conviction that the wealthier classes in the South were responsible for leading the humbler citizens into rebellion. He also tried to arrange for honest elections in the various seceding states. His message to Congress, Dec. 4, 1865, written by George Bancroft but embodying his own ideas, aroused favorable comment both at home and abroad.

Nevertheless the attitude of congressional Radicals, headed by Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, Benjamin F. Butler, Benjamin F. Wade, and others, was hostile to Johnson. Determined that the Southern states should be treated as conquered provinces, these men advocated the most vindictive measures against the "rebels". They frankly admitted their intention of granting the Negro political rights and thus preserving the supremacy of the Republican Party. In their intolerance they were fanatical, obstinate, and unscrupulous. Johnson, although usually right from the viewpoint of later historians, was crude in his methods and indecisive at critical moments.

When Congress assembled, December 4, 1865, it was apparent that the conspirators were resolved to put their program into effect. Although Johnson's veto of an act for the extension of the Freedmen's Bureau was sustained, this was almost his only victory. The Civil Rights bill was passed, April 9, 1866, over his objections. Furthermore, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, intended to force Negro suffrage on 9? South, was passed and submitted to the states. Hoping to win popular support, the president on Aug. 28, 1866, started on a speaking tour through the Middle West. On this "Swing Round the Circle", Johnson was indiscreet in his utterances, and his mistakes in good taste and judgment were magnified by his critics. The congressional elections in the autumn ran strongly against him and his supporters.

The passage over Johnson's opposition of several bills restricting his presidential authority was a significant demonstration of congressional power. Edwin M. Stanton, whom Johnson had retained as secretary of war, had been untrustworthy and disloyal to his chief; but Congress had passed, March 2, 1867, the Tenure of Office Act, forbidding the president to remove without the consent of the Senate any officeholder, including cabinet members, who had been appointed by and with Senate approval. When Stanton refused to resign, Johnson on August 12 suspended him and commissioned Ulysses S. Grant secretary of war ad interim. The Senate, however, refused to concur, and an unseemly quarrel ensued. On Feb. 21, 1868, Johnson formally removed Stanton as secretary of war, but the latter refused to leave his office.

The congressional Radicals now were united in their eagerness to eliminate Johnson, and on February 25, 1868, he was impeached by the House of Representatives. On March 4, the seven managers appointed by the House presented 11 articles of impeachment, 9 of them concerned with alleged violations of the Tenure of Office Act. The trial opened on March 13 before the Senate, with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding and Henry Stanbery serving as principal defense attorney. It was the first and only time that such proceedings have been instituted against an American president. Benjamin F. Butler's conduct of the prosecution was disgraceful, and it soon became apparent that the Radicals had made a blunder. Johnson behaved throughout with decorum and, on advice, did not appear in person. In spite of pressure of every kind brought to bear on doubtful senators, votes in May on three of the articles resulted in Johnson's acquittal, 35 to 19, the requisite two thirds for conviction lacking by one vote.

Although vindicated by this narrow margin, Johnson was obviously in trouble. During his remaining brief term as president he continued, though in vain, to veto the reconstruction measures passed by Congress, and on leaving the White House he delivered a valedictory address denouncing the congressional program. In the Democratic Convention of 1868 he received 65 votes on the first ballot for the presidential nomination.

Back in Tennessee, Johnson was still active in political affairs. Although defeated in 1872 as a candidate for representative-at-large to Congress, he was elected two years later to the United States Senate, taking his seat on March 5, 1875. On March 22, with implacable enemies around him, he 'delivered his final speech in that chamber, attacking the policies of the Grant administration. He died following a paralytic stroke, while on a visit to his daughter.

Warmly and widely denounced during his lifetime and condemned by Northern historians after his death, Johnson in a succession of books published in the 20th century has been defended against his calumniators and presented as the courageous advocate of a wise reconstruction program. The verdict is that his faults of temper and temperament can be forgiven in the light of his statesmanlike attitude toward the South and his devotion to the federal Union.

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