Andrew Johnson (1808-75)

Figure 1.--This silloute of the Johnsons shows two of their children, Marha and Mary in 1853. At the time the girls would have been 11 and 15 years of age. Note the very differnt dress styles that the two girls are wearing as well as their pantalettes.

Andrew Johnson was the 17th and one of the most controversial of the American presidents. He was chosen to run with Lincoln in the 1864 election. Johnson was a Southern Democrat who steadfastly support the Union and sought valiantly to keep Tennessee in the Union. It was thought having a Democrat on the ticket would help Lincoln get reelectd. After Lincoln's assasination, Johnson sought to bring the Southern states back into the Union as quickly as possible. He was impeached for opposing the Reconstruction program of the Radical Republicans in Congress. With the Assassination of Lincoln, the Presidency fell upon an old-fashioned southern Jacksonian Democrat of pronounced states' rights views. Although an honest and honorable man, his views on the freed slaves were decidely racist. They are not in keeping with our modern views on race, but the reflected the views of many Americans at the time. He was widely sen as placating the former Confederates rebel at the expense of the Freedmen. [Langguth] And this is an accurate depiction. President Johnson would be a major factor in the failure of Reconstruction, setting back newly freed black Americans ans isolating the South for a century.


Abdrew's parents, Jacob and Mary Johnson, maintained the home by working for Casso's Inn, a popular inn and stable. The Johnson home stood on the property of the inn. Andrew's mother was a weaver for the Casso's Inn while Jacob Johnson was the inn's hostler as well as the janitor for the State Capitol.


Andrew was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1808, the younger of two sons. Jacob Johnson rescued two friends from drowning in 1812 but died from over-exertion, leaving Mary to raise Andrew and his brother William. He grew up in great poverty without a father to support the family. His mother supported the family by spinning and weaving cloth in their Raleigh cottage. Andrew had one brother, William. I have no information about his childhood or boyhood clothing. Andrew was indentured to a tailor as a boy of 14 years. It was here that he learned to read and write. He eventually ran away when he was 15, but by then he had the skills to launch his career. Andrew had no formal education, but was well read. There were no free public schools available to poor boys like Andrew. He began his informal education while serving as an apprentice. Frequent customers would read to Johnson from books of oratory while he worked and occasionally gave him books. Johnson taught himself to read. Two years after beginning his apprenticeship, Johnson and his friends threw rocks at a tradesman's house out of mischief. When the occupant of the house threatened to call the police, Johnson left town and abandoned his apprentice work at the tailor shop of John J. Selby. Johnson fled to Carthage, North Carolina 60 miles from Raleigh. He found a market for his tailoring skills in Carthage but moved to Laurens, South Carolina to distance himself further from the trouble in Raleigh. After a year in Laurens, Johnson returned to Raleigh and sought to complete his apprenticeship under John Selby. Selby, however, no longer owned the tailor shop and had no need of an apprentice. With no available employment in Raleigh, Johnson led his mother, brother, and stepfather to Tennessee in 1826.


His wife was educated and a young teacher when they met. She helped expand his limited horizons and nuture learning. She would read to him in his tailor shop. Mrs. Johnson was better educated than her husband and used her education to improve his reading and writing skills. She also taught the future president arithmetic. She continued the established practice of reading to Johnson while he worked.


Johnson opened a tailor shop in Greeneville, Tennessee. He was a fine tailor. A tailor was a skilled and respected trade in the years before manufactured clothing. His tailor shop became a popular place to discuss politics. It was here he met and mairred Eliza McCardle. He was interested in the political discussions held in his shop. He participated in debates at the local academy.

Political Career

Entering politics, he became an adept stump speaker, championing the common man and vilifying the plantation aristocracy. As a Member of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the 1840's and '50's, he advocated a homestead bill to provide a free farm for the poor man. During the secession crisis, Johnson remained in the Senate even when Tennessee seceded. He was the only Southern Senator to remain loyal to the Union. This made him a hero in the North and a traitor in the eyes of most Southerners. In 1862 President Lincoln appointed him Military Governor of Tennessee, and Johnson used the state as a laboratory for reconstruction. In 1864 the Republicans, contending that their National Union Party was for all loyal men, nominated Johnson, a Southerner and a Democrat, for Vice President.


Vice President Andrew Johnson was brought to the presidency as the result of the assisanation of President Lincoln. With the end of the War, Johnson found himself in conflict with the Republican Congress over the Reconstruction of the rebellious southern stastes. He framed the issue in terms of state's rights. The key issue was that of the civil rights of the freed slaves. Johnson's presidency was dominated by this issue.

Presidential Reconstruction

With the Assassination of Lincoln, the Presidency fell upon an old-fashioned southern Jacksonian Democrat of pronounced states' rights views. Although an honest and honorable man, his views on the freed slaves were decidely racist. They are not in keeping with our modern views on race, but the reflected the views of many Americans at the time. He was widely sen as placating the former Confederates rebel at the expense of the Freedmen. [Langguth] And this is an accurate depiction. President Johnson would be a major factor in the failure of Reconstruction, setting back newly freed black Americans ans isolating the South for a century. Johnson was one of the most unfortunate of Presidents. Arrayed against him were the Republicans in Congress, brilliantly led and effective in their tactics. Johnson was no match for them. After Lincoln's death, President Johnson proceeded to reconstruct the former Confederate States while Congress was not in session (1865). He pardoned all who would take an oath of allegiance, but required leaders and men of wealth to obtain special Presidential pardons. By the time Congress met in December 1865, most southern states were reconstructed to Johnson's satisfication, slavery was being abolished, but 'black codes' to regulate the freedmen were beginning to appear and to deny blacks basic civil rights. Republicans in Congress moved vigorously to change Johnson's program. They gained the support of northerners who were dismayed to see Southerners keeping many pre-War leaders and imposing many pre-War restrictions upon blacks through the black codes.

Civil Rights

The Republicans' first step was to refuse to seat any Senator or Representative from the old Confederacy. Next they passed measures dealing with the former slaves. Johnson vetoed the legislation. The Republican mustered enough votes in Congress to pass legislation over his veto--the first time that Congress had overridden a President on an important bill. They passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which established Negroes as American citizens and forbade discrimination against them. A few months later Congress submitted to the states the 14th Amendment, which specified that no state should "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

The view of President Johnson and his battle with the Republican Congress has changed over time. He was villified by the contemprary press. As Americans began to be influenced by Lost Cause historians and look on the Confederacy more favorably, Johnson began to be seen in a more favorably light. Today with our modern standards we of course side with the Republicans in Congress and their fight for black civil rights. Here it must be remembered there were not only moral concerns, but also political concerns in that blacks were potential Republican voters. It must also be remembered that the War was not fought for black civil rights. In fact Lincoln did not at first dare to make abolition an issue. Before the War civil rights for blacks were not well accepted in the North. In fact the Supreme Court in the Dread Scott decission had ruled that blacks could not be full citizens of the United States.

Radical Reconstruction

All the former Confederate States except Tennessee refused to ratify the amendment; further, there were two bloody race riots in the South. Speaking in the Middle West, Johnson faced hostile audiences. The Republicans won an overwhelming victory in Congressional elections that fall. With their new strength in Congress The Radicals in March 1867, effected their own plan of Reconstruction, again placing southern states under military rule. They passed laws placing restrictions upon the President. When Johnson allegedly violated one of these, the Tenure of Office Act, by dismissing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the House voted eleven articles of impeachment against him. He was tried by the Senate in the spring of 1868 and acquitted by one brave vote.

Foreign relations

Domestic issues, especially the debate over Reconstruction and imeachment dominates any discussion of President Johnson. There were, however, important foreign poliicy achievements. The most important was diplomatic pressure on Napoleon III to remove French forces from Mexico. One often ovelooked event, however, was the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Although much criticised at the time as "Seward's Folly," it had huge future consequences for the United States. Much of these achievements were the work of Secretary od State Seward. In addition to Alaska, Seward also acquired the tint Pacific outpost of Midway Island which was to play a key role in World War II. Seward also aranged to purchase the Virgin Islands. The Danes agreed and the local population in a plebecite approved. Congress which was reluctant to vote the money for Alaska, refused to appropriate the funds for the Virgin Islands. [Trefousse, p. 348.]

After the Presidency

Tennessee several years after his presidency returned Johnson to the Senate in 1875. He was the only president to be reelected to the Senate after completing their term of office. He died a few months after his election.

Eliza McCardle Johnson

"I knew he'd be acquitted; I knew it," declared Eliza McCardle Johnson, told how the Senate had voted in her husband's impeachment trial. Her faith in him had never wavered during those difficult days in 1868, when her courage dictated that all White House social events should continue as usual.

That faith began to develop many years before in east Tennessee, when Andrew Johnson first came to Greeneville, across the mountains from North Carolina, and established a tailor shop. Eliza was almost 16 then and Andrew only 17; and local tradition tells of the day she first saw him. He was driving a blind pony hitched to a small cart, and she said to a girl friend, "There goes my beau!" She married him within a year, on May 17, 1827.

Eliza was the daughter of Sarah Phillips and John McCardle, a shoemaker. Fortunately she had received a good basic education that she was delighted to share with her new husband. He already knew his letters and could read a bit, so she taught him writing and arithmetic. With their limited means, her skill at keeping a house and bringing up a family--five children, in all--had much to do with Johnson's success.

He rose rapidly, serving in the state and national legislatures and as governor. Like him, when the Civil War came, people of east Tennessee remained loyal to the Union; Lincoln sent him to Nashville as military governor in 1862. Rebel forces caught Eliza at home with part of the family. Only after months of uncertainty did they rejoin Andrew Johnson in Nashville. By 1865 a soldier son and son-in-law had died, and Eliza was an invalid for life.

Quite aside from the tragedy of Lincoln's death, she found little pleasure in her husband's position as President. At the White House, she settled into a second-floor room that became the center of activities for a large family: her two sons, her widowed daughter Mary Stover and her children; her older daughter Martha with her husband, Senator David T. Patterson, and their children. As a schoolgirl Martha had often been the Polks' guest at the mansion; now she took up its social duties. She was a competent, unpretentious, and gracious hostess even during the impeachment crisis.

At the end of Johnson's term, Eliza returned with relief to her home in Tennessee, restored from wartime vandalism. She lived to see the legislature of her state vindicate her husband's career by electing him to the Senate in 1875, and survived him by nearly 6 months, dying at the Pattersons' home in 1876.


The Johnsons had three sons (Charles, Robert, and Andrew Jr.) and two daughters (Martha and Mary). The two daughters were educated in girls' schools. With the Lincoln boys gone, the White House was a much more sedate place. Johnson's chidren and grandchildren, however, were often present in the White House.

Martha (1828-69)

Martha was a grown woman when her father became president. Martha became her father's White House hostess. Her mother was content to deal with family matters, but unwilling to participate in social life. Despite her father's the impeachment trial and disputes with Congress, she helped to redecorate make the mansion an elegant location for Washington social events.

Charles (1830-63)

Charles studied medicine and operated a pharmacy. He had a severe drinking problem. He joined the Federal Army and was killed in a horse accident during the War.

Mary (1832-83)

Mary helped her ilder sister Margaret with White House social activities. Her home was in the Watauga Valley in Tennessee. Her first husband was Daniel Stover, a Federal Civil War hero. They had three children. She married again to William Brown, but it was not a successful marriage. She postponed divorce until her father's death.

Robert (1834-69)

Robert served as Federal colonel in the Civil War and was popular which his men. Drinking became a serious problem after the War. He worked for his father for a while as his secretary. A scandal ensued when he brought prostitutes in to the White House. He nevera married. Many believe he committed suicide.

Andrew Jr. (1852-79)

Andy was a good deal younger than his other siblings. He was only about 13 years old when his father bacame president. He saw how his brother's drinking affected his parents and promised them would refrain from strong drink which he did. He also promised to care for them in theior old age. He opened a newspaper, but it dod not prove popular. He used it as a vehicle to promote his father's views. He married Bessie May Kumbaugh. He died when he was onky 26 years old.


Langguth, A.G. After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil Waranf Lost the Peace (2014), 464p.

Trefousse, Hans L. Andrew Johnson: A Biography (Norton: New York, 1989), 463p.

Wead, Doug. All the President's Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Familirs (Atria: New York, 2003), 456p.


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Created: June 25, 1999
Last changed: 7:57 AM 10/3/2014