Andrew Johnson, served March 4, 1865 - April 15, 1865
Johnson (December 29, 1808 - July 31, 1875) was the 17th President of the United States (1865-1869). As Vice President of the United States in 1865, he succeeded Abraham Lincoln following his assassination. Johnson then presided over the initial and contentious Reconstruction era of the United States following the American Civil War. Johnson’s reconstruction policies failed to promote the rights of the Freedmen (newly freed slaves), and he came under vigorous political attack from Republicans, ending in his impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives; he was acquitted by the U.S. Senate.
Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Jacob Johnson (1778-1812) and Mary (”Polly”) McDonough (1783-1856), a seamstress and the daughter of Andrew McDonough. He had a brother William four years his elder and an older sister Elizabeth, who died in childhood. Johnson’s grandfather William was poverty stricken, and was unable to educate his son Jacob or pass on any land to him. In Raleigh, Jacob Johnson became town constable, married and started a family. He died suddenly after rescuing three drowning men, leaving his family in poverty when Andrew was three.
At age 16 or 17, Johnson left his apprenticeship and ran away with his brother William. They lived in Laurens, South Carolina for two years, where Andrew found work as a tailor. Here he met his first love, Mary Wood, for whom he made a quilt. After his marriage proposal to her was rejected, he returned to Raleigh. As his master J. Selby refused to release him from his apprenticeship obligation, Johnson left and went to Mooresville, Alabama. There Joseph Sloss taught him how to tailor frock coats.
Reading about famous oratory aroused Johnson’s interest in political dialogue and private debates with customers having opposing views on issues of the day. Johnson initiated public debates by organizing a debating society with Blackston McDannel, a customer. He also took part in debates at Tusculum College in Greeneville.
In 1829 Johnson helped organize a mechanics’ party ticket; he was elected as a town alderman, and re-elected until he was elected Mayor in 1834. In 1831 he became a member of the 90th Regiment of the Tennessee militia. Neither the Democratic or the newly formed Whig party was then well organized in that part of Tennessee. Following the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion, a state convention was called to pass a new constitution, including provisions to disfranchise free people of color. The convention also wanted to reform real estate tax rates. The constitution was submitted for a public vote and Johnson campaigned for its adoption; his support of the new work provided him with additional positive statewide exposure.
In 1835, Johnson made a bid for election to the “floater” seat for his district in the Tennessee House of Representatives; he “demolished” the opposition in debate and won the election with almost a two to one margin. In his first term in the state house, Johnson did not ally with either the Democrats or the Whigs consistently, though he revered Jackson, the Democratic President. He opposed non-essential government spending and the railroads, while his constituents looked forward to improvements in their transportation from the railroads. As a result, after serving a single term, he was defeated for re-election.
In 1839, Johnson entered the race for re-election to his House seat, initially as a Whig; when another Whig entry arose, to enhance his position in the campaign, he ran as a Democrat and was elected to his second, non-consecutive term in the Tennessee House. He announced his support of Democrat, and states rights proponent, John C. Calhoun. From that time he supported the Democratic Party and built a powerful political machine in Greene County. Johnson supported Martin Van Buren and early on expressed an interest in the public lands, eventually being considered a father of the Homestead Act of 1862.
In 1840 Johnson was appointed as a presidential elector for his state, giving him more statewide exposure. Despite Van Buren’s defeat, Johnson was instrumental in keeping Greene County in the Democratic column. He was elected to the Tennessee Senate in 1841, where he served one two-year term. The 1841-42 legislative session, with Whigs having a majority in the House chamber and the Democrats a smaller majority in the Senate, was marked by an impasse over the election of Tennessee’s two United States senators. The Whigs in the House sought, by use of a joint session majority, to dictate the choice of the two U.S. senators. The Tennessee Senate, controlled by Democrats and led by Johnson, boycotted the joint session and blocked the filling of both the US Senate seats, denying Tennessee representation in the U.S. Senate until 1843.
After a promotion in the militia in 1841, Johnson was often locally referred to as “Colonel”. He had achieved considerable financial success in his tailoring business, which he sold in order to concentrate on politics. He had also acquired additional real estate, including a larger home and a farm where his mother and stepfather took residence. He as well assumed ownership of as many as eight or nine slaves.
In 1843, Johnson was the first Democrat to run for, and win, election as the U.S. representative from Tennessee’s 1st congressional district, and joined a new Democratic majority in the House. In his first term in the House, he soon articulated his own brand of Jeffersonian-Jacksonian principles he would steadfastly promote throughout most of his political career; he advocated for the interests of the poor, while maintaining an anti-abolitionist stance, insisted on limited spending by the government and opposed protective tariffs. While these positions were well suited for most of his local constituency, this was not the case when he stepped outside that region politically. Johnson advocated “a free farm for the poor” bill that would give land to landless farmers. When not on the House floor, Johnson, in Washington without wife Eliza, shunned social functions in favor of increased self study and reading in the Congressional library.
Johnson won a second Congressional term in 1845 against his perennial opponent, William G. Brownlow; in this second campaign, Johnson particularly took up the mantle as defender of the poor against the aristocracy. He also expressed his outrage at accusations made against his father. In his second term, he supported the administration’s decisions to fight the Mexican War. He also promoted a measure requiring the turnover of all government jobs every eight years. In this term, he introduced for the first time his Homestead Bill, which sought to provide 160 acres for every poor family head “without money and without price”; Johnson did not rest until passage some years later.
Johnson’s third term in Congress found him stiffening in his opposition to non-essential government spending, from expenses of the new Smithsonian Institute to the purchase of portraits for the White House. As well, discussions of slavery were becoming progressively acrimonious, and he remained immovable in his support of the “peculiar institution’. Johnson departed from his southern allies supporting slavery when he maintained that slavery was essential to the very preservation of the Union.
In the campaign for election to his fourth term in 1849, Johnson concentrated on three issues: slavery, homesteads and judicial elections. He defeated his opponent, Nathaniel G. Taylor, with a greater margin of victory than in previous campaigns. When the House reconvened, the party schism caused by the Free Soil Party precluded the formation of a majority needed to elect a Speaker. Johnson proposed adoption of a rule allowing election of a Speaker by a plurality; the rule was passed and Howell Cobb was so elected. This commenced one of the most controversial sessions of Congress, as the issue of slavery took front stage.
Democratic adversaries in the campaign for his fifth and final term put up an opponent Landon Carter Haynes. The campaign included fierce debates; Johnson’s primary issue was the passage of the Homestead bill, which Haynes contended would facilitate abolition. Johnson won the election by over 1600 votes. Though he was not enamored of the party’s presidential nominee, Franklin Pierce, Johnson campaigned for him, but he failed to carry Tennessee. In December 1852 Johnson realized his dream of passage in the House of his Homestead Act, which even garnered the support of Horace Greeley. A long struggle lay ahead in the Senate. Johnson had been so obsessed with the measure that he was said to be “a little cracked on the subject”. Though his final session in Congress was uneventful, he did reintroduce seven resolutions, which failed, providing for rotation of federal appointees.
When it became apparent that Johnson would lose his seat, an effort began by ally George W. Jones to put forward Johnson’s name for governor. The Democratic convention unanimously nominated him for the spot, although the conservative clique from Nashville had serious reservations. When his district was redrawn by the Whigs, that party had won the past two gubernatorial elections, in addition to gaining control of the legislature. Johnson won the election by 2,250 votes, some of which were Whig votes received in return for his promise to support Nathaniel Taylor for his prior seat in Congress. In his inaugural speech, he reaffirmed his Jeffersonian principles, and added that, “Democracy in the political sphere, and Christianity in the moral sphere, proceed in converging lines.”
Despite his initial reluctance, Johnson agreed to run for re-election for governor in 1855, and became the nominee at the party convention. His prospects dwindled when Meredith P. Gentry received the Whig nomination. A series of more than a dozen of debates ensued, where the exchanges grew increasingly vitriolic. Johnson was surprisingly victorious, albeit with a narrower margin. Not long thereafter Johnson gave a speech in Nashville, denouncing the Know Nothing Party, and rebuked a prominent Whig lawyer, Thomas T. Smiley, who took issue with him. Smiley later wrote to Johnson, saying he was ready to fight; a potential duel was prevented by the intervention of Washington Burrow and Benjamin F. Cheatham.
Johnson decided not to seek a third term as Governor, with an eye towards election to the United States Senate. In 1857, on a return trip from Washington, his train derailed causing serious damage to his right arm which would plague him in the future.
The Whigs thought Andrew Johnson a dangerous prospect as a United States Senator, and made it a priority to prevent his election by the state legislature. Johnson, aware of the uphill battle, interjected himself into the campaigns for the legislature in the election of 1857. Though his party won the governor’s race and control of the legislature, Johnson still had to overcome considerable opposition from the conservatives in both parties. His final biennial speech as Governor was pivotal, and he used it to recapitulate his populist philosophy of government. Two days later the legislature elected the outgoing governor to the U.S. Senate. The opposition was appalled, with the Richmond Whig for example, referring to him as “the vilest radical and most unscrupulous demagogue in the Union.”
He immediately set about introducing the Homestead Act in the Senate, just as he had ushered it to passage in the House years before. It became apparent that, as the slavery issue took center stage, the slaveholding states were more reluctant to agree with the bill, with the primary antagonists being the senators in Virginia, Texas, North Carolina and Alabama. In May 1860 a significantly amended version of the Act was passed in both houses but was vetoed by President Buchanan. As chairman of the Committee to Audit and Control the Contingent Expense, Johnson continued his relentless opposition to spending, especially when the capital city was the beneficiary; he argued it was egregious to expect citizens in other states to fund the infrastructure of another locality, regardless of the fact it was the seat of government.
In 1860, the Tennessee delegation nominated Johnson for president at the Democratic National Convention, and Johnson tentatively offered himself as a Vice-President on the Douglas ticket as a back up plan. But when the convention and the party showed signs of a split, he withdrew from the race entirely. In the general election, Johnson reluctantly supported John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, the candidate of most Southern Democrats.
Johnson’s tenure in the Senate came to a conclusion when Lincoln appointed him military governor of occupied Tennessee in March 1862. With the Confederates having confiscated his land, his slaves taken away, and his home made into a military hospital, Johnson made his final comments in the Senate: “I am a Democrat now, I have been one all my life; I expect to live and die one, and the corner-stone of my Democracy rests upon the enduring basis of the Union.” The Senate quickly confirmed his nomination along with a rank of brigadier general.
As a leading War Democrat and pro-Union southerner, Johnson was an ideal candidate for the Republicans in the national election of 1864, as they sought to enlarge their base to include War Democrats; they even changed the party name to the National Union Party to reflect this expansion. Johnson’s “unwavering commitment to the Union” was a significant factor in making him Lincoln’s choice as vice president on the Union Party’s premier ticket that year. He won the nomination at the party’s convention in Baltimore on the second ballot, and thereby replaced incumbent Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin as Lincoln’s running mate. In his speech accepting the nomination, Johnson said that by taking a nominee from a seceding state, “the Union Party declared its belief that the rebellious states are still in the Union, that their loyal citizens are still citizens of the United States.” He and Lincoln were elected in a landslide victory.
After the election Johnson was most anxious to complete the re-establishment of civil government in Tennessee; Union forces brought the war to an end in that state with their victory in the Battle of Nashville in December. Johnson again organized a convention for January 1865 which in turn made provisions for the abolishment of slavery and an election in March for state government offices.
On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was shot and mortally wounded by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, who conspired to coordinate assassinations of others, including Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of State William H. Seward that same night. Seward narrowly survived his wounds, while Johnson escaped attack as his would-be assassin, George Atzerodt, failed to go through with the plan. Leonard J. Farwell, a fellow boarder at the Kirkwood House, awoke Johnson with news of Lincoln’s having been shot at Ford’s Theater; Johnson rushed to the President’s deathbed for a brief time, commenting, “They shall suffer for this. They shall suffer for this.” Lincoln died around 7:00 A.M.; Johnson’s swearing in occurred at 11:00 that morning with Chief Justice Salmon Chase presiding in the presence of most of the cabinet. Johnson’s demeanor was described as “solemn and dignified” and “his bearing produced a most gratifying impression upon those who participated.” At noon, Johnson conducted his first cabinet meeting in the Treasury Secretary’s office, asked all members to remain in their positions, and directed the appropriate members to initiate Lincoln’s funeral arrangements. William Hunter was appointed acting Secretary of State for the wounded Seward.
As president, he implemented his own form of Presidential Reconstruction - a series of proclamations directing the seceded states to hold conventions and elections to re-form their civil governments. These proclamations embodied Johnson’s conciliatory policies towards the South, as well as his rush to reincorporate the former Confederate states into the union without due regard for freedmen’s rights; these positions and his vetoes of civil rights bills embroiled him in a bitter dispute with Radical Republicans who demanded harsher measures. The Radicals were infuriated with Johnson’s lenient policies. The Radicals in the House of Representatives impeached him in 1868 (a first for a U.S. president), charging him with violating the Tenure of Office Act, when he sought to remove his Secretary of War without Senate approval; his trial in the Senate ended in an acquittal by a single vote.
Popular for his oratory, the ex-President traveled extensively throughout Tennessee and the country on the public lecture circuit. He campaigned for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1869, losing by a narrow margin. In 1872 he ran for election to fill Tennessee’s new at-large seat in the House of Representatives. In 1873 Johnson contracted cholera during an epidemic but recovered; that year he lost about half his assets, when the First National Bank went under. In 1874, the Tennessee legislature elected him over five other candidates to the U.S. Senate. In his first and last speech in the Senate, Johnson spoke eloquently in opposition to Grant’s military intervention between rival governments in Louisiana, when the gubernatorial election was disputed and Democratic supporters ousted the winning Republican side with armed force in New Orleans. Johnson based his opposition on the Constitution. He is the only former president to serve in the Senate after serving as president.
During a Congressional recess, Johnson died from a stroke near Elizabethton, Tennessee, on July 31, 1875. He was buried just outside Greeneville - with his body wrapped in an American flag and a copy of the U.S. Constitution placed under his head, according to his wishes. The burial ground was dedicated as the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in 1906, now part of the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site.
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