Andrew Johnson: Life in Brief

Andrew Johnson: Life in Brief

Andrew Johnson gives truth to the saying that in America, anyone can grow up to become President. Born in a log cabin in North Carolina to nearly illiterate parents, Andrew Johnson did not master the basics of reading, grammar, or math until he met his wife at the age of seventeen. The only other man to attain the office of President with so little formal education was Abraham Lincoln. Whereas Lincoln is esteemed as America's greatest President, Johnson, his successor, is ranked as one of the worst.

Andrew's father died when Andrew was a young boy, and his mother remarried. His mother and her new husband apprenticed fourteen-year-old Andrew and his older brother William to a local tailor. After serving a number of years in this trade, the boys ran away for several years, dodging rewards for their capture placed by their former employer. Andrew later returned to his mother, and the entire family moved west to Greeneville, Tennessee, where young Andrew set up shop as a tailor and met his wife, Eliza McCardle. Eliza educated Andrew and helped him make wise investments in town real estate and farmlands. When Johnson reached the White House, First Lady Eliza Johnson was a semi-invalid suffering from tuberculosis during her husband's term in office. She only made two public appearances during her entire stay in the executive mansion. Nevertheless, she operated behind the scenes with energy and tact and was fondly remembered by the White House staff.

Political Leanings

By 1834, the young tailor had served as town alderman and mayor of Greeneville and was fast making a name for himself as an aspiring politician. Johnson considered himself a Jacksonian Democrat, and he gained the support of local mechanics, artisans, and rural folk with his common-man, tell-it-like-it-is style. He quickly moved up to serve in his state's legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives, and as governor of Tennessee. When the Civil War broke out, Johnson was a first-term U.S. senator aligned with the states' rights and proslavery wing of the Democratic Party.

However closely he identified with his fellow Southerners' views on slavery, Johnson disagreed strongly with their calls to break up the Union over the issue. When Tennessee left the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln, Johnson broke with his home state, becoming the only Southern senator to retain his seat in the U.S. Senate. In the South, Johnson was deemed a traitor; his property was confiscated and his wife and two daughters were driven from the state. In the North, however, Johnson's stand made him an overnight hero.

Although Johnson was deeply committed to saving the Union, he did not believe in the emancipation of slaves when the war started. After Lincoln made him the military governor of Tennessee, Johnson convinced the President to exempt Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation. By the summer of 1863, however, he began to favor emancipation as a war measure—a means to punish the Confederates and rob them of resources. Concerned about his chances for reelection, Lincoln felt that he needed a man like Johnson as his vice president to help balance the ticket in 1864 and represent the fusion of War Democrats with Republicans into a “Union” party. Together, the two won a sweeping victory against Democratic candidate General George B. McClellan and his running mate, George Pendleton.

Reconstructing the Defeated South

Tragically, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated days after the Civil War ended in 1865. Had the assassin's plot gone as planned, Johnson would have been killed along with Lincoln; instead, he became President. In a strange twist of fate, the racist Southerner Johnson was charged with the reconstruction of the defeated South, including the extension of civil rights and suffrage to black Southerners. It quickly became clear that Johnson would block efforts to force Southern states to guarantee full equality for blacks, and the stage was set for a showdown with congressional Republicans, who viewed black voting rights as crucial to their power base in the South.

During the first eight months of his term, Johnson took advantage of Congress being in recess and rushed through his own policies for Reconstruction. These included handing out thousands of pardons in routine fashion and allowing the South to set up "black codes," which essentially maintained slavery under another name. When Congress came back into session, Republicans moved to stop the President. In 1866, Congress passed the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, providing shelter and provisions for former slaves and protection of their rights in court, as well as the Civil Rights Act, defining all persons born in the United States as citizens. Congress also passed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, authorizing the federal government to protect the rights of all citizens. Each of these—except the amendment—Congress passed over President Johnson's veto. In a final humiliating gesture, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which stripped the President of the power to remove federal officials without the Senate's approval. In 1867, Congress established a military Reconstruction program to enforce political and social rights for Southern blacks.

Challenging Congress and Impeachment

Furious, Johnson decided to go straight to the people in an attempt to regain his stature and authority as President. During the congressional elections of 1866, he set out on a speaking tour to campaign for congressmen who would support his policies. The plan was a complete disaster. In speech after speech, Johnson personally attacked his Republican opponents in vile and abusive language. On several occasions, it appeared that the President had had too much to drink. One observer estimated that Johnson lost one million Northern votes in this debacle.

Having lost both congressional and popular support, Johnson was finished. Blocked at every turn, he felt he had no choice but to challenge the Tenure of Office Act as a blatant usurpation of presidential authority. In direct opposition to the act, he fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Congress then voted to impeach Johnson by a vote of 126 to 47 in February 1868, citing his violation of the Tenure of Office Act and charging that he had brought disgrace and ridicule on Congress. By a margin of one vote, the Senate voted not to convict President Johnson, and he served the duration of his term.

During Johnson's term, the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 extended suffrage to formerly enslaved male African Americans, completely transforming the American electorate. Hundreds of black delegates participated in state constitutional conventions, and from 1869 until 1877, fourteen African American men served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and two were in the U.S. Senate. All of this occurred against Johnson's efforts, and all would change once the white Southerners regained their stranglehold on the South. In the meantime, terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) attacked black citizens and their supporters. In 1868, one-tenth of the black delegates to the state constitutional conventions had experienced physical abuse.

Andrew Johnson is largely viewed as the worst possible person to have been President at the end of the Civil War. He utterly failed to make a satisfying and just peace because of his racist views, his gross incompetence in federal office, and his incredible miscalculation of public support for his policies. To the end, Johnson remained defiant: he argued that his own policies might have swiftly reunited the North and South, had not the Republicans squandered the golden moment of reunion by pushing for radical measures such as black suffrage. In his speeches, interviews, vetoes, and annual messages, President Johnson tried to preempt and then undermine Congressional Reconstruction by deeming the Republican experiment in black citizenship a failure, and by portraying former Confederates as victims of Republican misrule. One can only sadly speculate about how different America would have been had Lincoln lived to see the country through the critical period of Reconstruction. In the end, Johnson did more to extend the period of national strife than to heal the wounds of war.