Andrew Johnson, seventeenth president of the United States, was born at
Raleigh, North Carolina, on the 29th of December 1808. His parents were poor,
and his father died when Andrew was four years old. At the age of ten he
was apprenticed to a tailor, his spare hours being spent in acquiring the
rudiments of an education. He learned to read from a book which contained
selected orations of great British and American statesmen.
The young tailor went to Laurens Court House, South Carolina, in 1824,
to work at his trade, but returned to Raleigh in 1826 and soon afterward
removed to Greeneville in the eastern part of Tennessee. He married during
the same year Eliza McCardle (1810-1876), much his superior by birth and
education, who taught him the common school branches of learning and was
of great assistance in his later career.
In East Tennessee most of the people were small farmers, while West Tennessee
was a land of great slave plantations.
Johnson began in politics to oppose the aristocratic element and became
the spokesman and champion of the poorer and labouring classes.
In 1828 he was elected an alderman of Greeneville and in 1830-1834 was
In 1834, in the Tennessee constitutional convention he endeavoured to
limit the influence of the slaveholders by basing representation in the state
legislature on the white population alone. In 1835-1837 and 1839-1841 Johnson
was a Democratic member of the state House of Representatives, and in 1841-1843
of the state Senate; in both houses he uniformly upheld the cause of the
"common people", and, in addition, opposed legislation for "internal
improvements." He soon was recognized as the political champion of East
Tennessee. Though his favourite leaders became Whigs, Johnson remained a
Democrat, and in 1840 canvassed the state for Van Buren for president.
In 1843 he was elected to the national House of Representatives and there
remained for ten years until his district was gerrymandered by the Whigs
and he lost his seat. But he at once offered himself as a candidate
for governor and was elected and re-elected, and was then sent to the United
States Senate, serving from 1857-1862. As governor (1853-1857) he proved
to be able and non-partisan. He championed popular education and
recommended the homestead policy to the national government, and from his
sympathy with the working classes and his oft-avowed pride in his former
calling he became known as the "mechanic governor."
In Congress he proved to be a tireless advocate of the claims of the poorer
whites and an opponent of the aristocracy. He favoured the annexation
of Texas, supported the Polk administration on the issues of the Mexican
War and the Oregon boundary controversy, and though voting for the admission
of free California demanded national protection for slavery.
He also advocated the homestead law and low tariffs, opposed the policy
of "internal improvements," and was a zealous worker for budget economies.
Though opposed to a monopoly of political power in the South by the
great slaveholders, he deprecated anti-slavery agitation (even favouring
denial of the right of petition on that subject) as threatening abolition
or the dissolution of the Union, and went with his sectional leaders so far
as to demand freedom of choice for the Territories, and protection for slavery
where it existed--this even so late as 1860.
He supported in 1860 the ultra-Democractic ticket of Breckinridge and
Lane, but he did not identify the election of Lincoln with the ruin of the
South, though he thought the North should give renewed guarantees to slavery.
But he followed Jackson rather than Calhoun, and above everything else
set his love of the Union, though believing the South to be grievously wronged.
He was the only Southern member of Congress who opposed secession and
refused to "go with his state" when it withdrew from the Union in 1861. In
the judgment of a leading opponent (O.P. Morton) "perhaps no man in Congress
exerted the same influence on the public sentiment of the North at the beginning
of the war" as Johnson. During the war he suffered much for his loyalty to
the Union. In March 1862 Lincoln made him military governor of the part of
Tennessee captured from the Confederates, and after two years of autocratic
rule (with much danger to himself) he succeeded in organizing a Union government
for the state. In 1864, to secure the votes of the war Democrats and
to please the border states that had remained in the Union, Johnson was nominated
for vice-president on the ticket with Lincoln.
A month after the inauguration the murder of Lincoln left him president,
with the great problem to solve of reconstruction of the Union. All
his past career and utterances seemed to indicate that he would favour the
harshest measures toward ex-Confederates, hence his acceptability to the
most radical republicans. But, whether because he drew a distinction between
the treason of individuals and of states, or was influence by Seward, or
simply, once in reponsible position, separated Republican party politics
from the question of constitutional interpretation, at least he speedily
showed that he would be influenced by no acrimony, and adopted the lenient
reconstruction policy of Lincoln. In this he had some time the cordial
support of his cabinet.
During the summer of 1865 he set up provisional civil governments in all
the seceded states except Texas, and within a few months all those states
were reorganized and applying for readmission to the Union. The radical congress
(Republican by a large majority) sharply opposed his plan of restoration,
as they had opposed Lincoln's plan: first, because the members of Congress
from the Southern States (when readmitted) would almost certainly vote with
the Democrats; secondly, because relatively few of the Confederates were
punished; and thirdly, because the newly organized Southern States did not
give political rights to the negroes. The question of the status of
the negro proved the crux of the issue. Johnson was opposed to general
or immediate negro suffrage. A bitter contest began Feb. 1866, between
the president and the Congress, which refused to admit representatives from
the South and during 1866 passed over his veto a number of important measures,
such as the Freemen's Bureau Act and the Civil Rights Act, and submitted
to the States the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Johnson took a prominent and undignified part in the congressional campaign
of 1866, in which his policies were voted down by the North. In 1867
Congress threw aside his work of restoration and proceeded with its own plan,
the main features of which were the disfranchisement of ex-Confederates and
the enfranchisement of negroes.
On the 2nd of March, 1867 Congress passed over the president's veto the
Tenure of Office Act, prohibiting the president from dismissing from office
without the consent of the Senate any officer appointed by and with the advice
and consent of that body, and in addition a section was inserted in the army
appropriation bill of this session designed to subordinate the president
to the Senate and the general-in-chief of the army in military matters. The
president was thus deprived of practically all power.
Stanton and other members of his cabinet and General Grant became hostile
to him, the president attempted to remove Stanton without regard to the Tenure
of Office Act, and, finally, to get rid of the president, Congress in 1868
(February-May) made an attempt to impeach and remove him, his disregard of
the Tenure of Office Act being the principal charge against him. The charges
(see below) were in part quite trivial, and the evidence was ridiculously
inadequate for the graver charges. A two-thirds majority was necessary
for conviction; and the votes being 35 to 19 (7 Republicans and 12 Democrats
voting in his favour on the crucial clauses) he was acquitted.
The misguided animus of the impeachment as a piece of partisan politics
was soon very generally admitted; and the importance of its failure, in securing
the continued power and independence of the presidential element in the
constitutional system, can hardly be over-estimated.
The rest of his term as president was comparatively quiet and uneventful.
In 1869 he retired into private life in Tennessee, and after several
unsuccessful efforts was elected to the United States Senate, free of party
trammels, in 1875, but died at Carter's Station, Tennessee, on the 31st of
July 1875. The only speech he made was a skillful and temperate arraignment
of President Grant's policy towards the South.
President Johnson's leading political principals were a reverence of Andrew
Jackson, unlimited confidence in the people, and an intense veneration for
the constitution. Throughout his life he remained in some respects a
"backwoodsman." He lacked the finish of systematic education. But
his whole career sufficiently proves him to have been a man of extraordinary
qualities. He did not rise above untoward circumstances by favour,
nor--until after his election as senator--by fortunate and fortuitous connexion
with great events, but by strength of native talents, persistent purpose,
and an iron will. He had strong, rugged powers, was a close reasoner
and a forcible speaker. Unfortunately his extemporaneous speeches were
commonplace, in very bad taste, fervently intemperate and denunciatory; and
through this was probably due largely to temperament and habits of stump-speaking
formed in early life, it was attributed by his enemies to drink. Resorting
to stimulants after illness, his marked excess in this respect on the occasion
of his inauguration as vice-president undoubtedly did him harm with the public.
Faults of personality were his great handicap. Though approachable
and not without kindliness of manner, he seemed hard and inflexible; and
while president, physical pain and domestic anxieties, added to the struggles
of public life, combined to accentuate a naturally somewhat severe temperament.
A lifelong Southern Democrat, he was forced to lead (nominally at least)
a party of Northern Republicans, with whom he had no bond of sympathy save
a common opposition to secession; and his ardent, aggressive convictions
and character, above all his complete lack of tact, unfitted him to deal
successfully with the passionate partianship of Congress. The absolute
integrity and unflinching courage that marked his career were always ungrudgingly
admitted by his greatest enemies.
The charges centred in the president's removal of Secretary Stanton, his
ad interim appointment of Lorenzo Thomas, his campaign speeches in
1866, and the relation of these three things to the Tenure of Office Act.
Of the eleven charges of impeachment the first was that Stanton's removal
was contrary to the Tenure of Office Act; the second, that the appointment
of Thomas was a violation of the same law; the third, that the appointment
violated the Constitution; the fourth, that Johnson conspired with Thomas
"to hinder and prevent Edwin M. Stanton.., from holding...office of secretary
for the department of war"; the fifth, that Johnson had conspired with Thomas
to "prevent and hinder the execution'' of the Tenure of Office Act; the sixth,
that he had conspired with Thomas "to seize, take and possess the property
of the United States in the deparment of war," in violation of the Tenure
of Office Act; the seventh, that this action was "a high misdemeanour'; the
eighth, that the appointment of Thomas was "with intent unlawfully to control
the disbursements of the moneys appropriated for the military service and
for the department of war"; the ninth, that he had instructed Major-General
Emory, in command of the department of Washington, that an act of 1867
appropriating money for the army was unconstitutional; the tenth, that his
speeches in 1866 constituted "a high misdemeanour in office"; and the eleventh,
the "omnibus" article, that he had committed high misdemeanours in saying
that the 39th Congress was not an authorized Congress, that its legislation
was not binding upon him, and that it was incapable of proposing amendments.
The actual trial began on the 30th of March (from the 5th of March it
was adjourned to the 23rd, and on the 24th of March to the 30th). On
the 16th of May, after sessions in which the Senate repeatedly reversed the
rulings of the chief justice as to the admission of evidence, in which the
president's counsel showed that their case was excellently prepared and the
prosecuting counsel appealed in general to political passions rather than
to judicial impartiality, the eleventh article was voted on and impeachment
failed by a single vote (35 to 19; 7 republicans and 12 democrats voting
"Not guilty") of the necessary two-thirds. After ten days' interval,
during which B.F. Butler of the prosecuting counsel attempted to prove that
corruption had been practised on some of those voting "Not guilty," on the
26th of May a vote was taken on the second and third articles with the same
result as on the eleventh article. There was no vote on the other
Reference: "The Encyclopedia Britannica Handy Volume Issue" Eleventh
Edition, Published 1910-1911, Vol. 15, Pg 461 & 462
County Administrator, Carolyn
Last update 15 April 2002