Andrew Johnson unexpectedly became the 17th American President after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. He was responsible for many of the policies adopted for the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. Many historians consider him one of the worst presidents, after James Buchanon, because he favored Southern whites and hindered the nation’s healing process.
Andrew Johnson was born in December, 1808 in Raleigh, North Carolina. His father was a constable and his mother worked as a laundress. Johnson was three years old when family faced even harder financial burdens because of his father untimely death. There were even rumors that Andrew was fathered by another man because he did not resemble his siblings.
Andrew was apprenticed to a tailor when he was ten years old. The contract specified that he remain until the age of twenty-one, but he ran away after five years. He was provided a rudimentary education in reading while he was apprenticed, and he expanded on that education when he finally travelled west to Tennessee.
In 1826, he moved to Greeneville, Tennessee, and established himself as a tailor. The following year, Johnson married Eliza McCardle, the daughter of a shoemaker. The couple had five children. Eliza Johnson helped her husband improve his rudimentary reading and writing skills, and tutored him in math. Over time, Andrew Johnson became prosperous enough to buy property and acquire several African-American slaves, who worked in his home.
Johnson’s political career began in 1829, when he was elected alderman in Greeneville. A skilled orator, Johnson became mayor of Greeneville five years later. He was elected to serve in the Tennessee state legislature a year after that, where he spent much of the 1830s and early 1840s. In 1843, he was voted into the U.S. House of Representatives. While in Congress, Johnson introduced what would become the Homestead Act, which granted tracts of undeveloped public land to settlers.
Johnson left Congress in 1853 to become governor of Tennessee. He vacated the governorship in 1857 to take a seat in the U.S. Senate. During the 1850s, as the struggle over states’ rights and slavery in the territories further intensified and divided the North and South, Johnson continued to believe in the right to slave ownership. However, as some Southern leaders began calling for secession, he advocated for the preservation of the Union.
In November 1860, Abraham Lincolnwas elected America’s 16th president. On December 20 of that same year, slaveholding South Carolinaseceded from the Union. Six more Southern states soon followed, and in February 1861, they formed the Confederate States of America. Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, and just over a month later, on April 12, the U.S. Civil War broke out when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. That June, Tennessee voters approved a referendum to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy.
Johnson, who had traveled across Tennessee speaking out against secession, was the only senator from the South to remain loyal to the Union after his state seceded. He resigned from the Senate in 1862 when Lincoln appointed him as Tennessee’s military governor. In this role, Johnson tried, with mixed success, to re-establish federal authority in Tennessee.
When Lincoln sought re-election in 1864, he chose Andrew Johnson as his running mate over Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, a former U.S. senator from Maine. As a Southern Unionist and “War Democrat, Johnson was deemed a good fit for the ticket. Lincoln defeated his opponent General George McClellan and they were both sworn into office in 1865.
On April 9, at Appomattox, Virginia, General Robert E. Lee, surrendered his Confederate army to General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War. Five days later, on April 14, while Lincoln was attending a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., he was shot and fatally wounded by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. By the next morning, Lincoln was dead.
Johnson himself narrowly escaped being killed himself, since the assassin’s original plot also targeted the vice president and U.S. Secretary of State William Seward. That same day, Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the 17th American President at his Washington hotel by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Salmon Chase.
Once in office, Johnson focused on quickly restoring the Southern states to the Union. He granted amnesty to most of the former Confederates and allowed the rebel states to elect new governments. These state governments, which often included ex-Confederate officials, soon enacted black codes.
These measures were taken to control and repress the recently freed slave population. When the U.S. Congress convened in December 1865, it refused to seat the newly elected Southern members, and Johnson found himself at odds with the legislature, particularly the Radical Republicans, who deemed the president’s approach to Reconstruction as too lenient.
In 1866, Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the Civil Rights bill, both focused on protecting former slaves. Andrew Johnson also tried to persuade the Southern states to vote against the 14th amendment, which proclaimed that blacks were to be considered citizens.
During the 1866 congressional elections, Johnson launched a multiple-city speaking campaign, dubbed “a swing around the circle,” in which he attempted to win support for his Reconstruction policies. The tour proved to be a failure, and the Republicans won majorities in both houses of Congress and set about enacting their own Reconstruction measures
Hostilities between the president and Congress continued to mount, and in February 1868, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson. Among the 11 charges, he was accused of violating the Tenure of Office Act by suspending Secretary of War Edwin Stanto, who opposed Johnson’s Reconstruction policies. That May, the Senate acquitted Johnson of the charges by one vote.
Andrew Johnson did not run for reelection in 1868. He had hoped the Democrats would choose him as their presidential nominee, but they opted instead for Horatio Seymour, a former governor of New York. Civil War hero Ulysses Grant, the Republican candidate, won the election and became the 18th U.S. president.
Andrew Johnson’s interest in politics and public office did not end once he left the White House in March 1869 and returned home to Tennessee. That same year, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, and in 1872, lost his bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
He persisted and won election to the Senate in 1875. Johnson was the only ex-president to accomplish this feat; however, his Senate tenure was brief. He died at age 66 on July 31, 1875, after suffering a stroke while visiting family in Carter County, Tennessee.
Andrew Johnson was buried in Greeneville with the American flag and a copy of the Constitution.
The graphic reveals highlights and accomplishments during Andrew Johnson’s life: