Birth: December 29, 1808 at Raleigh, North Carolina
Death: July 31, 1875 (aged 66) at Elizabethton, Tennessee
Vice President-elect Andrew Johnson arrived in Washington ill from typhoid fever. The night before his March 4, 1865, inauguration, he fortified himself with whiskey at a party hosted by his old friend, Secretary of the Senate John W. Forney. The next morning, hung over and confronting cold, wet, and windy weather, Johnson proceeded to the Capitol office of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, where he complained of feeling weak and asked for a tumbler of whiskey. Drinking it straight, he quickly consumed two more. Then, growing red in the face, Johnson entered the overcrowded and overheated Senate Chamber. After Hamlin delivered a brief and stately valedictory, Johnson rose unsteadily to harangue the distinguished crowd about his humble origins and his triumph over the rebel aristocracy. In the shocked and silent audience, President Abraham Lincoln showed an expression of “unutterable sorrow,” while Senator Charles Sumner covered his face with his hands. Former Vice President Hamlin tugged vainly at Johnson’s coattails, trying to cut short his remarks. After Johnson finally quieted, took the oath of office, and kissed the Bible, he tried to swear in the new senators, but became so confused that he had to turn the job over to a Senate clerk.
Without a doubt it had been the most inauspicious beginning to any vice-presidency. “The inauguration went off very well except that the Vice President Elect was too drunk to perform his duties & disgraced himself & the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech,” Michigan Republican senator Zachariah Chandler wrote home to his wife. “I was never so mortified in my life, had I been able to find a hole I would have dropped through it out of sight.” Johnson presided over the Senate on March 6 but, still feeling unwell, he then went into seclusion at the home of an old friend in Silver Spring, Maryland. He returned to the Senate only on the last day of the special session, March 11. Rumors that had him on a drunken spree led some Radical Republicans to draft a resolution calling for Johnson’s resignation. Others talked of impeachment. President Lincoln, however, assured callers that he still had confidence in Johnson, whom he had known for years, observing, “It has been a severe lesson for Andy, but I do not think he will do it again.”
Lost in his muddled inaugural was Johnson’s celebration of his dramatic rise from “plebeian” roots. He had been born in a log cabin in Raleigh, North Carolina, on December 29, 1808, to Jacob Johnson, an illiterate bank porter and city constable, and his wife, Mary, known as “Polly the Weaver” for her work as a seamstress and laundress. When Andrew was three his father died. His mother remarried and later apprenticed her sons William and Andrew at James Selby’s tailor shop. Young Andy Johnson was something of a hell-raiser and at 15 he and his brother got into trouble by pelting a neighbor’s house with pieces of wood. When the woman threatened to sue, the boys fled from Raleigh, causing their employer Selby to post a ten-dollar reward for their return.
Johnson went to Laurens, South Carolina, where he worked in a tailor shop. He fell in love with a local girl, but her mother objected to her marriage with a penniless tailor. Disappointed, he abandoned South Carolina and walked to Tennessee. There he worked in a tailor shop and in 1827 married Eliza McCardle, daughter of a Greenville shoemaker. Eliza did not teach her husband to read, as some stories later had it, but she aided his further efforts at self-education. Short, stocky, and swarthy, but always impeccably dressed, as befitted his trade, Johnson built a solid business as a tailor, invested in real estate, raised a growing family, joined a debating society, and won the title “Colonel Johnson” for his rank in the state militia. With his steadily increasing wealth and status, he also bought a few slaves. A staunch supporter of the Democrat Andrew Jackson, Johnson became active in local politics. In 1829 he won his first race as alderman. He was chosen mayor of Greenville in 1834 and elected to the Tennessee state legislature the following year. In the legislature he introduced a homesteading bill that would give poor men 160 acres of public land if they would live on it—a measure he persisted in pushing when he moved to the U.S. Congress, until it became federal law in 1862.
A Rising Political Star
Tennessee Democrats, spotting Andrew Johnson as a rising star and a pugnacious debater, sent him around the state to campaign for their ticket in the 1840 election. Governor James K. Polk received reports that Johnson was “a strongminded man who cuts when he does cut not with a razor but with a case knife.” In 1843 Johnson won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he attracted attention as an outspoken and unbending defender of Jeffersonian-Jacksonian principles. He opposed Whig programs for protective tariffs and internal improvements as unnecessary public expenditures. He proposed cutting the number of government clerks, voted against raising soldiers’ pay, assailed military academies as aristocratic, opposed purchasing paintings of past presidents for the White House, and opposed accepting the funds bequeathed to the United States by James Smithson to create a Smithsonian Institution, on the grounds that if the funds were unwisely invested the taxpayers would have to support the enterprise. Among those with whom he served in Congress who had the opportunity to take his full measure were the Whig representative from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, and the Democratic representative from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis. Johnson particularly sparred with Davis, whom he portrayed as part of the South’s “illegitimate, swaggering, bastard, scrub aristocracy.”
In 1852 Tennessee elected Johnson governor. During his term he succeeded in enacting tax-supported public education for his state. He won reelection over intense opposition and served until 1856, when the legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate. Once more, Johnson pressed for passage of a Homestead bill, which he succeeded in moving through Congress in 1860, only to have it vetoed by President James Buchanan. While Johnson was preoccupied with his Homestead bill, his party was breaking up over the issue of slavery in the territories. In 1860 Johnson supported the Southern Democratic candidate, John C. Breckinridge, but he strenuously opposed the secessionists within his party. After Lincoln’s election, Johnson fought to keep Tennessee in the Union. To Andrew Johnson, secession appeared simply a continuation of John C. Calhoun’s discredited policy of nullification, against which his hero Andrew Jackson had stood his ground. Johnson threw his support behind Lincoln as the new embodiment of Jackson.
In the spring of 1861, Johnson took the train from Washington back to Tennessee and was mobbed at several stops in Virginia. The senator had to pull a pistol to defend himself. Although Union sympathies were strong in the eastern mountains of Tennessee, where Johnson’s hometown of Greenville was located, he found Confederate flags flying around the town. There were enough Union sympathizers in Tennessee to defeat an effort to call a state convention to secede, but after the firing on Fort Sumter, sentiment in the state swung more heavily to the Confederates. To avoid arrest, Johnson left Tennessee and returned to the Senate. As the only Southern senator to remain loyal to the Union after his state seceded, Johnson became a hero in the North. As a leader of the “War Democrats,” he denounced “Peace Democrats” and defended President Lincoln’s use of wartime executive power. “I say, Let the battle go on—it is Freedom’s cause. . . . Do not talk about Republicans now; do not talk about Democrats now; do not talk about Whigs or Americans now; talk about your Country and the Constitution and the Union.”
When federal troops conquered Nashville and its immediate vicinity, President Lincoln sent Andrew Johnson back to Tennessee in 1862 as war governor. Johnson still identified himself as a Democrat, but as one who put the Union before party. He denounced the state’s aristocratic planting class who had supported the war, and said that if freeing their slaves would help to end the war, then he was in favor of emancipation. “Treason,” he said, in a much-publicized quote, “must be made odious and traitors punished.” In 1863 Tennessee held elections for a civilian government. Much to Johnson’s chagrin, a conservative, proslavery candidate won the race for governor. President Lincoln wired Johnson to ignore the results and not recognize the new governor. “Let the reconstruction be the work of such men only as can be trusted for the Union,” Lincoln instructed. “Exclude all others. . . . Get emancipation into your new state constitution.” Following Lincoln’s advice, Johnson made anyone who wished to vote take an oath of loyalty, which was then followed by a six-month waiting period. Since this meant that only those who had opposed the Confederacy could vote, Johnson’s Radical forces swept the next state elections.
Lincoln faced a difficult campaign for reelection in 1864, and he doubted that his vice president, Maine Republican Hannibal Hamlin, would add much to his ticket. Officially, the president maintained a hands-off attitude toward the choice of a vice president, but privately he sent emissaries to several War Democrats as potential candidates on a fusion ticket. General Benjamin F. Butler let the president know he had no interest in the second spot, but Johnson of Tennessee and Daniel S. Dickinson of New York both expressed eagerness to be considered. Secretary of State William Seward, who counted New York as his own political base, wanted no part of Dickinson in the cabinet and threw his weight behind Johnson. The fearless, tough-minded war governor of Tennessee captured the imagination of the delegates. As John W. Forney judged Johnson’s wartime record: “His speeches were sound, his measures bold, his administration a fair success.” Johnson won the nomination on the first ballot.
Becoming a Household Word
During the campaign, the great Republican orator Robert G. Ingersoll wrote to Johnson saying:
The people want to see and hear you. The name of Andrew Johnson has become a household word all over the great West, and you are regarded by the people of Illinois as the grandest example of loyalty in the whole South.
Traveling to Logansport, Indiana, in October, Johnson told the crowd that a Democratic newspaper had accused the Republicans of nominating “a rail-splitter” at the head of their ticket and “a boorish tailor” at its tail. Rather than see this as a rebuke, Johnson took pride in having risen up “from the mass of the people.” The aristocrats were offended that he was a tailor, he said, but he had learned “that if a man does not disgrace his profession, it never disgraces him.” Johnson acquitted himself well during the campaign but at times had trouble restraining himself in the excitement of facing a crowd, whether hostile or supportive. Late in October 1864 he addressed a large rally of African Americans in Nashville. Johnson noted that, since Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation had not covered territories like Tennessee that were already under Union control, he had issued his own proclamation freeing the slaves in Tennessee. He also asserted that society would be improved if the great plantations were divided into many small farms and sold to honest farmers. Looking out over the crowd and commenting on the storm of persecution through which his listeners had passed, he wished that a Moses might arise to “lead them safely to their promised land of freedom and happiness.” “You are our Moses,” shouted people in the crowd. “We want no Moses but you!” “Well, then,” replied Johnson, “humble and unworthy as I am, if no other better shall be found, I will indeed by your Moses, and lead you through the Red Sea of war and bondage, to a fairer future of liberty and peace.”
Success on the battlefield brought Lincoln and Johnson victory in the election of 1864. As the Civil War approached its end, the equally monumental challenge of reconstructing the Union lay ahead. In Congress, the Radical Republicans wanted a victor’s peace, enforced by federal troops, that would allow the former Confederate states to return to the Union only on terms that protected the rights of the freedmen. They offered their plan as the Wade-Davis bill of 1864, which Lincoln killed by a pocket veto. Lincoln wanted to be free to pursue a more lenient, flexible approach to Reconstruction. Having gotten the United States into the Civil War during a congressional recess in 1861, Lincoln anticipated ending the war and reconstructing the South during the long recess between March and December 1865. He presumed that his new vice president would be in sympathy with these plans, since in July 1864 Johnson had congratulated Lincoln on his veto of the Wade-Davis bill, saying that “the real union men” were satisfied with the president’s approach.
The vice president-elect hesitated in leaving Tennessee. In January 1865, Johnson wrote to Lincoln pointing out that the final abolition of slavery in Tennessee could not be taken up until the new civilian legislature met that April. He wanted to remain as war governor until that time, before handing power over to the elected representatives of the people. Johnson suggested that his inaugural as vice president be delayed until April. His friend, John W. Forney, secretary of the Senate, had checked the records and found that several vice presidents (John Adams, George Clinton, Elbridge Gerry, Daniel Tompkins, Martin Van Buren, and William R. King) were sworn in on dates after March 4. With the war still underway, however, Lincoln replied that he and his cabinet unanimously believed that Johnson must be in Washington by March 4. Had Johnson not complied, he might not have taken the oath of office before Lincoln’s death on April 14, adding more constitutional confusion to the aftermath of the assassination.
An Assassination Plot
During Johnson’s six weeks as vice president, he faced greater danger than he knew. The assassination plot that would make Johnson president included him as a target. The circle of conspirators that John Wilkes Booth had gathered at Mrs. Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse had at first planned to capture President Lincoln and whisk him off to the Confederacy. But the war was ending sooner than they anticipated, and when the attempted capture went awry, Booth decided to kill Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward, thereby throwing the North into confusion and anarchy. Booth intended to kill Lincoln himself, and assigned Lewis Payne to assassinate Seward. For the vice president, whom he considered the least important victim, Booth assigned his weakest partner, George Atzerodt. A German carriage maker from Port Tobacco, Maryland, Atzerodt had spent the war years ferrying Confederates across the Potomac River to circumvent the Union blockades.
On the morning of April 14, 1865, Atzerodt registered at Kirkwood House, a hotel at the corner of Twelfth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the Capitol. He took a room almost directly above the ground-floor suite occupied by the vice president. So incompetent at conspiracy was Atzerodt that he signed his acttual name to the hotel register. His notion of surveillance was to spend the afternoon in the hotel bar asking suspicious questions about the vice president and his guard. Sufficiently fortified with liquor, Atzerodt armed himself and asked the desk clerk to point out the vice president’s suite. When informed that Johnson had just come back to his rooms, Atzerodt reacted in shocked surprise, and left the hotel. Shortly afterwards, Johnson also left for an appointment with Lincoln.
When Booth arrived at the Kirkwood House and learned that Atzerodt was gone, he lost hope that this weak man would have the nerve to carry out his assignment. If he could not have Johnson killed, Booth improvised a way of discrediting him. He asked for a blank card, which he filled out: “Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.” Booth assumed that Johnson would have a hard time explaining the card, since it suggested that the vice president was himself part of the conspiracy. Fortunately for Johnson, his secretary, William A. Browning, picked up the mail at the desk and assumed that the card was for him, since he had once met Booth after a performance.
A pounding at the door later that evening awakened Andrew Johnson. Rather than George Atzerodt with a pistol, the excited man at the door was former Wisconsin governor Leonard Farwell, who had just come from Ford’s Theatre and who exclaimed, “Someone has shot and murdered the President.” Johnson ordered Farwell to go back to the theater to find out what he could about the president’s condition. Farwell returned with the District of Columbia’s provost marshal, who assured Johnson and the crowd that had gathered in his room that President Lincoln was dying and that Secretary of State William Seward was dead, as part of a gigantic plot. (In fact, Seward had been badly wounded but not killed.) Johnson wished to leave immediately to be with the president, but the provost marshal urged him to wait until order had been restored in the streets. At dawn, Johnson, receiving word from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that Lincoln was dying, insisted on going to the president’s side. Flanked by Governor Farwell and the provost marshal, the vice president walked the few blocks to the Petersen house, just across from Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln had been carried. Admitted to the bedroom where the cabinet and military leaders were gathered around the president’s deathbed, Johnson stood with his hat in his hand looking down saying nothing. He then took Robert Lincoln’s hand, whispered a few words to him, conversed with Stanton, and went to another parlor to pay his respects to Mary Todd Lincoln. Somberly, he walked back to Kirkwood House. There, in his parlor, at ten o’clock that morning after Lincoln’s death, Johnson took the oath of office from Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.
A Stormy Presidency
Lincoln’s death stunned the nation and elevated the often harshly criticized wartime president to a sanctified martyr. In Washington, some Radical Republicans viewed Lincoln’s death as a godsend. They held, as Johnson’s friend Forney wrote in the Philadelphia Press, that “a sterner and less gentle hand may at this juncture have been required to take hold of the reins of Government.” Johnson’s fiery rhetoric in the Senate and as war governor, his early embrace of the “state suicide” theory that secession had reduced the Southern states to the status of territories, to be readmitted under terms set by Congress, his call for expropriation of plantation lands, his authorship of the Homestead Act, all suggested that the new president would act more sympathetically toward Radical Reconstruction than would Lincoln. “Johnson, we have faith in you,” the Radical Republican senator Ben Wade told the new president. “By the Gods, there will be no trouble now in running this government.”
Johnson also won admiration for his gallant treatment of Mrs. Lincoln, who was too distraught to leave the White House for more than a month after her husband’s death. Rather than move into the White House, which served as the president’s office as well as his residence, President Johnson worked out of a suite of rooms in the Treasury Department (marked today by a plaque on the door). However, the spirit of good will evaporated almost a soon as Johnson began making decisions regarding Reconstruction.
Showing a strange amalgam of political courage and “pigheaded” stubbornness, Andrew Johnson confounded both his supporters and his adversaries. By the end of May 1865, it became clear that, like Lincoln, he intended to pursue a more lenient course toward Reconstruction than the Radicals in Congress wanted. Members of Congress grumbled when Johnson handed pardons to former Confederate leaders, suspected that the plebeian president took pride in having former aristocrats petition him. Congress was further shocked when the new governments formed under Johnson’s plan enacted “Black Codes” that sought to regulate and restrict the activities of the freedmen. There was fear also that the former Confederate states would send Confederate officers and officeholders to reclaim their seats in Congress and undo the legislative accomplishments of the wartime Republican majorities. When the president opposed granting political rights to the freedmen, white Southerners looked to him as a defender of white supremacy and as their protector against Radical retribution. The Democratic Party considered Johnson as one of their own, who might be induced to return to their fold.
The predominantly Republican Washington press corps had at first embraced President Johnson, assuring their readers that he supported black suffrage and other Radical measures. Forney celebrated his old friend as a “practical statesman” whose policies offered a common ground for “all earnest loyalists.” Whatever honeymoon the new president enjoyed with Congress and the press ended in February 1866 when Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill. The veto shocked Republican conservatives and drove them into alliance with the Radicals against the president. The press and even Forney deserted Johnson. That fall, Johnson conducted a disastrous “swing around the circle,” campaigning by train in favor of congressional candidates who supported his policies. Egged on by hecklers, he made intemperate remarks that further alienated the voters and resulted in the election of an even more hostile Congress. The new Congress seized the initiative on Reconstruction from the president—most notably with a constitutional amendment giving the freedmen the right to vote—and passed legislation to limit his responses. Among these laws, the Tenure of Office Act prohibited the president from firing cabinet officers and other appointees without Senate approval. Johnson considered the act unconstitutional—as indeed the Supreme Court would later declare it—and in February 1868 he fired his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, for insubordination.
The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
Although Johnson’s term was coming to a close and he had little chance of nomination by any party, the House of Representatives voted to impeach the president. The New York Tribune’s editor Horace Greeley thought this a foolhardy tactic. “Why hang a man who is bent on hanging himself?” Greeley asked. But the Republican members of Congress and their allies in the press wanted to take no chance of the president’s sabotaging congressional Reconstruction during his last months in office. Said Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the House impeachers: “I don’t want to hurt the man’s feelings by telling him he is a rascal. I’d rather put it mildly, and say he hasn’t got off that inaugural drunk yet, and just let him retire to get sobered.” The House voted for impeachment, and on March 5, 1868, the United States Senate convened as a court to consider removing Johnson from the presidency. As the trial opened, the majority of the northern press favored conviction, but as the proceedings wound on, a profound sense of disillusionment set in among the correspondents, who communicated their dismay to their readers.
Correspondent George Alfred Townsend described Johnson’s Senate trial as “a more terrible scene than the trial of Judas Iscariot might be before the College of Cardinals.” Not a single Democrat countenanced the impeachment, he pointed out, “It was purely within the political organization which had nominated the offender.” Although Townsend was a Republican who considered Johnson a barrier against any settlement of “the Southern question,” when he arrived at the Capitol he found none except Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens who seemed excited over Johnson’s policies. “It was his abuse of the party patronage which was an unforgiven sin.” Johnson took patronage away from his critics and purged over 1,600 postmasters. In addition, Townsend noted: “He had disobeyed an act of Congress, of doubtful validity, taking away from him the power to make ad-interim appointments, or those made between sessions of Congress. This was a challenge to every member of Congress in the regular caucus ranks that off straight come the heads of HIS post-master, HIS revenue officials, HIS clerks, and HIS brothers-in-law.”
Rather than appear in the Senate Chamber personally, President Johnson wisely left his defense to his attorneys. Although Republicans enjoyed a more than two-thirds majority in the Senate at the time, seven Republicans—fearing impeachment’s negative impact on the office of the presidency—broke with their party. As a result, the impeachers failed by a single vote to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to convict the president. In the 1868 elections, Johnson endorsed the Democratic candidate, Horatio Seymour, and was deeply disappointed over the victory of the Republican, Ulysses S. Grant. Refusing to attend Grant’s inauguration, Johnson left the White House in March 1869, discredited but not disgraced. Out of office for the first time in 30 years, he could not stay retired. That fall he campaigned for a Senate seat from Tennessee and lost. Never giving up, Johnson tried again in January 1875 and won back a seat in the Senate that had once tormented him.
The only former U.S. president ever to return to serve in the Senate, Johnson saw his election as a vindication and came back to Washington in triumph. He took his oath of office on March 5, along with Lincoln’s other vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, reelected a senator from Maine. (Both men had begun their congressional service in the House of Representatives on the same day, 32 years earlier.) Hamlin in 1866 had resigned as collector of the port of Boston as a public protest against Johnson’s policies on Reconstruction. The oath was administered by Vice President Henry Wilson, who as a senator had voted for Johnson’s conviction and for his disqualification from holding future office. When Johnson stepped forward to shake hands first with Hamlin and then Wilson, the chamber erupted into cheers. A reporter asked if he would use his new position to settle some old scores, to which Johnson replied, “I have no enemies to punish nor friends to reward.” The special session ended on March 24, and Johnson returned to Tennessee. At the home of a granddaughter, he suffered a stroke and died on July 31, 1875. A marble bust of Johnson, sculpted with a typically pugnacious and defiant expression, looks down from the gallery at the Senate Chamber, where he served on three occasions as a senator, briefly presided as vice president, and was tried and acquitted in a court of impeachment.