Hand color tinted photo of President Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson (December 29, 1808 – July 31, 1875) was the 17th President of the United States (1865-1869). Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Johnson presided over the Reconstruction era of the United States in the four years after the American Civil War. His tenure was controversial as his positions favoring the white South came under heavy political attack from Republicans.
At the time of the secession of the Southern states, Johnson was a U.S. Senator from Greeneville in East Tennessee. As a Unionist, he was the only Southern senator not to quit his post upon secession. He became the most prominent War Democrat from the South and supported Lincoln’s military policies during the American Civil War of 1861-1865. In 1862, Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of occupied Tennessee, where he proved to be energetic and effective in fighting the rebellion and beginning transition to Reconstruction.
Johnson was nominated for the Vice President position in 1864 on the National Union Party ticket. He and Lincoln were elected in November 1864 and inaugurated on March 4, 1865. Johnson succeeded to the presidency upon Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865.
As president, he took charge of Presidential Reconstruction the first phase of Reconstruction which lasted until the Radical Republicans gained control of Congress in the 1866 elections. His conciliatory policies towards the South, his hurry to reincorporate the former Confederate states back into the union, and his vetoes of civil rights bills embroiled him in a bitter dispute with Radical Republicans. The Radicals in the House of Representatives impeached him in 1868, charging him with violating the Tenure of Office Act, but he was acquitted by a single vote in the Senate.
Johnson’s party status was ambiguous during his presidency. As president, he did not identify with the two main parties though he did try for the Democratic nomination in 1868 and so while President he attempted to build a party of loyalists under the National Union label. Asked in 1868 why he did not become a Democrat, he said, “It is true I am asked why don’t I join the Democratic Party. Why don’t they join me … if I have administered the office of president so well?” His failure to make the National Union brand an actual party made Johnson effectively an independent during his presidency, though he was supported by Democrats and later rejoined the party as a Democratic Senator from Tennessee from 1875 until his death of a stroke at 66. For these reasons he is usually counted as a Democrat when identifying presidents by their political parties. Johnson was the first U.S. President to undergo an impeachment trial; the senate fell one vote short of removing him from office. He is commonly ranked by historians as being among the worst U.S. presidents.
Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Jacob Johnson (1778-1812) and Mary McDonough (1783-1856). Jacob died when Andrew was around three years old, leaving his family in poverty. Johnson’s mother then took in work spinning and weaving to support her family, and she later remarried. She bound Andrew as an apprentice tailor when he was 10 or 14 years old. In the 1820s, he worked as a tailor in Laurens, South Carolina. Johnson had no formal education and taught himself how to read and write.
At age 16 or 17, Johnson left his apprenticeship and ran away with his brother to Greeneville, Tennessee, where he found work as a tailor. At the age of 19, Johnson married 17 year-old Eliza McCardle in 1827. Between 1828 and 1852, the couple had five children: Martha (1828), Charles (1830), Mary (1832), Robert (1834), and Andrew Jr. (1852). Eliza taught Johnson arithmetic up to basic algebra and tutored him to improve his literacy and writing skills.
Early political careerJohnson participated in debates at the local academy at Greeneville, Tennessee and later organized a worker’s party that elected him as alderman in 1829. He served in this position until he was elected mayor in 1833. In 1835, he was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives where, after serving a single term, he was defeated for re-election.
Johnson was attracted to the states rights Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson. He became a spokesman for the more numerous yeomen farmers and mountaineers against the wealthier, but fewer, planter elite families that had held political control both in the state and nationally. In 1839, Johnson was elected to a second, non-consecutive term in the Tennessee House, and was elected to the Tennessee Senate in 1841, where he served one two-year term. In 1843, he became the first Democrat to win election as the U.S. representative from Tennessee’s 1st congressional district. Among his activities for the common man’s interests as a member of the House of Representatives and the Senate, Johnson advocated “a free farm for the poor” bill, in which farms would be given to landless farmers. Johnson was a U.S. representative for five terms until 1853, when he was elected Governor of Tennessee.
Johnson was elected governor of Tennessee, serving from 1853 to 1857. He was then elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate, serving from October 8, 1857 – March 4, 1862. He was chairman of the Committee to Audit and Control the Contingent Expense (Thirty-sixth Congress). As a U.S. senator, he continued to push for the Homestead Act. It finally passed in 1862, after the Civil War had begun and Southerners had resigned from Congress.
As the slavery question became more critical, Johnson continued to take a middle course. He opposed the antislavery Republican Party because he believed the Constitution guaranteed the right to own slaves. He supported President Buchanan’s administration. He also approved the Lecompton Constitution proposed by proslavery settlers in Kansas. At the same time, he made it clear that his devotion to the Union exceeded his devotion to right to own slaves.
Johnson’s stand in favor of both the Union and the right to own slaves might have made him a logical compromise candidate for president. However, he was not nominated in 1856 because of a split within the Tennessee delegation. In 1860, the Tennessee delegation nominated Johnson for president at the Democratic National Convention, but when the convention and the party broke up, he withdrew from the race. In the election, Johnson supported Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, the candidate of most Southern Democrats.
Before Tennessee voted on secession, Johnson, who lived in Unionist East Tennessee, toured the state speaking in opposition to the act, which he said was unconstitutional. Johnson was an aggressive stump speaker and often responded to hecklers, even those in the Senate. At the time of the secession of Tennessee, Johnson was the only Senator from the seceded states to continue participation in Congress. His explanation for this decision was “Damn the negroes, I am fighting those traitorous aristocrats, their masters.”
Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of occupied Tennessee in March 1862 with the rank of brigadier general. During his three years in this office, he “moved resolutely to eradicate all pro-Confederate influences in the state.” This “unwavering commitment to the Union” was a significant factor in his choice as vice president by Lincoln. Johnson vigorously suppressed the Confederates, telling his subordinates: “Whenever you hear a man prating about the Constitution, spot him as a traitor.” He later spoke out for black suffrage, arguing, “The better class of them will go to work and sustain themselves, and that class ought to be allowed to vote, on the ground that a loyal negro is more worthy than a disloyal white man.” According to tradition and local lore, on August 8, 1863, Johnson freed his personal slaves.
Currier and Ives print of the National Union Party presidential and vice presidential candidates, 1864. Lithograph and watercolor.As a leading War Democrat and pro-Union southerner, Johnson was an ideal candidate for the Republicans in 1864 as they enlarged their base to include War Democrats. They changed the party name to the National Union Party to reflect this expansion. During the election, Johnson replaced Hannibal Hamlin as Lincoln’s running mate. He was elected vice president of the United States and was inaugurated March 4, 1865. At the ceremony, Johnson, who had been drinking to offset the pain of typhoid fever (as he claimed later), gave a rambling speech and appeared intoxicated to many. According to Senator Zachariah Chandler, he “disgraced himself and the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech.” In early 1865, Johnson talked harshly of hanging traitors like Jefferson Davis, which endeared him to radicals.
On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot and mortally wounded by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, while the president was attending a play at Ford’s Theater. Booth’s plan was to destroy the administration by ordering conspirators to assassinate Johnson, lieutenant general of the Union army Ulysses S. Grant, and Secretary of State William H. Seward that night. Grant survived when he failed to attend the theater with Lincoln as planned, Seward narrowly survived his wounds, while Johnson escaped attack as his would-be assassin, George Atzerodt, failed to go through with the plan.
On April 15, 1865, following Lincoln’s death that morning, Johnson was sworn in as President of the United States by the newly appointed Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. Johnson was the first vice president to succeed to the presidency upon the assassination of a president and the third vice president to become a president upon the death of a sitting president.
Northern anger over the assassination of Lincoln and the immense human cost of the war led to demands for harsh policies. Vice President Andrew Johnson had taken a hard line and spoke of hanging rebel Confederates. In late April, 1865, he was noted telling an Indiana delegation that, “Treason must be made odious … traitors must be punished and impoverished … their social power must be destroyed.” However, when he succeeded Lincoln as president, Johnson took a much softer line, commenting, “I say, as to the leaders, punishment. I also say leniency, reconciliation and amnesty to the thousands whom they have misled and deceived,” and ended up pardoning many Confederate leaders.
His class-based resentment of the rich appeared in a May 1865 statement to W.H. Holden, the man he appointed governor of North Carolina: “I intend to confiscate the lands of these rich men whom I have excluded from pardon by my proclamation, and divide the proceeds thereof among the families of the wool hat boys, the Confederate soldiers, whom these men forced into battle to protect their property in slaves.” In practice, Johnson was seemingly not harsh toward the Confederate leaders. He allowed the Southern states to hold elections in 1865. Subsequently, prominent former Confederate leaders were elected to the U.S. Congress, which however refused to seat them. Congress and Johnson argued in an increasingly public way about Reconstruction and the manner in which the Southern secessionist states would be readmitted to the Union. Johnson favored a very quick restoration, similar to the plan of leniency that Lincoln advocated before his death.
Break with the Republicans: 1866Johnson-appointed governments all passed Black Codes that gave the freedmen second class status. In response to the Black Codes and worrisome signs of Southern recalcitrance, the Republicans blocked the readmission of the secessionist states to the Congress in fall 1865. Congress also renewed the Freedman’s Bureau, but Johnson vetoed it. Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, leader of the moderate Republicans, took affront at the Black Codes. Trumbull proposed the first Civil Rights bill.
Although strongly urged by moderates in Congress to sign the Civil Rights bill, Johnson broke decisively with them by vetoing it on March 27. His veto message objected to the measure because it conferred citizenship on the freedmen at a time when eleven out of thirty-six states were unrepresented and attempted to fix, by federal law, “a perfect equality of the white and black races in every State of the Union.” Johnson said it was an invasion by federal authority of the rights of the states; it had no warrant in the Constitution and was contrary to all precedents. It was a “stride toward centralization and the concentration of all legislative power in the national government.” Johnson, in a letter to Gov. Thomas C. Fletcher of Missouri, wrote, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”
The Democratic Party, proclaiming itself the party of white men, North and South, aligned with Johnson. However, the Republicans in Congress overrode his veto (the Senate by the vote of 35:19, the House by 126:47) and the Civil Rights measure became law.
The last moderate proposal was the Fourteenth Amendment, also written by Trumbull. It was designed to put the key provisions of the Civil Rights Act into the Constitution, but it went further. It extended citizenship to every person born in the United States (except Indians on reservations), penalized states that did not give the vote to freedmen, and most importantly, created new federal civil rights that could be protected by federal courts. It guaranteed the federal war debt and voided all Confederate war debts. Johnson unsuccessfully sought to block ratification of the amendment.
The moderates’ effort to compromise with Johnson had failed and an all-out political war broke out between the Republicans (both radical and moderate) on one side, and on the other Johnson and his allies in the Democratic party in the North, and the conservative groupings in the South. The decisive battle was the election of 1866, in which the Southern states were not allowed to vote. Johnson campaigned vigorously, undertaking a public speaking tour of the north that was known as the “Swing Around the Circle”; the tour proved politically disastrous, with Johnson widely ridiculed and occasionally engaging in hostile arguments with his audiences. The Republicans won by a landslide and took full control of Reconstruction.
Historian James Ford Rhodes explained Johnson’s inability to engage in serious negotiations:
As Senator Charles Sumner shrewdly said, “the President himself is his own worst counselor, as he is his own worst defender.” Johnson acted according to his nature. He had intellectual force, but it worked in a groove. Obstinate, rather than firm, it undoubtedly seemed to him that following counsel and making concessions were a display of weakness. At all events from his December message to the veto of the Civil Rights bill, he did not yield to Congress. The moderate senators and representatives, who constituted a majority of the Union party, asked him for only a slight compromise. Their action was really an entreaty that he would unite with them to preserve Congress and the country from the policy of the radicals. The two projects which Johnson had most at heart were the speedy admission of the Southern senators and representatives to Congress and the relegation of the question of ‘negro suffrage’ to the States themselves. Johnson, shrinking from the imposition on these communities of the franchise for the colored people, took an unyielding position regarding matters involving no vital principle and did much to bring it about. His quarrel with Congress prevented the readmission into the Union on generous terms of the members of the late Confederacy. For the quarrel and its unhappy results, Johnson’s lack of imagination and his inordinate sensitiveness to political gadflies were largely responsible. Johnson sacrificed two important objects to petty considerations. His pride of opinion and his desire to win, blinded him to the real welfare of the South and of the whole country.
There were two attempts to remove President Andrew Johnson from office. The first occurred in the fall of 1867. On November 21, 1867, the House Judiciary committee produced a bill of impeachment that consisted of a vast collection of complaints against him. After a furious debate, a formal vote was held in the House of Representatives on December 5, 1867, which failed 57-108.
Johnson notified Congress that he had removed Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War and was replacing him in the interim with Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas. Johnson had originally wanted to replace Stanton with General Ulysses S. Grant, but Grant refused to accept the position. This violated the Tenure of Office Act, a law enacted by Congress in March 1867 over Johnson’s veto, specifically designed to protect Stanton. Johnson had vetoed the act, claiming it was unconstitutional. The act said, “…every person holding any civil office, to which he has been appointed by and with the advice and consent of the Senate … shall be entitled to hold such office until a successor shall have been in like manner appointed and duly qualified,” thus removing the president’s previous unlimited power to remove any of his cabinet members at will. Years later in the case Myers v. United States in 1926, the Supreme Court ruled that such laws were indeed unconstitutional.
The Senate and House entered into debate over the act. Thomas attempted to move into the war office, for which Stanton had Thomas arrested. Three days after Stanton’s removal, the House impeached Johnson for intentionally violating the Tenure of Office Act.
On March 5, 1868, a court of impeachment was constituted in the Senate to hear charges against the president. William M. Evarts served as his counsel. Eleven articles were set out in the resolution, and the trial before the Senate lasted almost three months. Johnson’s defense was based on a clause in the Tenure of Office Act stating that the then-current secretaries would hold their posts throughout the term of the president who appointed them. Since Lincoln had appointed Stanton, it was claimed, the applicability of the act had already run its course.
There were three votes in the Senate. One came on May 16 for the 11th article of impeachment, which included many of the charges contained in the other articles, and two on May 26 for the second and third articles, after which the trial adjourned. On all three occasions, 35 senators voted “guilty” and 19 “not guilty”, thus falling short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction in impeachment trials by a single vote. A decisive role was played by seven Republican senators – William Pitt Fessenden, Joseph S. Fowler, James W. Grimes, John B. Henderson, Lyman Trumbull, Peter G. Van Winkle and Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, who provided the decisive vote; disturbed by how the proceedings had been manipulated to give a one-sided presentation of the evidence, they voted against conviction, in defiance of their party and public opinion. President John F. Kennedy discusses this in further detail in his book, Profiles In Courage.
Christmas Day amnesty for ConfederatesOne of Johnson’s last significant acts was granting unconditional amnesty to all Confederates on Christmas Day, December 25, 1868, after the election of Ulysses S. Grant to succeed him, but before Grant took office in March 1869. Earlier amnesties, requiring signed oaths and excluding certain classes of people, had been issued by Lincoln and by Johnson.
Johnson appointed only nine Article III federal judges during his presidency, all to United States district courts. Andrew Johnson is one of only four presidents who did not appoint a judge to serve on the Supreme Court. In April, 1866 he nominated Henry Stanbery to fill the vacancy left with the death of John Catron, but the Republican Congress eliminated the seat. Johnson also appointed one judge to the United States Court of Claims, Samuel Milligan, who served from 1868 to 1874.
States admitted to the Union
Nebraska March 1, 1867
Johnson forced the French out of Mexico by sending an army to the border and issuing an ultimatum. The French withdrew in 1867, and the government they supported quickly collapsed. Secretary of State Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia on April 9, 1867 for $7.2 million. This is equivalent to $113 million in present day terms. Critics sneered at “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox” and “Icebergia.” Seward also negotiated to purchase the Danish West Indies, but the Senate refused to approve the purchase in 1867 (it eventually happened in 1917). The Senate likewise rejected Seward’s arrangement with Britain to arbitrate the Alabama Claims.
The U.S. experienced tense relations with Britain and its colonial government in Canada in the aftermath of the war. Lingering resentment over the perception of British sympathy toward the Confederacy resulted in Johnson initially turning a blind eye towards a series of armed incursions by Fenians (Irish-American civil war veterans) into Canada. These small-scale Fenian Raids were easily repulsed by the British. Eventually, Johnson ordered the Fenians disarmed and barred from crossing the border, but the Canadians feared an American takeover and moved toward Canadian Confederation.
Johnson’s purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867 was his most important foreign policy action. The idea and implementation is credited to Seward as Secretary of State, but Johnson approved the plan.
Johnson was an unsuccessful candidate for election to the United States Senate from Tennessee in 1868 and to the House of Representatives in 1872. However, in 1874 the Tennessee legislature did elect him to the U.S. Senate. Johnson served from March 4, 1875, until his death from a stroke near Elizabethton, Tennessee, on July 31 that year. In his first speech since returning to the Senate, which was also his last, Johnson spoke about political turmoil in Louisiana. His passion aroused a standing ovation from many of his fellow senators who had once voted to remove him from the presidency. He is the only former president to serve in the Senate.
Johnson was buried just outside of Greeneville, Tennessee, 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.
Historians’ changing views on Andrew JohnsonViews on Johnson changed over time, depending on historians’ perception of Reconstruction. The widespread denunciation of Reconstruction following the compromise of 1877 resulted in Johnson being portrayed in a favorable light. By the 1930s a series of favorable biographies enhanced his prestige. Furthermore, a Beardian School (named after Charles Beard and typified by Howard K. Beale) argued that the Republican Party in the 1860s was a tool of corrupt business interests, and that Johnson stood for the people. They rated Johnson “near great”, but have since reevaluated and now consider Johnson “a flat failure.”
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s brought a new perspective on Reconstruction, which was increasingly seen as a noble effort to build an interracial nation. Beginning with W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, first published in 1935, historians noted African American efforts to establish public education and welfare institutions, gave muted praise for Republican efforts to extend suffrage and provide other social institutions, and excoriated Johnson for siding with the opposition to extending basic rights to former slaves. In this vein, Eric Foner denounced Johnson as a “fervent white supremacist” who foiled Reconstruction, whereas Sean Wilentz wrote that Johnson “actively sided with former Confederates” in his attempts to derail it. Accordingly, Johnson is nowadays among those commonly mentioned among the worst presidents in U.S. history.
According to Glenn W. LaFantasie, Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University, “Johnson is a particular favorite for the bottom of the pile because of his impeachment (although he was acquitted in the Senate by one vote in May 1868), his complete mishandling of Reconstruction policy, his inept dealings with his Cabinet and Congress, his drinking problem (he was probably inebriated at his inauguration), his bristling personality, and his enormous sense of self-importance. He once suggested that God saw fit to have Lincoln assassinated so that he could become president. A Northern senator averred that “Andrew Johnson was the queerest character that ever occupied the White House.”