Andrew Johnson (1808-1875)

Written By Paul H. Bergeron

No previous American president had ever faced the awesome challenges that Andrew Johnson confronted in the aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. Suddenly thrust into the presidency, Johnson had to complete the task of ending the Civil War and also launch the effort to bind up the nation’s wounds by establishing stability and order throughout the country, particularly in the Rebel states. Given the climate of the times, every move he made was subjected to scrutiny and, quite often, criticism and attack, especially by certain Republican leaders of Congress. Lacking the political skills of Lincoln, Johnson always suffered by comparison. A tumultuous conflict between Johnson and Congress marked most of his term as president. He vigorously defended both the Constitution, as he interpreted it, and the office of the president from incessant attacks by Congressional leaders. Yet, the legislative branch gained the upper hand early in the battle and eventually sought to oust Johnson from office.

When Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, N.C. on December 29, 1808, no one could have imagined that he would achieve any kind of national recognition, good or bad. He was the youngest of three children born to Jacob and Mary McDonough Johnson, who lived in poverty in the state’s capital city. Jacob Johnson died in early 1812, shortly after Andrew’s third birthday, thereby throwing the family into even greater distress. A few months later Mary Johnson married Turner Daughtry, another impoverished and unsuccessful man. When young Andrew was ten years old, his mother apprenticed him to a tailor in Raleigh. In that job, he gained not only the skill of tailoring but also the ability to read and write. But in the summer of 1824 he ran away from his apprenticeship and thereafter wandered to several different locations over the next two years, working briefly as a tailor at those places.

Eventually in the fall of 1826, 17-year old Andrew arrived in East Tennessee, where he established his tailoring business; by the following spring he opened a shop in Greeneville and a couple of months later married 16-year old Eliza McCardle. Eventually they would have two daughters and three sons. Beginning in 1829 and following for several years, he repeatedly won election as alderman and twice served as mayor of Greeneville. Emboldened by these local successes Johnson sought and won elections to the state legislature, serving from 1835-43. He moved to the national stage by winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843 and remained in that post for ten years. During his decade of service, Johnson continued his allegiance to the Democratic party and became an advocate of his proposed homestead bill.

By gerrymandering Congressional district lines, the legislature diminished Johnson’s chances for reelection in 1853; therefore, he opted to seek the governor’s chair. Although victorious that year and again two years later, Johnson achieved no real distinction as governor, but he did build a political following. Thus, not unexpectedly, the state legislature in 1857 chose Johnson as U.S. Senator, thereby returning him to Washington and the national arena.

Johnson’s tenure in the Senate coincided with the mounting discord and friction in the nation which eventuated in the secession of eleven Southern states that began in late 1860. In the Senate chamber in mid-December, Johnson delivered a notable speech against secession and followed up with a second such speech in February 1861. He became the only Senator from a seceded state to remain at his post. The new administration warmed up to Johnson immediately; in fact Lincoln granted him the privilege of distributing federal patronage in Tennessee. Johnson left Washington in the spring to go to his home state to fight against the secession referendum scheduled for June. He joined forces with former political rivals to campaign to keep the state in the Union; but their efforts came to naught when the state voted to secede.

Lincoln and Johnson conversed frequently in 1861 concerning the necessity of moving Federal troops into East Tennessee in order to liberate the Unionists there. The two men even developed strategies for such a maneuver, but the top military leaders resisted their recommendations. In early 1862 Federal forces entered Tennessee, but they invaded the middle section, instead of the eastern third, and quickly occupied Nashville.  Lincoln seized the opportunity to establish a pro-Union government in the state. With no hesitation he turned to Johnson, named him “military governor,” and authorized him to establish a civil government.   For three years, Johnson struggled mightily to carry out and accomplish that mission.

The fundamental cause of delay was that Union forces failed to control the state militarily until the end of 1864. Frustrated by his relationship with and dependence upon the generals, Johnson lashed out at them repeatedly during his tenure as military governor—and with good reason. President Lincoln regularly pressured Johnson to call for elections but the governor insisted that none could be held until Federal troops secured the state, particularly East Tennessee. The exigencies of war also compelled Johnson to deal with the question of slaves and black freedom. By the summer of 1863, he emerged as an advocate for the immediate emancipation of slaves, a position that gratified Lincoln. A state convention in January 1865 finally dealt with the establishment of a civilian government and also with the question of emancipation. Shortly afterward, Tennessee voters ratified the actions of this convention and also elected a governor and legislators.

While Johnson faced numerous challenges as military governor, Lincoln in 1864 apprehensively contemplated the forthcoming national election. He jettisoned his current vice president and searched for someone who might bolster his party’s chances. Lincoln tapped Johnson, a Southern Democrat, and despite some controversy the Union (Republican) party acquiesced. The Lincoln-Johnson ticket swept the election in November.

Six weeks after his inauguration as vice president, Johnson assumed the presidency upon the death of Lincoln in mid-April. As the nation reeled with shock and sadness, Johnson took charge with confidence and strength. At the end of May he launched his reconstruction plans by issuing an Amnesty Proclamation which provided presidential pardon for all ex-Confederates who took an oath of allegiance, unless they fell within one of the fourteen exempted categories. Johnson also appointed a provisional governor for North Carolina, William W. Holden, the first of seven such governors to be named by the president. This was the model that Johnson established for the restoration of civil governments in the South. He instructed the governors that their states must rescind their secession ordinances, abolish slavery, and repudiate Confederate war debts. Johnson also stipulated that the states must call for constitutional conventions and also for election of new governors and legislators.  

By late fall of 1865 the Southern states had complied, to one degree or another, with Johnson’s plan. He justifiably believed that the restoration of the states had moved along quite admirably–a view not shared by Republican congressional leaders who had been away from Washington while Johnson exercised “executive hegemony.” The convening of Congress in December marked the commencement of a new day in the struggle to deal with the South.

As events unfolded, Johnson’s power and prestige eroded as Congress exerted its own agenda. In early 1866, for example, the passage of the Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the Civil Rights bill presented serious problems for the president. His vetoes of those two bills fostered animosity within Congress and elsewhere. In a subsequent effort to bolster his standing and to promote the election of Democrats, Johnson embarked on a tour of the Northeast and Midwest in late summer. Judged by most observers as a political disaster, this “swing around the circle” further tarnished Johnson’s reputation and harmed the Democrats in various fall elections. The passage by Congress of the Fourteenth Amendment presented new tensions for both the president and the South. Johnson opposed the amendment and urged the Southern states to reject it; eventually, Tennessee was the only ex-Confederate state to ratify the amendment.

Congress seized control of the entire reconstruction process in 1867, no longer willing to  work with Johnson. Indeed, there was open warfare between the legislative and executive branches throughout the year. In February, Congress enacted the Tenure of Office Act which specified that the president could not remove certain federal officials from office without the approval of the Senate. In that same month Congress passed the first of three Military Reconstruction acts, the most blatant display of legislative power yet seen. Congress divided the ex-Confederate states (with the exception of Tennessee) into five districts and placed military commanders in charge of each. After Congress recessed in the summer, Johnson fought back with a bold strategy to re-gain control over the military. He moved swiftly and successfully to remove and replace Generals Philip Sheridan and Daniel Sickles from their military districts. He also turned his sights upon Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a man increasingly antagonistic to the president. Johnson suspended Stanton and replaced him with General Ulysses Grant as the interim secretary. Needless to say, Johnson’s actions outraged Congressional leaders and talk of impeachment intensified  (there had already been earlier impeachment hearings).

One of the few pleasant diversions enjoyed by Johnson in 1867 was a trip to North Carolina in the summer. He attended ceremonies at Raleigh, where a monument in honor of his father was dedicated. Johnson then traveled to Chapel Hill to participate in commencement at the university, which had conferred an honorary doctorate upon him the preceding year. He returned to Washington to face increasingly difficult problems.

The year of presidential impeachment was 1868. But it began in December 1867 when the House considered, but rejected, an impeachment resolution presented by the Judiciary Committee. A slight pause in the story followed, but in mid-January the Senate officially repudiated Johnson’s explanation of his suspension of Secretary Stanton. Upon receipt of this news, Grant resigned immediately as interim secretary; and oddly enough, Stanton took possession of the department’s offices. The Senate’s challenge to Johnson’s authority stirred him in late February to remove Stanton; three days later the House approved a resolution to impeach the president. Shortly thereafter, the House adopted eleven articles of impeachment. The scene then shifted to the Senate, the body constitutionally designated to hold impeachment trials. Johnson quickly moved to employ a team of very able lawyers and the trial began at the end of March. After it dragged on for weeks, on May 16 the Senate finally took a vote on Article 11; it garnered thirty-five affirmative and nineteen negative votes. Under provisions of the Constitution, a two-thirds vote (or 36 out of 54 Senators) was required. Ten days later the Senate voted on Articles 2 and 3; the result was the same as the earlier vote. Recognizing the futility of continuing the trial, the Senate terminated it. Therefore, Johnson was not removed from office.

In the months that remained of his term there was little that the discredited president could do. Adding insult to injury in the fall, the presidential election swept his enemy, General Grant, into office.  Determined to vindicate his reputation, Johnson left Washington in March 1869.  The best way to restore his standing, so Johnson thought, was to win election to some high political office. Accordingly, he sought election to the U.S. Senate in late 1869, but failed; three years later he unsuccessfully attempted to be elected as U.S. Representative. Finally in 1875, the Tennessee legislature chose him to be U.S. Senator, the first and only former president to be elected to that body. Johnson had the opportunity in the spring to attend a session of the Senate, the place where his trial had taken place. Doubtless he felt fully vindicated. On July 31, 1875 he died suddenly as a result of a stroke suffered at his daughter’s house in Carter County, Tennessee.