Andrew Johnson
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Andrew Johnson

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A Life in Brief

Andrew Johnson gives truth to the saying that in America, anyone can grow up to become president. Born in a log cabin in North Carolina to nearly illiterate parents, Andrew Johnson did not master the basics of reading, grammar, or math until he met his wife at the age of seventeen. The only other man to attain the office of president with so little formal education was Abraham Lincoln. Whereas Lincoln is esteemed as Americas greatest president, Johnsonhis successoris ranked as one of the worst.

After Andrews father died, his mother and her new husband apprenticed fourteen-year-old Andrew and his older brother William to a local tailor. After serving a number of years in this trade, the boys ran away for several years, dodging rewards for their capture placed by their former employer. Andrew later returned to his mother and the entire family moved west to Greenville, Tennessee, where young Andrew set up shop as a tailor and met his wife, Eliza McCardle. Eliza educated Andrew and helped him to make wise investments in town real estate and farmlands. When Johnson reached the White House, First Lady Eliza Johnson was a semi-invalid suffering from tuberculosis during her husbands term in office. She only made two public appearances during her entire stay in the executive mansion. Nevertheless, she operated behind the scenes with energy and tact, and was fondly remembered by the White House staff.

Political Leanings

By 1830, the twenty-two-year-old tailor had served as town alderman and mayor of Greenville, and was fast making a name for himself as an aspiring politician. Johnson considered himself a Jacksonian Democrat, and he gained the support of local mechanics, artisans, and rural folk with his common-man, "tell it like it is style." He quickly moved up to serve in his states legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives, and as governor of Tennessee. When the Civil War broke out, Johnson was a first-term U.S. senator aligned with the states' rights and proslavery wing of the Democratic Party.

However closely he identified with his fellow Southerners' views on slavery, Johnson disagreed strongly with their calls to break up the Union over the issue. When Tennessee left the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln, Johnson broke with his home state, becoming the only southern senator to retain his seat in the U.S. Senate. In the South, Johnson was deemed a traitor; his property was confiscated and his wife and two daughters were driven from the state. In the North, however, Johnsons stand made him an overnight hero.

Though Johnson was deeply committed to saving the Union, he did not believe in the emancipation of slaves. After Lincoln made him the military governor of Tennessee, Johnson convinced the president to exempt Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation. Concerned about his chances for reelection, Lincoln felt that he needed a man like Johnson as his vice president to help balance the ticket in 1864. With Johnson as his running mate, Lincolns enemies could not easily depict him as a tool of the abolitionists. Together, the two won a sweeping victory against Democratic candidate General George B. McClellan and his running mate George Pendleton.

Reconstructing the Defeated South

Tragically, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated days after the Civil War ended in 1865. Had the assassins plot gone as planned, Johnson would have been killed along with Lincoln. Instead, he became president. In a strange twist of fate, the racist and Southerner Johnson was charged with the reconstruction of the defeated South, including the extension of civil rights and suffrage to black Southerners. It quickly became clear that Johnson would block efforts to force southern states to guarantee full equality for blacks, and the stage was set for a showdown with congressional Republicans who viewed black voting rights as crucial to their power base in the South.

During the first eight months of his term, Johnson took advantage of Congress being in recess to rush through his own policies for Reconstruction. These included handing out thousands of pardons in routine fashion and allowing the South to set up "black codes," which essentially maintained slavery under another name. When Congress came back into session, Republicans moved immediately to stop the president. In opposition to Johnson, Congress established a military Reconstruction program to enforce political and civil rights for southern blacks. In 1866, Congress passed the Freedmens Bureau Bill, providing shelter and provision for ex-slaves and protection of their rights in court, as well as the Civil Rights Act, defining all persons born in the U.S. as citizens. Congress also passed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, authorizing the federal government to protect the rights of all citizens. Each of these was passed over President Johnsons veto. In a final humiliating gesture, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which stripped the president of the power to remove federal officials without the Senates approval.

Challenging Congress and Impeachment

Furious, Johnson decided to go straight to the people in an attempt to regain his stature and authority as president. During the congressional elections of 1866, he set out on a speaking tour to campaign for congressmen who would support his policies. The plan was a complete disaster. In speech after speech, Johnson personally attacked his Republican opponents in vile and abusive language. On several occasions, it appeared that the president had had too much to drink. One observer estimated that the Johnson lost one million northern votes in this debacle.

Having lost both congressional and popular support, Johnson was finished. Blocked at every turn, he felt he had no choice but to challenge the Tenure of Office Act as a blatant usurpation of presidential authority. In direct opposition to the act, he fired Secretary of War Stanton. Congress voted to impeach Johnson by a vote of 126 to forty-seven in February of 1868, citing his violation of the Tenure of Office Act and charging that he had brought disgrace and ridicule on Congress. By a margin of one vote, the Senate voted not to convict Johnson, and he served the duration of the term won by Lincoln.

During Johnsons term, the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution extended suffrage to formerly enslaved male African Americanscompletely transforming the American electorate. Hundreds of black delegates participated in state constitutional conventions, and from 1869 until 1876, fourteen African American men served in the U.S. House of Representatives and two were in the U.S. Senate. All of this occurred over Johnsons head, and all would change once the white Southerners regained their stranglehold on the South. In the meantime, terrorist organizations such as the KKK attacked black citizens and their supporters. In 1868, one-tenth of the black delegates to the state constitutional conventions had experienced physical abuse.

Andrew Johnson is largely viewed as the worst possible person to have been president at the end of the Civil War. He utterly failed to make a satisfying and just peace because of his racist views, gross incompetence in office, and his incredible miscalculation of public support for his policies. One can only sadly speculate about how different America would have been had Lincoln lived to see the country through the critical period of Reconstruction. In the end, Johnson did more to extend the period of national strife than to heal the wounds of war.

 

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