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HOME   -   PEOPLE IN HISTORY A-Z   -   ANDREW JOHNSON

 
   


Andrew Johnson 1808-1875
Andrew Johnson 1808-1875
Photographic Print by Julian Vannerson 1859
Library of Congress

 

Ready or Not

To President Lincoln's second inauguration, Andrew Johnson showed up well drunk. Incidentally, it was also Johnson's inauguration as vice president.

If you're a fan of slurred speech, his performance was a delight.

Six weeks later, upon Lincoln's assassination, Johnson became the 17th president of the United States, serving from 1865-1869.

Go here for a list of all U.S. presidents

This time around, Johnson opted to give no speech.

Only Andrew Johnson and four other presidents in U.S. history didn't deliver any inaugural address.

This was sometimes done out of respect when their predecessor had died in office, or - in Ford's case - when someone had made a proper mess of it.

These four others were:

In 1841, John Tyler succeeded President William Henry Harrison who had died of pneumonia.

In 1850, Millard Fillmore succeeded President Zachary Taylor who had died of cholera.

In 1881, Chester A. Arthur succeeded President James A. Garfield who had been assassinated.

And in 1974, Gerald Ford succeeded President Richard M. Nixon who had resigned.

 

The Situation in 1865

On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered to General Grant, although some fighting continued until May 13.

Booth shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865.

On April 15, 1865, Lincoln died and Johnson took the oath of office.

Thus, Johnson found himself under enormous pressure. He had a 30-year-long career in politics, but could this really prepare someone for the task at hand?

Just because the Civil War (1861-1865) had ended, didn't mean the issues had been resolved. The Nation needed a strong leader that kept North and South together so it could heal as a whole (Reconstruction.)

And then there was the matter of filling the boots of an American hero, Abraham Lincoln.

 

Andrew Johnson's Character

This was clearly an immense task, but Johnson brought something to the table, and that was loyalty.

In fact, he was the only Southern governor who remained loyal to the Union. In turn, he was picked to run as Lincoln's vice president for the 1864 elections. How much Lincoln was personally involved in this selection is debated.

Check the US Election Map 1796 - 1968.


To better understand the man Andrew Johnson, let's look at his early years.

He grew up poor and never attended school. He taught himself reading and writing. He was bright and very ambitious. His sympathies were with the common man, and he could give you an earful about his opinion of the upper class.

He was a gifted orator as a person who clearly had a message, and the passion to delivery it.

Critics mention a lack of "breadth of view" (Clifton R. Hall.)

 

Andrew Johnson's Term

Johnson served for one term, and remained without a vice president.

The three main issues that would define his presidency were

Reconstruction

Johnson's racial views

Johnson's impeachment

 

Andrew Johnson's Impeachment

Johnson became the first president who was ever impeached by Congress.

Reconstruction was at the heart of the matter, in particular the question of how to deal with the defeated South. Radical Republicans in Congress sought punishment for its secession from the Union, but Lincoln and Johnson preferred reconciliation.

After a three-months-long trial, Johnson was acquitted, but only by the tiniest of margins. The Senate vote was 35 to 19 to remove Johnson from office, just one vote short of the necessary two-thirds.

Star lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz finds very similar ambiguities when comparing Bill Clinton's impeachment with Andrew Johnson's impeachment:

The impeachment was carried forward largely on party lines, and then the removal went along primarily on party lines, too. The real reason why Johnson was being impeached, and why they sought his removal, had nothing to do with the grounds on which his actual impeachment was sought.

The impeachment was sought on the ground that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act and some technical statures of Congress which forbade the president from firing certain people. But that really wasn't what was at stake.

What was at stake was Reconstruction, the post-Lincoln America, whether Johnson — a Democrat who replaced a Republican was carrying out the mandate of his predecessor. The issues were broad and general, though the focus was particular.

I think one can say the same thing about Clinton impeachment. Bill Clinton was an extraordinarily divisive president. He was beloved and he was hated. And the people who hated him, hated him with a passion, and started out seeking his removal and his delegitimation from his first day in office.

 

Andrew Johnson and Slavery

Johnson owned several slaves, and when one day he told them that by law they were free to go, but were welcome to stay should they so choose, they all stayed.

One of his slaves, Sam, wished to purchase a lot from Johnson (meaning he had his own money) to build a small school for black children. Johnson gave it to them for free.

In later years, Johnson was against slavery and for black civil rights, but he stopped short from promoting equal rights.

Here is more on Slavery and Abolition

 

Andrew Johnson After His Presidency

Johnson had grit. Not many U.S. presidents went on looking for a job as elected official after their presidency.

And he didn't give up after losing two elections either (in 1870 and 1872.) Finally, in 1875, Andrew Johnson had his old Senate seat back, and thus he became the only former American president to serve in the Senate.

And yes, this was the same Senate that seven years earlier had tried to remove him from office but only failed by one vote. Clearly, Johnson was comfortable with being uncomfortable.

 

The Family of Andrew Johnson

On December 29, 1808, Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Jacob and Mary Mc Donough Johnson. The family was poor.

In 1812, his father Jacob died of an illness. His mother later remarried but stayed poor.

In 1827, Johnson married Eliza McCardle. The couple had five children:

1828: Martha Johnson
1830: Charles Johnson
1832: Mary Johnson
1834: Robert Johnson
1852: Andrew Jr. aka Frank

Eliza contracted tuberculosis in the 1850s, but made it until 1876, when she died.

 

Andrew Johnson's Short Bio and Key Dates

1808 Birth in Raleigh, North Carolina
   
1812, June 18 The War of 1812 begins
   
1815, February 17 The War of 1812 ends
   
1820 Missouri Compromise
   
1821 Apprentice to the tailor James Selby
   
1824 Abandons his apprenticeship
   
1826 Moves to Greeneville, Tennessee, with his mother and step-father; works as a tailor
   
1829 Is elected alderman of Greeneville
   
1830 Purchases a tailor shop
   
1834-1838 Mayor of Greeneville
   
1835-1837 and
1839-1841
State house of representatives
   
1841 State senate
   
1842 Purchases a slave, Dolly; later more
   
1843-1853 Elected as a Democrat to the 28th, 29th, 30th, 31st, and 32nd Congress
   
1853-1857 Governor of Tennessee
   
1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act repeals Missouri Compromise. Slavery is permitted in the northern territories
   
1857-1862 Elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate
   
1857 Dred Scott decision: All Blacks, slave or free, are denied the right to citizenship.
   
1859 John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and his execution
   
April 12, 1861  American Civil War begins
   
1862, May Lincoln appoints him Military Governor of Tennessee (by then under federal control)
   
1863 Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation
   
1864 Elected Vice President of the United States on the Republican ticket with Abraham Lincoln
   
1865, March 4 Inauguration
   
1865, April 9 Lee surrenders to Grant
   
1865, April 14 Lincoln assassinated
   
1865, April 15 Lincoln dies, Johnson becomes 17th U.S. President
   
1865, December 6 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified (Abolition of Slavery)
   
1866 First Ku Klux Klan organized in Tennessee
   
1867, March 2 Tenure of Office Act

Reconstruction Act

   
1867, March 30 Alaska Purchase
   
1868, February 24 Impeachment
   
1868, May 26 Acquitted, but barely
   
1868, July 9 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (aka Reconstruction Amendment) ratified, granting citizenship to former slaves.
   
1869, March 3 End of his presidential term; retires to his home in Tennessee
   
1870, February 3 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified, granting African American men the right to vote
   
1870, May 31 First of the 4 Force Acts, which are civil rights acts to enforce the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments

(Sometimes the three acts of 1870 and 1871 are listed as the 3 Force Acts, and the 1875 Act is listed separately as Civil Rights Act of 1875.)

   
1871, February Second of the 4 Force Acts
   
1871, April Third of the 4 Force Acts
   
1875, March 4 Elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate
   
1875, March 1 Fourth of the 4 Force Acts
   
1875, July 31 Died in Carter's Station near Elizabethton, Carter County, Tennessee, while traveling to Nashville


 

The Attempted Assassination of Andrew Johnson

Lincoln assassin J.W. Booth and his crew had also plans to kill vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward.

They knifed Seward, but Seward didn't die from the attack.

And they didn't get to Johnson at all, because George Andrew Atzerodt, the thug who was supposed to come after Johnson, lost his nerve.

In the end, Booth was the only one who succeeded. He died from a bullet in his neck. The others were executed.

Hanging Surratt, Powell, Herold, and Atzerodt - 1865
Execution of the Four Persons Condemned as Conspirators:
Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt
July 7, 1865 / National Archives

 

 

See also Governments in History Chart.

 

 

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