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Andrew Johnson: Life Before the Presidency

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Andrew Johnson was born in a log cabin to nearly illiterate parents on December 29, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina. His father, Jacob Johnson, had scratched out a living as a hotel porter and bank janitor in Raleigh. Tragically, Jacob died while trying to save two of his wealthy employers from drowning when Andrew was three years old. His widowed mother worked as a weaver and a spinner to feed Andrew and his older brother William. She married Turner Daugherty when Andrew was still a boy, although the addition to the family did not much improve family finances. When Andrew was fourteen, his parents apprenticed the two boys to a local tailor, with whom they worked for several years before running away. After being on the run for two years with a reward on his head, Andrew returned to Raleigh in 1826 to reunite with his mother and stepfather before moving west in a one-horse cart to Greeneville, Tennessee, where the seventeen-year-old Andrew set up shop as a tailor.

The young tailor had tried to teach himself to read and write by poring over a book of great orations that he had received as a gift; however, Andrew never mastered the basics of English grammar, reading, or math until he married his sixteen-year-old wife, Eliza McCardle, in 1827. The only child of the village shoemaker, Eliza had first spotted Andrew and his ragtag family when they pulled into Greeneville looking for work. She told a friend that it was almost love at first sight—on seeing Andrew, she knew that he would be her beau someday. It was a lucky match for Andrew because Eliza, though only a young girl herself, was well educated and had an eye for money. While he sewed and stitched in his little shop, Eliza read to him and taught him to spell and to write. She also taught him to invest his money wisely in town real estate and farmlands.

Political Involvement and Leanings

By 1834, the young Andrew had already served several terms as town alderman and as mayor of Greeneville, identifying with the town's laboring class. At that time, he called himself a Jacksonian Democrat, aligning with the common-man ideology of populist President Andrew Jackson. Johnson liked politics, especially giving stump speeches, and he found that his common-man, tell-it-like-it-is style went over well with both the town's mechanics and artisans as well as the country inhabitants of Washington and Greene counties. His popularity won him election to the state legislature's lower house in 1834 and 1838 and a seat in the state senate in 1841. From 1843 to 1853, Johnson served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat. Unfortunately, he lost his seat when the district was gerrymandered, or redrawn, to his disadvantage following the census of 1850. Johnson then served two terms as governor of Tennessee from 1853 to 1857. When the Civil War broke out, Johnson was a first-term U.S. senator, elected unanimously as a Democrat by the Tennessee legislature.

As a politician, Johnson supported Jacksonian policies, though he often took positions that seemed contradictory at first glance. He opposed, for example, federal funding of internal improvements yet strongly advocated homestead legislation granting free western lands to settlers. Johnson raged against the interests of his state's planter class even to the point of wanting to create a separate mountain state from the poorer up-country regions of Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Yet he supported the Compromise of 1850 and the gag rule that prevented the consideration of antislavery petitions before the House of Representatives. Both of these positions were usually identified with the "slavocracy," which he hated. Johnson threw his weight behind the annexation of both Texas and Oregon, Stephen Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, and the presidential candidacy of John C. Breckinridge in 1860. These political choices put Johnson firmly in the states' rights, proslavery wing of the Democratic Party.

On the other hand, he had no tolerance for any talk of breaking up the Union. Furthermore, he criticized President James Buchanan for not dealing sternly and swiftly with the Southern rebels during the last months of his administration. He believed that the secessionist movement was a conspiracy of the planter elite and had to be stopped by force if necessary. Additionally, Johnson attacked anti-Catholic prejudice and championed religious freedom but filled his own political speeches with vile racist language against blacks.

Risking Life and Fortune

When Southern secessionists formed the Confederacy after Abraham Lincoln's 1860 presidential election, Johnson struggled to keep Tennessee in the Union. He warned his constituents that the dissolution of the United States would result in anarchy and a patchwork of "petty little governments, with a little prince in one, a little potentate in another, and a republic somewhere else." When Tennessee left the Union, Johnson, in line with his area in eastern Tennessee, broke with his state and was the only Southern senator not to resign his seat in the U.S. Senate. Unable to get back to his family in Tennessee, Johnson became one of the strongest supporters of President Lincoln, objecting to any compromise with the Confederacy as long as the rebels were in charge.

Johnson’s Unionism was rooted in the class resentments of non-slaveholding yeomen farmers against elite planters, and in the cultural differences between the mountainous, “upcountry” regions of the South (such as Johnson’s own East Tennessee) and the lowcountry plantation districts. It was rooted too in the constitutional argument that the founders intended the Union to be perpetual. Secession was synonymous in Johnson’s view with lawlessness.

In the South, Johnson was deemed a traitor and hung in effigy in his hometown. His properties were confiscated, and his wife and two daughters were essentially driven from the state with little more than what they could carry in a wagon. In the North, Johnson's stand made him an overnight hero, praised in the press as a true patriot who had risked his life and his fortune to side with the Union in the Civil War.

Following Union military victories in Tennessee, President Lincoln appointed Johnson the military governor of the state, with the rank of brigadier general. Empowered to discharge executive, legislative, and judicial functions, Johnson ruled with a heavy hand. He arrested critics of the federal government and held them without trials; such critics included clergymen who supported the Confederacy in their sermons. Johnson also dismissed state officeholders who were unwilling to denounce secession, closed anti-Union newspapers, seized all railroads in the state, supervised military operations from Nashville, and levied heavy taxes on planters and large landholders.

Although he owned a handful of slaves and had supported the Democratic Party’s proslavery agenda before the war, Johnson gradually came to support emancipation as a war measure—a means to punish the Confederate elite and rob them of resources. Fearing that emancipation by federal edict would alienate Tennessee’s slaveholding Unionists, Johnson urged that the state be exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation, so he could promote the issue from the inside: in August 1863, Johnson freed his own slaves, seeking to set an example for his fellow Tennesseans. The next year, he delivered a series of speeches in which he called slavery a “cancer upon the body politic,” and he appealed to Tennesseeans to pass a state constitutional amendment abolishing the institution.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Elizabeth R. Varon

Professor Varon is the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. Her writings include:

Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (University of North Carolina Press, 2008)

Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (Oxford University Press, 2003)

We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 1998)