Andrew Johnson was born in a log cabin in Raleigh, North Carolina, on December 29, 1808, he would become the 17th president of the United States in 1865 after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. His father, Jacob Johnson was a porter at an inn and a bank janitor, he died while trying to save two of his wealthy employers, Andrew was only three. His mother, Mary “Polly” McDonough Johnson, worked as a seamstress to make ends meet.
When she remarried Andrew and his brother William where apprenticed to a local tailor. Andrew and his brother ran away from their obligation and after being on the run for two years he returned to Raleigh in 1826 to reunite with his mother and stepfather. At seventeen years old Andrew moved to Greeneville, Tennessee and set up shop as a tailor.
Andrew’s tailoring business became successful but he never mastered the basics of English grammar, reading, or math until he married sixteen year old Eliza McCardle in 1827. She also taught him to invest his money wisely in town real estate and farmlands. Over time, Andrew became prosperous enough to buy property and acquire several African-American slaves, who worked in his home. The couple had five children, Martha (1828), Charles (1830), Mary (1832), Robert (1834), and Andrew Jr. (1852). Eliza suffered from tuberculosis, but remained a constant supporter of Andrew through their 50-year marriage.
Andrew took a strong interest in politics and was elected alderman in 1829, five years later he was elected mayor of Greeneville. In 1835, he was elected to the Tennessee state legislature. He advocated for the poor, was opposed to non-essential government spending, he was a strong anti-abolitionist and a promoter of states’ rights. But he did support the Union, which was starting to be torn apart due to the north and south states disagreement on slavery.
In 1843, Andrew became the first Democrat from Tennessee to be elected to the United States Congress and declared that slavery was essential to the preservation of the Union. Southern states started to discuss separating from the Union if slavery was abolished. During his fifth and final term in Congress Andrew saw that his chances for a sixth term were slim due to the Whig party becoming more popular in Tennessee.
In 1853, Andrew was elected governor of Tennessee and served two terms, but found the experience frustrating due to his limited constitutional powers. He had no veto power and could only give suggestions to the legislature.
As the 1856 election neared, Andrew briefly considered a run for the presidency, but decided to run for the U.S. Senate instead. As senator, Andrew stayed independent, opposing abolition while making clear his dedication to the Union.
When Tennessee left the Union, Andrew was the only Southern Senator not to resign his seat in the U.S. Senate. He became one of the strongest supporters of President Lincoln, objecting to any compromise with the Confederacy as long as the rebels were in charge.
In the south, Andrew was vilified and called a traitor, his properties were confiscated, and his wife and daughters were essentially driven from the state with what they could carry in a wagon. In the north, he was an overnight hero, praised in the press as a true patriot who risked his life and fortune to side with the Union in the Civil War.
Once Union troops occupied Tennessee in 1862, Lincoln appointed Andrew military governor. He was never able to gain complete control of the state as Confederate insurgents raided cities and towns at will. Andrew originally opposed the Emancipation Proclamation, but accepted it after gaining an exemption for Tennessee.
In 1864 Lincoln selected Andrew, a Southerner, to run as his Vice President. Lincoln defeated his opponent General George McClellan by an electoral margin of 212-21, and received 55 percent of the popular vote. The President and new Vice President were sworn into office on March 4, 1865. Andrew, who was recovering from typhoid fever, drank some whiskey before the ceremony and gave a slurred, semi-incoherent inaugural address, leading to rumors that he was an alcoholic. Several other times during his presidency Andrew appeared to be in an inebriated state.
On the night of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater, in Washington, D.C.. Andrew and U.S. Secretary of State William Seward were also targets that night, but the other assassin, George Azterodt, didn’t follow through with his plans. Three hours after Lincoln died, Andrew was sworn in as the 17th President of the United States. In a strange irony, the racist Southerner was charged with the reconstruction of the South and the extension of civil rights and suffrage to former black slaves.
Because his wife, Eliza, was suffering from tuberculosis she stayed in her room most of the time and Andrew’s two daughters lived in the White House and served as official hostesses.
Congress was in recess the first eight months of Andrew’s term, and he took full advantage of their absence by pushing through his own Reconstruction policies. He issued pardons and amnesty to any rebels who would take an oath of allegiance. This resulted in many former Confederates being elected to office in Southern states and instituting “black codes,” which essentially maintained slavery.
When Congress reconvened, members were outraged that the president issued pardon’s and his lack of protecting black civil rights. In 1866, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the Civil Rights Act, Andrew vetoed both of these measures because he felt that Southern states were not represented in Congress and that suffrage policy was the responsibility of the states, not the federal government. Both vetoes were overridden by Congress. On March 2, 1867, the first Reconstruction Act was passed which allowed the free male slaves to vote. As usual, he vetoed it, nevertheless the bill was passed. His visible hostility towards the African-Americans drew a lot of criticisms and some even claimed that he was involved in Lincoln’s assassination.
Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which denied the president the power to remove federal officials without the Senate’s approval. Andrew challenged the Tenure of Office Act as a direct violation of his constitutional authority and in August 1867, he fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, with whom he’d had several confrontations. In February 1868, the House voted to impeach Andrew for violation of the Tenure of Office Act, but he was acquitted by one vote. He remained president, but both his credibility and effectiveness were destroyed.
Andrew sought nomination by the 1868 Democratic National Convention in New York and was popular among Southern whites, just before the convention he pardoned any Confederate not already indicted, meaning that only Jefferson Davis and a few others still might face trial. Former New York governor Horatio Seymour received the nomination and Andrew would complete his presidency in March 1869. Andrew issued a final amnesty before leaving office, this one covering everyone, including Jefferson Davis and Dr. Samuel Mudd, the doctor who splinted John Wilkes Booths leg after he assassinated Lincoln.
In the end, Andrew did more to extend the period of national strife than he did to heal the wounds of war. Andrew returned to Tennessee and ran for Congress in 1872 but lost. Two years later he ran for the Senate and won, he is the only former President to serve in the Senate. A few months later, on July 31, 1875, he suffered a stroke while visiting family in Carter County, Tennessee, he was 66 years old.
Andrew was buried with his body wrapped in an American flag and a copy of the Constitution placed under his head. The cemetery outside of Greeneville is now part of the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, which includes his house and tailor shop.
“Outside of the Constitution we have no legal authority more than private citizens, and within it we have only so much as that instrument gives us. This broad principle limits all our functions and applies to all subjects.”
“If blacks were given the right to vote, that would place every splay-footed, bandy-shanked, hump-backed, thick-lipped, flat-nosed, woolly-headed, ebon-colored in the country upon an equality with the poor white man.”
“I have lived among negroes, all my life, and I am for this Government with slavery under the Constitution as it is. I am for the Government of my fathers with negroes. I am for it without negroes. Before I would see this Government destroyed I would send every negro back to Africa, disintegrated and blotted out of space.”
“When I die, I desire no better winding sheet than the Stars and Stripes, and no softer pillow than the Constitution of my country.”
“It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.”
“Honest conviction is my courage; the Constitution is my guide.”
“The goal to strive for is a poor government but a rich people.”
“If you always support the correct principles then you will never get the wrong results!”
“The life of a republic lies certainly in the energy, virtue, and intelligence of its citizens.”
“Let us look forward to the time when we can take the flag of our country and nail it below the Cross, and there let it wave as it waved in the olden times, and let us gather around it and inscribed for our motto: ‘Liberty and Union, one and inseparable, now and forever,’ and exclaim, ‘Christ first, our country next!’”
“The sovereignty of the States is the language of the Confederacy and not the language of the Constitution. The latter contains the emphatic words. This Constitution and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof and all treaties made or which shall be made under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”
“Legislation can neither be wise nor just which seeks the welfare of a single interest at the expense and to the injury of many and varied interests.”
“There are no good laws but such as repeal other laws.”
“I have been almost overwhelmed by the announcement of the sad event [Lincoln’s assassination] which has so recently occurred. I feel incompetent to perform duties so important and responsible as those which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me.”
“I realized, there are people out there who can beat me, want to beat me. And unless I continue to innovate and evolve, I am going to learn a painful lesson from someone who has.”
“There are some who lack confidence in the integrity and capacity of the people to govern themselves. To all who entertain such fears I will most respectfully say that I entertain none . . . If man is not capable, and is not to be trusted with the government of himself, is he to be trusted with the government of others . . . Who, then, will govern? The answer must be, Man for we have no angels in the shape of men, as yet, who are willing to take charge of our political affairs.”
“It is our sacred duty to transmit unimpaired to our posterity the blessings of liberty which were bequeathed to us by the founders of the Republic.”
“If the rabble were lopped off at one end and the aristocrat at the other, all would be well with the country.”
“If I am shot at, I want no man to be in the way of the bullet.”
“If you could extend the elective franchise to all persons of color who can read the Constitution of the United States in English and write their names and to all persons of color who own real estate valued at not less than two hundred and fifty dollars and pay taxes thereon, and would completely disarm the adversary. This you can do with perfect safety. And as a consequence, the radicals, who are wild upon negro franchise, will be completely foiled in their attempts to keep the Southern States from renewing their relations to the Union.”
“Tyranny and despotism can be exercised by many, more rigorously, more vigorously, and more severely, than by one.”
“My right side is paralyzed. I need no doctor. I can overcome my own troubles.”
“I feel incompetent to perform duties…which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me.”
“Let them impeach and be damned.”
“Washington, DC is 12 square miles bordered by reality.”
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