Andrew Johnson  

Seventeenth President of the United States

Johnson was born on Dec. 29, 1808, in Raleigh, N. C., the younger of two sons. His father was a porter who died in 1811 after saving a man from drowning. His mother supported the family by spinning and weaving cloth in their Raleigh cottage. At the age of 14, Johnson was apprenticed to a tailor.
Already showing signs of the ambition that drove him all his life, Johnson learned the basics of reading and writing from the foreman of his shop and trained himself as a public speaker. By the time he was 16, Johnson was restless and dissatisfied with the limits his apprenticeship placed on his life. In 1827 he moved with his family, finally settling in Greeneville, in the eastern Tennessee hill country, where he opened his own tailor shop. In the same year he married Eliza McCardle, who furthered his education and helped him prosper in his business. In Greeneville, Johnson's personal magnetism, native ability, and powerful will made him a leader of the town's younger skilled artisans. In the social ferment of the late 1820's and early 1830's, when Andrew Jackson and his advisers both capitalized on and promoted a new spirit of egalitarianism, Johnson and his friends were inspired to try to replace the town's traditional political leaders. In 1829, Johnson and several other artisans were elected to the Greeneville town council, and in 1831 he was elected mayor. Attracted by the anti-aristocratic rhetoric of Jackson and his political intimates, Johnson and his friends allied with hundreds of likeminded budding political organizations to form the new Democratic Party.
The spirit of democracy meshed well with Johnson's own resentments and ambitions. Poor in his youth and still a tailor without pretensions of social rank, he stressed the egalitarian, anti-aristocratic strain of Jacksonian democracy, as well as its distrust of government at all levels. An active, powerful government, insisted Johnson and other radical Jacksonians, was subject to manipulation by the rich and powerful. He maintained that the Constitution should be construed strictly and opposed national government encroachments on "states' rights." But unlike many Democrats, he urged that similar principles be applied to the state governments. This led him into conflict with the western Tennessee Democratic leaders--slaveholders who dominated the party.
Johnson was elected to the state legislature in 1835, 1839, and 1841, and to the U.S. Congress in 1843. He expressed his constitutional principles by voting consistently against the tariff, internal improvements, higher salaries for government employees, or any other "extravagance." Gerrymandered out of Congress in 1852 by a Whig legislature, he won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1853, finally gaining control of the party from his Tennessee opponents. He barely defeated the Whig candidate and served two terms from 1853 to 1857, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Although Johnson himself owned a few slaves and loyally defended slavery and "states' rights," his relations with proslavery Democratic leaders were strained. Within the framework of Tennessee state politics, Johnson was the spokesman of the nonslaveholding interests of the state. In the Senate his most treasured proposal was the Homestead Bill, a measure that would have given 160 acres (65 ha) of western land to anyone who would settle on and cultivate it for five years. Such a program would have precluded the large plantations associated with slavery. Southern congressmen opposed it bitterly, while the new, antislavery Republican party of the North favored it.
These tensions were exacerbated in 1860, when Johnson cooperated with Tennessee Democrats who favored Stephen A. Douglas for the presidency. Douglas had alienated most Southern Democrats by refusing to endorse their right to take slaves anywhere in the western territories. But Johnson himself had slight commitment to the expansion of slavery there, and he hoped that he would get Douglas's support as a compromise presidential candidate if he and his enemies fought to a stalemate. When the struggle led to the division of the Democratic party, Johnson supported the pro-Southern nominee, John C. Breckinridge. His dalliance with Douglas, however, had already injured him with most Southern Democrats.
Johnson's association with the Democrats ended completely when he worked to prevent Tennessee from joining the secession movement after Lincoln's election in 1860. Allying with pro-Union Whigs, for several months he fought old Democratic enemies to a standstill. But when war came, western and central Tennessee voted overwhelmingly to join the South. Only eastern Tennessee held out, and Johnson with it--the only Southern senator to refuse to go with his state. Johnson's position, which forced him and his family to flee Tennessee, made him a hero in the North. In Congress he came into close contact with Republicans and pro-war Democrats, now cooperating in the so-called Union party. When Union forces gained control of central Tennessee in 1862, Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor.
Lincoln hoped that Johnson would be able to create a new civilian government loyal to the Union, but the attempt met with scant success. The few Unionists were badly divided between those who hoped to retain slavery and conciliate pro-Confederates and those who wished to abolish slavery and punish traitors. Johnson took a position in between. While he urged bold steps to restore civil government, both groups held back, convinced that most Tennesseans would not cooperate until Confederate troops still in the state were crushed, which did not occur until December 1864. Within three months Tennesseans held a convention, framed a new state constitution, and elected a new governor and congressman.
As Lincoln's running mate on the Union party ticket, Johnson was elected in November 1864. Ill at the time of the inauguration in March 1865, Johnson made the mistake of fortifying himself with whiskey before the ceremonies. His inaugural address was rambling and almost incoherent. The humiliating experience--made doubly painful by his chronic insecurity--lent apparent substance to rumors of alcoholism that plagued him for the rest of his life. The wound was just beginning to heal when, on April 15, 1865, Johnson became president after Lincoln's assassination.
As soon as he became president, Johnson faced the knottiest problem of the post-Civil War era--formulating a policy for restoring the Union. Difficult for Lincoln, this task was even harder for Johnson. Lincoln was a Northerner with an intimate knowledge of Northern attitudes toward slavery, race, and the South, as well as with the sentiments and necessities of the Union party. He shared the mixed feelings of racism and humanitarian concern for ex-slaves that characterized most Northerners, as well as their conflicting desires for a quick return to normality and for fundamental changes that would guarantee the security of the Union. Johnson, on the other hand, was a Southerner. Toward blacks he displayed alternately a sympathetic paternalism and a contemptuous hostility. He understood the politics of the South better than any Northern Republican, but he had no real feeling for the North, and he was especially ignorant of the balance of forces in the Union party.
A strict constructionist who believed in limited government, Johnson found federal domination of the people of the South extremely distasteful. Determined to reestablish state governments in the South as quickly as possible, he decided to follow a modified version of the program that Lincoln had developed during the war. This provided for the speedy framing of new state constitutions abolishing slavery and the election of new state officers. He also added requirements that the new states ratify the 13th Amendment, repudiate Confederate debts, and nullify secession ordinances. All this was to be done under the temporary wartime authority of the president as commander in chief of the armed forces. When the states met his conditions, he would recognize their restoration to the Union, and the war would be officially over. Southerners met his conditions quickly. When Congress met in December 1865, he thought the job was almost complete.
To a Southern Unionist the plan seemed excellent, but it revealed Johnson's ignorance of the sentiments of most Northerners. Johnson's program left the decision of how to cope with emancipation completely in the hands of white Southerners. Northerners justifiably feared that freedmen's basic rights of citizenship would not be recognized, and considered it unsafe to restore the Union until that discrimination was ended. Therefore the Republican majorities in Congress refused to agree that the Southern states were ready to assume their rights and did not seat the Southern congressional representatives. This strained Johnson's relations with his party and convinced him that the entire federal system, with its strict limits on national power, was in danger. When Congress passed laws to protect the rights of the ex-slaves in 1866, he vetoed them as unconstitutional and broke with the Republican Party completely rather than endorse a new amendment to the Constitution granting blacks the rights of citizenship. From this point forward Johnson's relations with the congressional majority deteriorated. He questioned Congress's right to legislate without the presence of Southern representatives, and he tacitly encouraged Southern opposition to congressional laws.
Finally, in 1867, Congress set aside the governments Johnson had created in the South and put Southerners under military supervision until new governments based on equal civil and political rights were established. To Johnson this marked the total subversion of the federal system, and he resisted--cooperating with Democrats to encourage Southern resistance, promoting a political reaction in the North, and hindering the Army's enforcement of the laws in the South through his power as commander in chief. When Johnson tried to gain control of the Army in February 1868, removing the secretary of war in apparent violation of law, he was Impeached by the House of Representatives and tried before the Senate. The excellence of Johnson's lawyers, the ambiguity of the law, the cessation of his interference in the South, the establishment of new governments there and the admission of their representatives to Congress, and divisions among Republicans all led to a verdict of "not guilty" by one vote. Johnson served out the remainder of his term quietly.
Johnson's administration was ably served by its secretary of state, William Henry Seward, who was instrumental in the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. Seward was also vigorous, during the Civil War period under Lincoln and later under Johnson, in protesting the French military intervention in Mexico as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. American diplomatic pressure increased, and the French withdrew in 1866.
Returning to Tennessee, Johnson began rebuilding his eastern Tennessee political base, seeking various Democratic nominations from 1869 to 1872. His old enemies in the Tennessee Democratic party, however, frustrated his ambitions. In 1874 he finally achieved the vindication he wanted so desperately, winning election to the U.S. Senate by a coalition of Republicans and dissident Democrats. On March 5, 1875, he once again took his seat in the Senate. He died a few months later, on July 31.




Museum Home Page     Phoenixmasonry Home Page

Copyrighted 1999 - 2015   Phoenixmasonry, Inc.      The Fine Print