Biography of Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States

Andrew Johnson

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Andrew Johnson (December 29, 1808–July 31, 1875) was the seventeenth president of the United States. He took office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and was president through the contentious early days of Reconstruction. His vision of Reconstruction was rejected and his presidency was not successful. He was impeached by Congress, averting removal from office by one vote, and was not re-nominated in the following election.

Fast Facts: Andrew Johnson

  • Known For: Seventeenth president of the United States, impeachment
  • Born: December 29, 1808 in Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Parents: Jacob Johnson and Mary "Polly" McDonough Johnson
  • Died: July 31, 1875 in Carter's Station, Tennessee
  • Education: Self-educated
  • Spouse: Eliza McCardle
  • Children: Martha, Charles, Mary, Robert, and Andrew Jr.
  • Notable Quote: "Honest conviction is my courage; the Constitution is my guide."

Early Life and Education

Andrew Johnson was born on December 29, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina. His father died when Johnson was 3 years old and his mother soon remarried. Johnson was raised in poverty. Both he and his brother William were bound out by their mother as indentured servants to a tailor, working for their food and lodging. In 1824, the brothers ran away, breaking their contract after two years. The tailor advertised a reward for anyone who would return the brothers to him, but they were never captured.

Johnson then moved to Tennessee and worked in the tailor's trade. He never attended school and he taught himself to read. In 1827, Johnson married Eliza McCardle when he was 18 and she was 16. She was well-educated and tutored him to help him improve his arithmetic and reading and writing skills. Together they had three sons and two daughters. 

Rapid Rise in Politics

At age 17, Johnson opened his own successful tailor shop in Greenville, Tennessee. He would hire a man to read to him as he sewed and he took an increasing interest in the Constitution and famous orators. Showing political ambition from an early age, Johnson was elected the mayor of Greenville at age 22 (1830–1833). A Jacksonian Democrat, he then served two terms in the Tennessee House of Representatives (1835–1837, 1839–1841).

In 1841 he was elected as a Tennessee state senator. From 1843–1853 he was a U.S. representative. From 1853–1857 he served as governor of Tennessee. Johnson was elected in 1857 to be a U.S. senator representing Tennessee.

Dissenting Voice

While in Congress, Johnson supported the Fugitive Slave Act and the right to own slaves. However, when states started to secede from the Union in 1861, Johnson was the only southern senator who did not agree. Because of this, he retained his seat. Southerners viewed him as a traitor. Ironically, Johnson saw both secessionists and abolitionists as enemies to the Union. During the war, in 1862, Abraham Lincoln made Johnson the military governor of Tennessee.

Becoming the President

When President Lincoln ran for reelection in 1864, he chose Johnson as his vice president. Lincoln chose him to help balance the ticket with a Southerner who was also pro-Union. Johnson became president upon Abraham Lincoln's assassination on April 15, 1865, just six weeks after Lincoln's inauguration.

Reconstruction

Upon succeeding to the presidency, President Johnson attempted to continue with Lincoln's vision of Reconstruction. To heal the nation, Lincoln and Johnson both prioritized leniency and forgiveness for those who seceded from the Union. Johnson's Reconstruction plan would have allowed Southerners who swore an oath of allegiance to the federal government to regain citizenship. He also favored a relatively quick return of power to the states themselves.

These conciliatory measures were never really given a chance by either side. The South resisted extending any civil rights to blacks. The ruling party in Congress, the Radical Republicans, believed Johnson was being far too lenient and was allowing former rebels too much of a role in the new governments of the South.

The Radical Republican plans for Reconstruction were more severe. When the Radical Republicans passed the Civil Rights Act in 1866, Johnson vetoed the bill. He did not believe that the North should force its views on the South, but instead favored allowing the South to determine its own course.

His vetoes on this and 15 other bills were overridden by the Republicans. These were the first instances of presidential vetoes being overridden. Most white Southerners also opposed Johnson's vision of Reconstruction.

Alaska

In 1867, Alaska was purchased in what was called "Seward's Folly." The United States purchased the land from Russia for $7.2 million upon Secretary of State William Seward's advice.

Even though many saw it as folly at the time, it eventually proved to have been a very wise investment. Alaska provided the United States with gold and oil, increased the size of the country drastically, and removed Russian influence from the North American continent.

Impeachment

And continual conflicts between the Congress and the president eventually led to the impeachment trial of President Johnson. In 1868, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Andrew Johnson for dismissing his Secretary of War Stanton against the order of the Tenure of Office Act, which they had just passed in 1867.

Johnson became the first president to be impeached while in office. (The second president would be Bill Clinton.) Upon impeachment, the Senate is required to vote to decide if a president should be removed from office. The Senate voted against this by only one vote.

Post-Presidential Period

In 1868, after just one term, Johnson was not nominated to run for the presidency. He retired to Greeneville, Tennessee. He attempted to re-enter the U.S. House and Senate but lost both elections. In 1875, he ran for the Senate again and was elected.

Death

Soon after taking office as U.S. senator, Johnson died on July 31, 1875. He had suffered a stroke while visiting family in Carter's Station, Tennessee.

Legacy

Johnson's presidency was full of strife and dissension. He disagreed with much of the population and leadership on how to administer Reconstruction.

As evidenced by his impeachment and the close vote which almost removed him from office, he was not respected and his vision of Reconstruction was disdained. Most historians see him as a weak and even failed president, however his time in office saw the Alaska purchase and, in spite of him, the passage of both the 13th and 14th amendments: freeing the slaves and extending rights to the former slaves.

Sources

  • Castel, Albert E. The Presidency of Andrew Johnson. Regents Press of Kansas, 1979.
  • Gordon-Reed, Annette. Andrew Johnson. The American Presidents Series. Henry Holt and Company, 2011.
  • Life Portrait of Andrew Johnson.” C-Span.
  • Trefousse, Hans L. Andrew Johnson: A Biography. Norton, 1989