Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson was the 17th President of the United States
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 (1865–1869). As Vice-President of the United States in 1865, he succeeded Abraham Lincoln following the latter's assassination
Abraham Lincoln assassination
The assassination of United States President Abraham Lincoln took place on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, as the American Civil War was drawing to a close. The assassination occurred five days after the commanding General of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee, and his battered Army of...

. Johnson then presided over the initial and contentious Reconstruction era of the United States following the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

. Johnson's reconstruction policies failed to promote the rights of the Freedmen, and he came under vigorous political attack from Republicans
History of the United States Republican Party
The United States Republican Party is the second oldest currently existing political party in the United States after its great rival, the Democratic Party. It emerged in 1854 to combat the Kansas Nebraska Act which threatened to extend slavery into the territories, and to promote more vigorous...

, ending in his impeachment by the U.S.
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There are no good laws but such as repeal other laws.

Statement (1835), as quoted in Andrew Johnson, Plebeian and Patriot (1928) by Robert Watson Winston

No, gentlemen, if I am to be shot at, I want no man to be in the way of the bullet.

As military governor of Tennessee, asserting that he would walk alone, to friends who offered to escort him to the statehouse, after postings of a placard saying he should be "shot on sight." (c.1862); as quoted in Andrew Johnson, President of the United States: His Life and Speeches (1866) by Lillian Foster

I have lived among negroes, all my life, and I am for this Government with slavery under the Constitution as it is. I am for the Government of my fathers with negroes, I am for it without negroes. Before I would see this Government destroyed, I would send every negro back to Africa, disintegrated and blotted out of space.

Speech in Indianapolis, Indiana (26 February 1863)

I am a-goin' for to tell you here to-day; yes, I'm a-goin for to tell you all, that I'm a plebian! I glory in it; I am a plebian! The people — yes, the people of the United States have made me what I am; and I am a-goin' for to tell you here to-day — yes, to-day, in this place — that the people are everything.

First address as Vice-President, widely reported as having been delivered while he was inebriated. (5 March 1865)

Notwithstanding a mendacious press; notwithstanding a subsidized gang of hirelings who have not ceased to traduce me, I have discharged all my official duties and fulfilled my pledges. And I say here tonight that if my predecessor had lived, the vials of wrath would have poured out upon him.

Speech in Cleveland, Ohio (3 September 1866)

I have had a son killed, a son-in-law die during the last battle of Nashville, another son has thrown himself away, a second son-in-law is in no better condition, I think I have had sorrow enough without having my bank account examined by a Committee of Congress.

Letter to his friend Colonel William G. Moore, complaining of Congressional investigations.... (1 May 1867)

Legislation can neither be wise nor just which seeks the welfare of a single interest at the expense and to the injury of many and varied interests at least equally important and equally deserving the considerations of Congress.

Veto message to the House of Representatives (22 February 1869)

The goal to strive for is a poor government but a rich people.

As quoted in Andrew Johnson, Plebeian and Patriot (1928) by Robert Watson Winston
Andrew Johnson was the 17th President of the United States
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 (1865–1869). As Vice-President of the United States in 1865, he succeeded Abraham Lincoln following the latter's assassination
Abraham Lincoln assassination
The assassination of United States President Abraham Lincoln took place on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, as the American Civil War was drawing to a close. The assassination occurred five days after the commanding General of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee, and his battered Army of...

. Johnson then presided over the initial and contentious Reconstruction era of the United States following the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

. Johnson's reconstruction policies failed to promote the rights of the Freedmen, and he came under vigorous political attack from Republicans
History of the United States Republican Party
The United States Republican Party is the second oldest currently existing political party in the United States after its great rival, the Democratic Party. It emerged in 1854 to combat the Kansas Nebraska Act which threatened to extend slavery into the territories, and to promote more vigorous...

, ending in his impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives, though it failed in the U.S. Senate.

Johnson, born in poverty and of Scots-Irish descent, became a master tailor and was self-educated, married and had five children. He served as an alderman and as Mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee and then sat in both houses of the Tennessee legislature. He went on to spend five consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and two terms as Governor of Tennessee, all as a Democrat. His signature legislative endeavor in the state and federal arenas was passage of the Homestead Act
Homestead Act
A homestead act is one of three United States federal laws that gave an applicant freehold title to an area called a "homestead" – typically 160 acres of undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi River....


When Tennessee seceded from the Union in 1861, Johnson was a Democratic U.S. Senator from Tennessee and was dedicated to a limited government. Also a Unionist, but pro-slavery, he was the only Southern senator not to resign his seat during the Civil War, became the most prominent War Democrat from the South and supported Lincoln's military policies. In 1862, Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of occupied Tennessee, where he was effective in fighting and ending the rebellion; he implemented Reconstruction policies in the state and transitioned for a time to a pro-emancipation policy.

Johnson was nominated as the vice presidential candidate
Vice President of the United States
The Vice President of the United States is the holder of a public office created by the United States Constitution. The Vice President, together with the President of the United States, is indirectly elected by the people, through the Electoral College, to a four-year term...

 in 1864 on the National Union Party
National Union Party (United States)
The National Union Party was the name used by the Republican Party for the national ticket in the 1864 presidential election, held during the Civil War. State Republican parties did not usually change their name....

 ticket. He and Lincoln were elected in 1864
United States presidential election, 1864
In the United States Presidential election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln was re-elected as president. The election was held during the Civil War. Lincoln ran under the National Union ticket against Democratic candidate George B. McClellan, his former top general. McClellan ran as the "peace candidate",...

, inaugurated in early 1865 and a month later Johnson assumed the presidency upon Lincoln's assassination.

As president, he implemented his own form of Presidential Reconstruction – a series of proclamations directing the seceded states to hold conventions and elections to re-form their civil governments. These proclamations embodied Johnson's conciliatory policies towards the South, as well as his rush to reincorporate the former Confederate
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

 states into the union without due regard for freedmen's rights; these positions 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
Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States, was one of the most dramatic events in the political life of the United States during Reconstruction, and the first impeachment in history of a sitting United States president....

 (a first for a U.S. president), charging him with violating the Tenure of Office Act, when he sought to remove his Secretary of War without Senate approval; nevertheless, his trial in the Senate ended in an acquittal by a single vote.

As a Jeffersonian
Jeffersonian democracy
Jeffersonian Democracy, so named after its leading advocate Thomas Jefferson, is a term used to describe one of two dominant political outlooks and movements in the United States from the 1790s to the 1820s. The term was commonly used to refer to the Democratic-Republican Party which Jefferson...

 and Jacksonian
Jacksonian democracy
Jacksonian democracy is the political movement toward greater democracy for the common man typified by American politician Andrew Jackson and his supporters. Jackson's policies followed the era of Jeffersonian democracy which dominated the previous political era. The Democratic-Republican Party of...

, Johnson refused to tow any party line throughout his political career – though he primarily ran as a Democrat, with the exception of his vice-presidency. While president he attempted to build a party of loyalists under the National Union
National Union Party (United States)
The National Union Party was the name used by the Republican Party for the national ticket in the 1864 presidential election, held during the Civil War. State Republican parties did not usually change their name....

 label. His failure to make the National Union brand a genuine party made Johnson an independent during his presidency, though he was supported by Democrats and later rejoined the party briefly as a Democratic Senator from Tennessee in 1875 until his death that year. Johnson's administration has received an aggregate ranking
Historical rankings of United States Presidents
In political science, historical rankings of Presidents of the United States are surveys conducted in order to construct rankings of the success of individuals who have served as President of the United States. Ranking systems are usually based on surveys of academic historians and political...

 of 41 among his presidential peers.

Early life and political start

Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Jacob Johnson
Jacob Johnson (father of Andrew Johnson)
Jacob Johnson was the father of Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth President of the United States.-Early life:Jacob Johnson was born circa 1778...

 (1778–1812) and Mary ("Polly") McDonough (1783–1856), a seamstress and the daughter of Andrew McDonough. He had a brother William four years his elder and an older sister Elizabeth who died in childhood. The Johnson ancestors, who originated in Amelia County, Virginia, were farmers and gradually migrated to North Carolina. Johnson's grandfather William was poverty stricken, and left his son Jacob landless and illiterate. In Raleigh, Jacob became town constable and suddenly died shortly after rescuing three drowning men, leaving his family in poverty when Andrew was three. Johnson's mother then took in work spinning and weaving to support her family, and she later was remarried to Turner Doughtry. She bound Andrew as an apprentice tailor; Johnson had no formal education but taught himself how to read and write, with some help from his masters, as was their obligation under his apprenticeship.

As a youngster living in poverty, along with his childhood friends, Johnson was an object of ridicule from members of higher social circles; as such, he was commonly referred to as "poor white trash" by the elite in Raleigh. Nevertheless, he and his peers were acutely aware that they were one step above the lowest on the socio-economic ladder, i.e. the black community. As a consequence, Johnson assumed an attitude of white supremacy typical of one in his position in his town, and he was unable to ever shed this perspective during his life.

At age 16 or 17, Johnson left his apprenticeship and ran away with his brother, landing ultimately in Laurens, South Carolina for two years, where he found work as a tailor. Here he found his first love, Mary Wood, for whom he made a quilt. His marriage proposal to her was rejected however, and he returned to Raleigh but could not remain there, as his master J. Selby refused to release him from his apprenticeship obligation. He made his way to Mooresville, Alabama, where Joseph Sloss taught him how to tailor frock suits.

Johnson returned to Raleigh and from there traveled with his mother, stepfather and brother to Greeneville, Tennessee and established a very successful tailoring business in the front of his home; he was joined by a partner, Hentle W. Adkinson. At the age of 18, Johnson married 16 year-old Eliza McCardle
Eliza McCardle Johnson
Eliza McCardle Johnson was the First Lady of the United States and the wife of Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the United States.-Early Life and Marriage:...

 in 1827; she was the daughter of a local shoemaker. The couple were married for 50 years and had five children: Martha (1828), Charles (1830), Mary (1832), Robert (1834), and Andrew Jr. (1852). Though she suffered from consumption, Eliza was consistently supportive of Johnson's endeavors; she taught Johnson arithmetic up to basic algebra and tutored him to improve his literacy, reading, and writing skills.

His reading about famous oratory sparked in Johnson a natural interest in political dialogue and private debates with customers having opposing views on issues of the day. Johnson then initiated public debates and organized a debating society with a customer Blackston McDannel. He also participated in debates at Tusculum College in Greeneville, and later helped organize a mechanics' party ticket that elected him as a town alderman in 1829, a position he retained until he was elected Mayor in 1834. In 1831 he became a member of the 90th Regiment of the Tennessee militia. Neither the Democratic or the newly formed Whig party was then well organized in that part of Tennessee. At that time, a state convention was called to pass a new constitution, including provisions to disenfranchise freedmen and to reform real estate tax rates; the constitution was submitted for a public vote and Johnson successfully campaigned in favor of it, which provided him with additional positive statewide exposure.

Tennessee politics

In 1835, Johnson made a bid for election to the "floater" seat for his district in the Tennessee House of Representatives
Tennessee House of Representatives
The Tennessee House of Representatives is the lower house of the Tennessee General Assembly, the state legislature of the U.S. state of Tennessee.-Constitutional requirements:...

; he "demolished" the opposition in debate and won the election with almost a two to one margin. In his first term in the state house, Johnson chose not to ally himself consistently with the Democrats or the Whigs, though he revered Jackson, the Democratic President. He consistently opposed non-essential government spending and the railroads, which distanced him from his electorate locally, where there was little transportation. As a result, after serving a single term, he was defeated for re-election.

In 1839, Johnson entered the race for re-election to his House seat, initially as a Whig; when another Whig entry arose, to enhance his position in the campaign, he ran as a Democrat and was elected to his second, non-consecutive term in the Tennessee House. He then announced his support of Democrat, and states rights proponent, John C. Calhoun; from that time he never wavered from the Democratic party and built a powerful political machine in Greene County. Johnson was then a consistent supporter of Martin Van Buren and early on expressed an interest in the public lands, eventually being considered a father of the Homestead Act of 1862
Homestead Act
A homestead act is one of three United States federal laws that gave an applicant freehold title to an area called a "homestead" – typically 160 acres of undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi River....


In 1840 Johnson was appointed as a presidential elector for his state, giving him more statewide exposure. Despite Van Buren's defeat, Johnson was instrumental in keeping Greene County in the Democratic column. He was elected to the Tennessee Senate
Tennessee Senate
The Tennessee Senate is the upper house of the Tennessee state legislature, which is known formally as the Tennessee General Assembly.The Tennessee Senate, according to the state constitution of 1870, is composed of 33 members, one-third the size of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Senators...

 in 1841, where he served one two-year term. The 1841-42 legislative session, with Whigs having a majority in the House chamber and the Democrats a smaller majority in the Senate, was marked by an impasse over the election of Tennessee's two United States senators. The Whigs in the House sought, by use of a joint session majority, to dictate the choice of the two U.S. senators. The Tennessee Senate however, controlled by Democrats, and lead by Johnson, boycotted the joint session and thus blocked the filling of both U.S. Senate seats, denying Tennessee representation in the U.S. Senate until 1843.

After a promotion in the militia in 1841, he was often locally referred to as "Colonel Johnson". Also by this time Johnson had achieved considerable financial success in his tailoring business, which he sold in order to narrow his political focus. He had also acquired additional real estate, including a larger home and a farm where his mother and stepfather took residence. He as well assumed ownership of as many as eight or nine slaves.

First three terms

In 1843, Johnson was the first Democrat to run for, and win, election as the U.S. representative from Tennessee's 1st congressional district
Tennessee's 1st congressional district
The Tennessee 1st Congressional District is the congressional district of northeast Tennessee, including all of Carter, Cocke, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi, and Washington counties and parts of Jefferson County and Sevier County...

, and joined a new Democratic majority in the House. In his first term in the House, he soon articulated his own brand of Jeffersonian–Jacksonian principles he would steadfastly promote throughout most of his political career; he advocated for the interests of the poor, while maintaining an anti-abolitionist stance, insisted on limited spending by the government and opposed protective tariffs. While these positions were well suited for most of his local constituency, this was not the case when he stepped outside that region politically. Johnson advocated "a free farm for the poor" bill that would give land to landless farmers. When not on the House floor, Johnson, in Washington without wife Eliza, shunned social functions in favor of increased self study and reading in the Congressional library.

In one of his first speeches on the floor, he commented that neither the federal nor the state government had authority to abolish slavery, asserting this was a form of property guaranteed by the Constitution
A constitution is a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed. These rules together make up, i.e. constitute, what the entity is...

. "The black race of Africa are inferior to the white man in point of intellect – better calculated in physical structure to undergo drudgery and hardship – standing, as they do, many degrees lower in the scale of gradation that expresses the relative relation between God and all that he has created than the white man." Johnson frequently alienated his party through a strict adherence to his positions on slavery, the tariff and limited government spending.

Johnson was victorious in his run for a second Congressional term in 1845 against his perennial and vituperative opponent, Wiliam G. Brownlow
William Gannaway Brownlow
William Gannaway "Parson" Brownlow was an American newspaper editor, minister, and politician who served as Governor of the state of Tennessee from 1865 to 1869 and as a United States Senator from Tennessee from 1869 to 1875...

; in this second campaign, Johnson particularly took up the mantle as defender of the poor against the aristocracy. He also expressied his outrage at spurious accusations made against his father. In his second term, he supported the administration's decisions to fight the Mexican War. He also promoted a measure requiring the turnover of all government jobs every eight years. In this term, he introduced for the first time his Homestead Bill, which sought to provide 160 acres for every poor family head "without money and without price"; while the measure fell on deaf ears initially, Johnson did not rest until passage some years later.

Johnson's third term in Congress found him stiffening in his opposition to non essential government spending, from expenses of the new Smithsonian Institute to the purchase of portraits for the White House. As well, discussions of slavery were becoming progressively acrimonious, and he remained immovable in his support of the "peculiar institution'. Johnson departed from his southern allies supporting slavery when he maintained that slavery was essential to the very preservation of the Union. In the presidential election in 1848, the Democratic Party split over the slavery issue, with the abolitionists leaving the party and forming the Free Soil Party
Free Soil Party
The Free Soil Party was a short-lived political party in the United States active in the 1848 and 1852 presidential elections, and in some state elections. It was a third party and a single-issue party that largely appealed to and drew its greatest strength from New York State. The party leadership...

, and making Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren was the eighth President of the United States . Before his presidency, he was the eighth Vice President and the tenth Secretary of State, under Andrew Jackson ....

 their nominee. Johnson supported the Democratic nominee, Lewis Cass
Lewis Cass
Lewis Cass was an American military officer and politician. During his long political career, Cass served as a governor of the Michigan Territory, an American ambassador, a U.S. Senator representing Michigan, and co-founder as well as first Masonic Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Michigan...

, who thought it up to the people in each state to decide on the issue. Nevertheless, with the party split, Whig nominee Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor was the 12th President of the United States and an American military leader. Initially uninterested in politics, Taylor nonetheless ran as a Whig in the 1848 presidential election, defeating Lewis Cass...

 was easily victorious, and carried Tennessee as well, despite Johnson's local efforts to hold the state for his party. Johnson, in the face of the national mania over new railroad construction, and in response to the need in his own district for additional mode of transportation, found himself moderating in his opposition to them. Thus, he supported funding to the state to assist the expansion of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad. During this term Johnson also made a concerted effort to increase his sphere of interactions; his higher profile was exemplified by a biographical sketch published in the New York Times in May of 1849, describing him as an excellent committee worker and investigator. It was also during this time that Johnson purchased a newspaper named the Greeneville Spy.

Final two terms

In the campaign for election to his fourth term in 1849, Johnson concentrated on three issues – slavery, homesteads and judicial elections. He defeated his opponent, Nathaniel G. Taylor, with a greater margin of victory than in previous campaigns. When the House reconvened, the party schism caused by the Free Soil Party precluded the formation of a majority needed to elect a Speaker. Johnson proposed adoption of a rule allowing election of a Speaker by a plurality; the rule was passed and Howell Cobb
Howell Cobb
Howell Cobb was an American political figure. A Southern Democrat, Cobb was a five-term member of the United States House of Representatives and Speaker of the House from 1849 to 1851...

 was so elected. This commenced one of the most controversial sessions of Congress, as the issue of slavery took front stage. The proposed admission to the union of California as a state set off a debate as to whether a prohibition of slavery should be made a condition of admission. Henry Clay introduced in the Senate a series of resolutions, the Compromise of 1850
Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850 was a package of five bills, passed in September 1850, which defused a four-year confrontation between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North regarding the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War...

, to allow admission while addressing concerns of both sides of the issue; at the same time Johnson introduced a similar more streamlined version of compromise in the House. Johnson supported the Compromise of 1850 with the exception of its abolition of slavery in the nation's capitol. Also in this term Johnson renewed in vain his efforts to bring the Homestead Bill to a vote. As Chairman of the Committee on Public Expenditures, he also attempted but failed to reduce by one-fifth all federal salaries over $1,000. He reprised resolutions for constitutional amendments to provide for 1) the direct election of the president, rather than by the electoral college, 2) the direct election of U.S. Senators, rather than by state legislatures and 3) the limiting of judges' terms to twelve years. These were all defeated, by an opposition that included a fellow Tennessean, Isham G. Harris
Isham G. Harris
Isham Green Harris was an American politician. He served as Governor of Tennessee from 1857 to 1862 and as a U.S. Senator from 1877 until his death....

, who later became a bitter enemy.

Democratic adversaries in the campaign for his fifth and final term put up an opponent Landon Carter Haynes. The campaign included fierce debates; Johnson's primary issue was the passage of the Homestead bill, which Haynes contended would facilitate abolition. Johnson won the election by over 1600 votes. At this time Johnson built a larger home in Greeneville (Eliza had given birth to another son and his mother had moved in with them following the death of his stepfather.) In 1850 he also accepted an invitation to join the Masons Lodge in Greeneville. Though he was not enamored of the party's presidential nominee, Franklin Pierce, Johnson campaigned for him, but he failed to carry Tennessee. In December of 1852 Johnson realized his dream of passage in the House of his Homestead Act, which even garnered the support of Horace Greeley
Horace Greeley
Horace Greeley was an American newspaper editor, a founder of the Liberal Republican Party, a reformer, a politician, and an outspoken opponent of slavery...

. A long struggle lay ahead in the Senate. Johnson had been so obsessed with the measure that he was said to be "a little cracked on the subject". Though his final session in Congress was uneventful, he did reintroduce seven resolutions, which failed, providing for rotation of federal appointees. The Whigs had gained control of the Tennessee legislature, and redrew Johnson's First District so as to ensure that House seat for their party, under the leadership of Gustavus Adolphus Henry, Sr.
Gustavus Adolphus Henry, Sr.
Gustavus Adolphus Henry Sr. was a prominent antebellum planter and lawyer, and a prominent member of the Confederate Congress during the American Civil War....

; the Nashville Union termed this "Henry-mandering".

Governor of Tennessee

When it became apparent that Johnson would lose his seat, an effort began by ally George W. Jones to put forward Johnson's name for governor. The Democratic convention unanimously nominated him for the spot, although the conservative clique from Nashville had serious reservations. When his district was redrawn by the Whigs, that party had won the past two gubernatorial elections, in addition to gaining control of the legislature. The campaign was sure to be a struggle; the Whigs nominated their "Eagle Orator" Gustavus Henry, and Johnson wasted no time in calling him to task for his "Henry-mandering" of the First District, as their debates made their way across the state from one county seat to the next. Henry attacked Johnson for his voting record in denying pay increases to federal troops. Johnson won the election by 2,250 votes, some of which were Whig votes received in return for his promise to support Nathaniel Taylor for his prior seat in Congress. In his inaugural speech, he reaffirmed his Jeffersonian principles, and added that, "Democracy in the political sphere, and Christianity in the moral sphere, proceed in converging lines."

As he had in the past, Johnson steadfastly objected to unnecessary spending by the government, including the military and internal improvements; he demonstrated he still had no desire to please the conservatives in his party or the opposition. Johnson attempted to make the most of the opportunities the position offered, using it as a springboard to higher honors, as the Governor's powers in the state were limited to offering mere suggestions on legislation (with no veto power), and managing the Bank of Tennessee and the penitentiary. Most government positions also were appointed by the legislature. Johnson succeeded in getting the bank appointments he wanted, in return for his endorsement of John Bell for one of the state's U.S. Senate seats. He nominated his Board of Inspectors for the prisons but to his surprise they refused to appoint his choice for warden, Richard White. He then withdrew the Board nominations with the Senate's approval, replaced them, and White became the warden. In his first biennial speech, he urged simplification of the state judicial system, abolishment of the Bank of Tennessee and establishment of an agency to provide uniformity in weights and measures, the latter of which was passed. Johnson was critical of the Tennessee common school system and suggested funding be increased via taxes, either statewide or county by county – a mixture of the two was passed.

Despite his initial reluctance, Johnson agreed to run for re-election for governor in 1855, and became the nominee at the party convention. His prospects dwindled when Meredith P. Gentry received the Whig nomination. A series of more than a dozen of debates ensued, where the exchanges grew increasingly vitriolic. Johnson was surprisingly victorious, albeit with a narrower margin. Not long thereafter Johnson gave a speech in Nashville, denouncing the Know Nothing Party, and rebuked a prominent Whig lawyer, Thomas T. Smiley, who took issue with him. Smiley later wrote to Johnson, saying he was ready to fight; a potential duel was prevented by the intervention of Washington Burrow and Benjamin F. Cheatham
Benjamin F. Cheatham
Benjamin Franklin Cheatham , known also as Frank, was a Tennessee aristocrat, California gold miner, and a General in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War, serving in many battles of the Western Theater.-Early years:Cheatham was born in Nashville, Tennessee on a plantation...

. In his second term, the Whigs remained in control of the legislature, again limiting Johnson's ability to influence the agenda. When the presidential election of 1856 approached, Johnson and supporters harbored a vague hope for the presidency, and he gave a speech to the Tennessee Democratic delegates reiterating his views; some county conventions designated him a favorite son and the Nashville Union and American proposed his nomination. Johnson's position that the best interests of the Union were served by slavery in some areas made him a practical compromise candidate for president. However, he was not nominated in 1856 in part due to a split within his home state's delegation. Though he was not impressed by either, he campaigned for the Democratic ticket of Buchanan and Breckenridge.

Johnson decided not to seek a third term as Governor, with an eye towards election to the United States Senate. In 1857, on a return trip from Washington, his train derailed causing serious damage to his right arm which would plague him in the future.

United States Senator

The Whigs thought Johnson a dangerous prospect as a United States Senator, and made it a priority to prevent his election by the state legislature. Johnson, aware of the uphill battle, interjected himself into the campaigns for the legislature in the election of 1857. Though his party won the governor's race and control of the legislature, Johnson still had to overcome considerable opposition from the conservatives in both parties. His final biennial speech as Governor was pivotal, and he used it to recapitulate his populist philosophy of government. Two days later the legislature elected the outgoing governor to the U.S. Senate. The opposition was appalled, with the Richmond Whig for example, referring to him as "the vilest radical and most unscrupulous demagogue in the Union."

He immediately set about introducing the Homestead Act in the Senate, just as he had ushered it to passage in the House years before. It became apparent that, as the slavery issue took center stage, the slaveholding states were more reluctant to agree with the bill, with the primary antagonists being the senators in Virginia, Texas, North Carolina and Alabama. In May of 1860 a significantly amended version of the Act was passed in both houses but was vetoed by President Buchanan. As chairman of the Committee to Audit and Control the Contingent Expense, Johnson continued his relentless opposition to spending, especially when the Capitol city was the beneficiary; he argued it was egregious to expect citizens in other states to fund the infrastructure of another locality, regardless of the fact it was the seat of government.

Time was also taken up in a controversy involving his Senate colleague from Tennessee, John Bell
John Bell (Tennessee politician)
John Bell was a U.S. politician, attorney, and plantation owner. A wealthy slaveholder from Tennessee, Bell served in the United States Congress in both the House of Representatives and Senate. He began his career as a Democrat, he eventually fell out with Andrew Jackson and became a Whig...

, a leading Whig. The state legislature had passed resolutions instructing their representatives in Washington to support pro-slavery and popular sovereignty measures such as the LeCompton Constitution
Lecompton Constitution
The Lecompton Constitution was the second of four proposed constitutions for the state of Kansas . The document was written in response to the anti-slavery position of the 1855 Topeka Constitution of James H. Lane and other free-state advocates...

 and the Kansas–Nebraska Act. Bell took great exception to these attempts to supersede his voting discretion, and requests issued from Nashville for his resignation. Johnson took advantage of this opportunity to express his strong views in favor of the measures in question, as well as popular instruction. As the slavery debate escalated, Johnson continued to take an independent course. He opposed the antislavery Republican Party while making it clear that his devotion to the Union was consistent with his devotion to his perceived Constitutional right to own slaves.

In 1860, the Tennessee delegation nominated Johnson for president at the Democratic National Convention, and Johnson tentatively offered himself as a Vice-President on the Douglas ticket as a back up plan. But when the convention and the party showed signs of a split, he withdrew from the race entirely. In the general election, Johnson reluctantly supported John C. Breckinridge
John C. Breckinridge
John Cabell Breckinridge was an American lawyer and politician. He served as a U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator from Kentucky and was the 14th Vice President of the United States , to date the youngest vice president in U.S...

 of Kentucky, the candidate of most Southern Democrats. Johnson took to the Senate floor after the election demonstrated the schism in the country, giving a sensational speech headlined by the New York Times: "...I will not give up this government...No; I intend to stand by it...and I invite every man who is a patriot to... rally around the altar of our common country...and swear by our God...that the Constitution shall be saved, and the Union preserved." As southern Senators began to express their intent to resign their seats, Johnson reminded Sen. Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy's future leader, that if his coalition would only hold to their seats, the Democrats would control the Congress, and thus better defend the South's interests. During this session, Johnson also supported the pro-slavery Crittenden Compromise
Crittenden Compromise
The Crittenden Compromise was an unsuccessful proposal introduced by Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden on December 18, 1860. It aimed to resolve the U.S...


Johnson continued to ingratiate himself with the North, the President-elect and his party, with his Unionist speeches in the Senate in early 1861: "I have an abiding confidence in the intelligence, the patriotism, and the integrity of the people, and I feel in my own heart that, if this subject could be got before them, they would settle the question and the Union of these States would be preserved." In fact, Lincoln ultimately looked to Johnson for considerable help with Tennessee's federal patronage decisions.

Johnson returned home when his state legislature took up the issue of secession. His area of East Tennessee was a Unionist stronghold, but the secessionists dominated the Middle and Western areas. The legislature decided to put the matter to a popular vote. Before the Tennessee electorate voted on secession, Johnson, at his peril, toured the state, speaking in opposition to the measure, contending it was unconstitutional. He was an aggressive stump speaker and responded forthrightly to hecklers and even endured instances of assault, though unharmed. When Tennessee seceded, though the vote did not win a majority in East Tennessee, Johnson was forced to flee from the state with armed security; he was in fact 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." For their protection as well, his family were forced to leave Greeneville; they would not return home for eight years. Between Congressional sessions he toured Kentucky and Ohio, trying in vain to convince any Union commander who would listen, to conduct an operation into East Tennessee. Johnson was named to the Joint Committee on Conduct of the War
United States Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War
The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was a United States Congressional investigating committee created to handle issues surrounding the American Civil War. It was established on December 9, 1861, following the embarrassing Union defeat at the Battle of Ball's Bluff, at the instigation of...

 whose purpose was to goad-on laggard Union generals; Johnson, to no avail, used this platform to voice the urgency of military intervention in East Tennessee.

Military Governor and Vice President

Johnson's tenure in the Senate came to a conclusion when Lincoln appointed him military governor of occupied Tennessee in March 1862. With the Confederates having confiscated his land, his slaves taken away, and his home made into a military hospital, Johnson made his final comments in the Senate: "I am a Democrat now, I have been one all my life; I expect to live and die one, and the corner-stone of my Democracy rests upon the enduring basis of the Union." The Senate quickly confirmed his nomination along with a rank of brigadier general
Brigadier general (United States)
A brigadier general in the United States Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, is a one-star general officer, with the pay grade of O-7. Brigadier general ranks above a colonel and below major general. Brigadier general is equivalent to the rank of rear admiral in the other uniformed...


At the time of his appointment, his destination Nashville had been evacuated by the Confederates after the fall of Ft. Donelson, and the government which he was displacing had fled to Memphis. In his first speech in Nashville, Johnson declared he had come back home with an olive branch in one hand and the Constitution in the other. His mantra as military governor was – traitors must be punished and treason crushed. During his three years in this office, he "moved resolutely to eradicate all pro-Confederate influences in the state." As examples, he seized the Bank of Tennessee, shut down secessionist newspapers and levied an assessment against wealthy secessionists, ostensibly to provide funds for wives and children of soldiers "forced" into service by the Confederacy.

Johnson's vintage independent streak put him very much at odds with professional military commanders, including Gen. Don Carlos Buell
Don Carlos Buell
Don Carlos Buell was a career United States Army officer who fought in the Seminole War, the Mexican-American War, and the American Civil War. Buell led Union armies in two great Civil War battles—Shiloh and Perryville. The nation was angry at his failure to defeat the outnumbered...

 who left Nashville defenseless when he had to reinforce Grant at the Battle of Shiloh. The city was continually harassed with cavalry raids conducted by Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forest, while Johnson undertook as best he could the defense of the city. He succeeded in enlisting two ready regiments and four
others which were near-ready on an immediate basis, in addition to two additional ones a year later. Another challenge was a serious shortage of horses and equipment. Relief from Union regulars did not come until Gen. William S. Rosecrans replaced Buell and stopped the Confederates at Murfreesboro. Nevertheless, it was 1863 before Eastern Tennessee was liberated. Despite his tough talk concerning traitors, Johnson in many cases authorized early release of prisoners and commutation of sentences to facilitate Reconstruction.

During his military governorship Johnson, seemingly, began to moderate his view of slavery. In the summer of 1862 he said, "If you persist in forcing the issue of slavery against the government, I say in the face of heaven: Give me my government and let the negroes go." Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation applied initially only to states in rebellion; Johnson rationalized that Tennessee in this regard was a part of the Union, and on that basis requested, and received, an exemption from the Proclamation. It would not be long however, before he ostensibly joined the pro-emancipation ranks.

On a trip to Washington, with a final plea for help in East Tennessee in early 1863, he gave a speech in Indianapolis, saying: "If the institution of slavery denies the government the right of agitation, and seeks to overthrow it, then the government has a clear right to destroy it." In Washington, Lincoln planted a seed in his mind, saying he was impressed to hear that Johnson was giving consideration to raising a Negro military force. The political advantage of accepting such an invitation, as well as the policy of emancipation, was quite apparent to Johnson. By that September Johnson declared he was in favor of emancipation, describing slavery as a "cancer on our society", and also succeeded in enlisting 20,000 black troops for the Union. In January of 1864 Johnson organized a gathering of his state's Union loyalists, where resolutions were passed to elect county officials throughout the state, including a plan for a convention to dispose of the slavery issue; also adopted was a very controversial and mandatory oath for voters, to protect and preserve the Union in the future. He later spoke out for black suffrage, though not based solely on race, but rather merit oriented, 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."

As a leading War Democrat and pro-Union southerner, Johnson was an ideal candidate for the Republicans in the national election of 1864, as they sought to enlarge their base to include War Democrats; they even changed the party name to the National Union Party to reflect this expansion. Johnson's "unwavering commitment to the Union" was a significant factor in making him Lincoln's choice as vice president on the Union Party's premier ticket that year. He won the nomination at the party's convention in Baltimore on the second ballot, and thereby replaced incumbent Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin
Hannibal Hamlin
Hannibal Hamlin was the 15th Vice President of the United States , serving under President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War...

 as Lincoln's running mate. In his speech accepting the nomination, Johnson said that by taking a nominee from a seceding state, "the Union Party declared its belief that the rebellious states are still in the Union, that their loyal citizens are still citizens of the United States." He and Lincoln were elected in a landslide victory.

After the election Johnson was most anxious to complete the re-establishment of civil government in Tennessee; Union forces brought the war to an end in that state with their victory in the Battle of Nashville in December. Johnson again organized a convention for January of 1865 which in turn made provisions for the abolishment of slavery and an election in March for state government offices.

At his and Lincoln's inaugural ceremony on March 4, 1865, Johnson, who had been drinking with John W. Forney that morning, as well as the night before , gave a rambling speech and appeared intoxicated to many. According to Senator Zachariah Chandler
Zachariah Chandler
Zachariah Chandler was Mayor of Detroit , a four-term U.S. Senator from the state of Michigan , and Secretary of the Interior under U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant .-Family:...

, he "disgraced himself and the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech." Biographer Trefousse indicates that Johnson's drinking on the occasion was the result of ill health which began before his arrival in Washington, though the exact nature of the ailment is not specified. The records of many who worked with Johnson throughout his career corroborate that this was an isolated incident. Lincoln commented, in response to Hugh McCullough's criticism of Johnson's behavior, that "I have known Andy Johnson for many years; he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared; Andy ain't a drunkard."

Presidency 1865–1869

On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was shot and mortally wounded by John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth was an American stage actor who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. Booth was a member of the prominent 19th century Booth theatrical family from Maryland and, by the 1860s, was a well-known actor...

, a Confederate sympathizer, who conspired to coordinate assassinations of others, including Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of State William H. Seward that same night. Seward narrowly survived his wounds, while Johnson escaped attack as his would-be assassin, George Atzerodt
George Atzerodt
George Andreas Atzerodt was a conspirator, with John Wilkes Booth, in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Assigned to assassinate Vice-President Andrew Johnson, he lost his nerve and did not make an attempt. He was executed along with three other conspirators by hanging.-Early life:Atzerodt...

, failed to go through with the plan. Leonard J. Farwell
Leonard J. Farwell
Leonard James Farwell was an American politician and the second Governor of Wisconsin.Farwell was born in Watertown, New York, and moved to Wisconsin in the 1840s, prior to its statehood...

, a fellow boarder at the Kirkwood House, awoke Johnson with news of Lincoln's having been shot at Ford's Theater; Johnson rushed to the President's deathbed for a brief time, commenting, "They shall suffer for this. They shall suffer for this." Lincoln expired around 7:00 A.M.; Johnson's swearing in occurred at 11:00 that morning with Chief Justice Salmon Chase presiding in the presence of most of the cabinet. Johnson's demeanor was described as "solemn and dignified" and "his bearing produced a most gratifying impression upon those who participated." At noon, Johnson conducted his first cabinet meeting in the Treasury Secretary's office, asked all members to remain in their positions, and directed the appropriate members to initiate Lincoln's funeral arrangements. William Hunter was appointed acting Secretary of State for the wounded Seward.

Johnson's initial statements and actions in the government transition stressed his proven record and sought to reassure his audience that he could carry on the government as before. He demonstrated his discretion and flexibility in his initial discussions with the Radical Republicans and conservatives alike, in an attempt to assure a smooth transition, at least at the outset. He especially was able to begin a positive relationship with War Secretary Stanton, though it would completely deteriorate later. Shortly after Lincoln's death, Gen. William T. Sherman
William Tecumseh Sherman
William Tecumseh Sherman was an American soldier, businessman, educator and author. He served as a General in the Union Army during the American Civil War , for which he received recognition for his outstanding command of military strategy as well as criticism for the harshness of the "scorched...

 reported he had, without consulting Washington, reached an armistice agreement with Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston
Joseph E. Johnston
Joseph Eggleston Johnston was a career U.S. Army officer, serving with distinction in the Mexican-American War and Seminole Wars, and was also one of the most senior general officers in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War...

, an agreement which was unacceptable to the President and outraged Stanton, since it made no provision for emancipation of slaves or freedmen's rights. Johnson managed to nullify the agreement, initially placating Stanton on the one hand, but without alienating Sherman and his allies.

The President also reassured many by his decisiveness in quickly ordering in May the establishment of a military commission to try the surviving conspirators involved in Lincoln's assassination. The defendants were tried and convicted within seven weeks. Four of the eight were given the death penalty and were executed by hanging in July.

Presidential Reconstruction

Lincoln had begun putting Reconstruction policies in place during the war, but Northern anger over the assassination, as well as the carnage of the war, led to demands for more severe policies towards the Southern states. There were also inherent conflicts for the North and the Republicans in the pursuit of Reconstruction. The South's restoration, and emancipation, would spawn the Democrat's resumption of control in Congress as well as a lapse of the three-fifths compromise
Three-fifths compromise
The Three-Fifths Compromise was a compromise between Southern and Northern states reached during the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 in which three-fifths of the enumerated population of slaves would be counted for representation purposes regarding both the distribution of taxes and the...

 in the Constitution. The ultimate delaying of this process was therefore a political reality, one which Johnson made little effort to avoid. Indeed, despite his many expressions to the contrary as military governor and as Vice President, Johnson's heart-felt white supremacy had never departed him and began to express itself in his approach to Reconstruction.

Many officials, including those from Maryland, Virginia and Louisiana, as well as Chief Justice Chase personally, underscored for the President that the Southern states were economically in a state of chaos and governmental disorganization, and most anxious to reach agreements which would restore them to the Union. These officials urged the President to use his leverage to insist on conditions assuring the rights of freedmen. But the Jeffersonian Johnson, with the support of many other officials including Seward, insisted that it was exclusively the power of the states, not the federal government, to address suffrage rights; though cabinet remained divided on the issue. Johnson grew increasingly intransigent on this position and his perception that the states had legally never left the Union strengthened.

Johnson implemented his Reconstruction policy initially with two proclamations. One recognized the Virginia government organized and lead by Gov. Francis Pierpont. The second provided amnesty for all insurgents except those holding property valued at $20,000 or more; it also appointed a provisional governor for North Carolina and authorized elections. Neither of these proclamations included any provisions regarding black suffrage or freedmen's rights. The President sanctioned parallel actions in other states, including South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida and Texas. Conservatives approved and the radicals, lead by Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and Ben Wade, were appalled.

The President's earlier moderated views favoring the freedmen and denouncing the secessionists had not endured. Johnson recommended that black voting begin with black troops and those who could read and write and those who had property of at least $200 or $250. He was also outraged when he heard that black troops had utilized his home during the war and he nullified an arrangement by Gen. Sherman whereby an abandoned coastal strip in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida could be used by freedmen. Johnson also did not deal harshly with Confederate leaders, as he had earlier indicated he would; he expanded his pardons to include those in the highest ranks of the Confederacy, including their Vice-President, Alexander H. Stephens. Since Johnson's proclamations allowed the Southern states to control the procedure and conduct of their elections in 1865, prominent former Confederate leaders were elected to the U.S. Congress (but not seated). As the President's leniency towards the South became more apparent, the former secessionists responded with more arrogance; and Johnson's schism with Congress over Reconstruction widened.

Break with the Republicans: 1866

The state governments installed by Johnson all passed Black Codes
Black Codes in the USA
The Black Codes were laws put in place in the United States after the Civil War with the effect of limiting the basic human rights and civil liberties of blacks. Even though the U.S...

 that gave the freedmen subordinate legal status. In response to the Black Codes and Southern recalcitrance, the Republicans prevented the secessionist states' representatives from taking their seats in Congress in the fall 1865. Senator Lyman Trumbull
Lyman Trumbull
Lyman Trumbull was a United States Senator from Illinois during the American Civil War, and co-author of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.-Education and early career:...

 of Illinois, leader of the moderate Republicans and Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was anxious to reach a compromise with the President. He ushered through the Congress a bill expanding the Freedman's Bureau
Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands
The Freedmen's Bureau, was a U.S. federal government agency that aided distressed freedmen in 1865–1869, during the Reconstruction era of the United States....

, but Johnson vetoed it. In a second effort at compromise, Trumbull presented for Johnson's signature the first Civil Rights Bill, which sought to grant citizenship to the freedmen.

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 in the Congress, and the bill also 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, had written, "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 and the Civil Rights measure became law.

The most significant moderate proposal was the Fourteenth Amendment
Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868, as one of the Reconstruction Amendments.Its Citizenship Clause provides a broad definition of citizenship that overruled the Dred Scott v...

, 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 also guaranteed the federal war debt and voided all Confederate war debts. The amendment was submitted to the states for ratification by Congressional joint resolution, and therefore was not subject to Presidential veto, though Johnson vigorously opposed it, again because so many southern states were not represented in the Congress. The moderates passed the Freedmen's Bureau Act a second time, and again the president vetoed it, but on this occasion the veto was overridden. By the summer of 1866 Johnson's method of restoring states to the Union by executive fiat, without safeguards for the Union Party or the freedmen, was in deep trouble. Indeed, his home state of Tennessee ratified the Fourteenth Amendment despite the President's opposition, and was the only seceded state to empower a civil government during Reconstruction.

In 1866, Seward and Weed sought out Democratic allies of the President and other conservatives in an effort to establish a stronger base for the President to oppose the Radical Republicans. It was also agreed that some reorganization of the cabinet would be helpful to draw more Democratic support; though changes were made, Seward and Stanton, who had the most tenuous relationship with the party, were not affected. Meanwhile, also in the summer of 1866, a riot broke out in New Orleans when radicals, with strong opposition from conservatives, sought to re-convene the Louisiana Convention of 1864. Forty radicals of both races were killed and 140 others injured. Johnson was criticized, especially in the North, for not acting to prevent this.

The moderates' efforts to compromise with Johnson failed, and a political war ensued 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
United States House election, 1866
Elections to the United States House of Representatives were held in 1866 to elect Representatives to the 40th United States Congress.The elections occurred just one year after the American Civil War ended at Appomattox, in which the Union defeated the Confederacy....

, in which the Southern states were not allowed to vote. Johnson campaigned vigorously, undertaking a public speaking tour of the north, known as the "Swing Around the Circle
Swing Around the Circle
Swing Around the Circle refers to a disastrous speaking campaign undertaken by U.S. President Andrew Johnson August 27 - September 15, 1866, in which he tried to gain support for his mild Reconstruction policies and for his preferred candidates in the forthcoming midterm Congressional election...

"; the tour, including speeches in Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Columbus, proved politically disastrous, with Johnson making distasteful and blasphemous comparisons between himself and Christ, and occasionally engaging in hostile and irrational arguments with hecklers. The Republicans won by a landslide, increasing their two-thirds majority in Congress, and made plans to control Reconstruction. Johnson's mood did not change; he continued to criticize the Congress for refusing to allow the Southern states to take their seats. Rep. Samuel S. Cox saw Johnson at this time and remarked that, when asked if the President would modify his views, "He got as ugly as the devil. He was regularly mad and couldn't talk like a reasonable being."

Historian James Ford Rhodes
James Ford Rhodes
James Ford Rhodes , was an American industrialist and historian born in Cleveland, Ohio.He attended New York University beginning in 1865. He also attended the Collège de France. During his studies in Europe he visited ironworks and steelworks...

 explained Johnson's inability to engage in serious negotiations:

"But," as Sumner shrewdly said, "the President himself is his own worst counsellor, as he is his own worst defender." Johnson acted in accordance with 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 yielded not a jot 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. Himself shrinking from the imposition on these communities of the franchise for the coloured people, his unyielding disposition in regard to matters involving no vital principle 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....He sacrificed two important objects to petty considerations. His pride of opinion, his desire to beat, blinded him to the real welfare of the South and of the whole country.

Radical Reconstruction

In early March Congress, lead in part by Radical Republicans, passed the first in a series of four Reconstruction Acts, initially providing for the recognition of provisional governments to be established thereunder by the Southern states, on the condition that each state ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and assure suffrage for freedmen. Five military districts and commanders were delineated to oversee the region. Johnson said he would sooner sever his right arm from his body than sign the law, and vetoed it; and Congress overrode his veto. The next session of Congress produced a second Reconstruction Act to further implement the first with specific voting regulations, which the President vetoed and Congress overrode. Johnson's Attorney General issued legal opinions to the administration designed to thwart the execution of the Reconstruction Acts, and Congress was forced to pass a third Reconstruction Act to invalidate these opinions, which again required two votes to defeat the President's obstruction. A fourth Reconstruction Act was passed (again over a veto) to provide ratification of each state's constitution by a majority of those voting (rather than of all those registered).

When Secretary Stanton did not join the President's opposition to the Reconstruction Acts, Johnson decided the time had come to dismiss the War Secretary along with his radical subordinates. Johnson thought he could suspend Stanton without Senate approval and avoid violating the Tenure of Office Act, since Congress was in recess. Grant, Stanton's interim successor, advised against the move, but accepted the temporary appointment when Johnson proceeded with Stanton's suspension in August. The President thought this would also serve to drive a wedge between Grant and the Republicans and dampen Grant's presidential aspirations. Johnson then, over Grant's objection, removed Generals Sheridan and Sickles for not earlier following orders given to circumvent the Reconstruction Acts.

Impeachment, trial and acquittal

Talk of impeaching the President actually began circulating informally after his veto of the Civil Rights Act. The foremost advocates of impeachment were Ben Butler
Benjamin Franklin Butler (politician)
Benjamin Franklin Butler was an American lawyer and politician who represented Massachusetts in the United States House of Representatives and later served as the 33rd Governor of Massachusetts....

 and James M. Ashley.
The first vote in the House to impeach the President occurred in the fall of 1867. On November 21, 1867, the House Judiciary Committee produced a bill of impeachment that consisted of a broad collection of complaints against him, but as stated were not thought to be easily provable under the Constitution
A constitution is a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed. These rules together make up, i.e. constitute, what the entity is...

, "as treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors." After a vigorous debate, a formal vote for impeachment was held in the House of Representatives on December 5, 1867, and failed, 57–108.

The second impeachment effort was presaged when Johnson notified Congress of War Secretary Stanton's suspension and Grant's interim appointment. When it reconvened in January of 1868, the Senate disapproved, and reinstated Stanton, contending Johnson had violated the Tenure of Office Act. Grant stepped aside, over Johnson's objection (causing a complete break between them), Johnson again dismissed Stanton and appointed Lorenzo Thomas
Lorenzo Thomas
Lorenzo Thomas was a career United States Army officer who was Adjutant General of the Army at the beginning of the American Civil War. After the war, he was appointed temporary Secretary of War by President Andrew Johnson, precipitating Johnson's impeachment.-Early life:Thomas was born in New...

 to replace him. As the Senate and House debated the matter, Thomas attempted to move into the war office, and Stanton had him arrested. Three days after Stanton's removal, the House impeached
Impeachment is a formal process in which an official is accused of unlawful activity, the outcome of which, depending on the country, may include the removal of that official from office as well as other punishment....

 Johnson for intentionally violating the Tenure of Office Act, by a vote of 128 to 47. The House adopted eleven articles of impeachment, for the most part bearing on Johnson's violation of the Tenure of Office Act in his dismissal of Stanton and appointment of Thomas.

On March 5, 1868, the impeachment trial began in the Senate and lasted almost three months; Reps. George S. Boutwell
George S. Boutwell
George Sewall Boutwell was an American statesman who served as Secretary of the Treasury under President Ulysses S...

, Ben Butler and Thaddeus Stevens acted as managers (prosecutors) for the House and William M. Evarts
William M. Evarts
William Maxwell Evarts was an American lawyer and statesman who served as U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Senator from New York...

, Benjamin R. Curtis and Attorney General Henry Stanberry served as Johnson's counsel; Chief Justice Chase served as presiding judge. Johnson's defense relied on the provision of the Tenure of Office Act that made it applicable only to appointees of the current administration; since Lincoln had appointed Stanton, not Johnson, the defense maintained there was no violation of the Act. The defense also argued that the President reserved the right to in good faith test the constitutionality of an act of Congress. Johnson's counsel were adamant that he make no appearance at the trial or public comments about the proceedings, and he managed to comply despite a compulsion to speak on his own behalf.

Johnson, through his allies, made maneuvers among the senators in an attempt to secure a favorable vote; for example, a pledge was made to Sen. James W. Grimes
James W. Grimes
James Wilson Grimes was an American politician, serving as the third Governor of Iowa and a United States Senator from Iowa.-Biography:...

 to install a more highly respected War Secretary and to cease interference with Congress' reconstruction efforts. Also, Sen. Edmund G. Ross
Edmund G. Ross
Edmund Gibson Ross was a politician who represented the state of Kansas after the American Civil War and was later governor of the New Mexico Territory. His vote against convicting of President Andrew Johnson of "high crimes and misdemeanors" allowed Johnson to stay in office by the margin of one...

 received assurances that the radical constitutions ratified in South Carolina and Arkansas would be transmitted to the Congress. 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
Joseph S. Fowler
Joseph Smith Fowler was a United States Senator from Tennessee from 1866 to 1871.-Biography:Fowler was born in Steubenville, Ohio. He graduated from Grove Academy in that city and subsequently from Franklin College in New Athens, Ohio in 1843. He taught school in Shelby County, Kentucky in 1844...

, John B. Henderson
John B. Henderson
John Brooks Henderson was a United States Senator from Missouri and a co-author of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution....

, Lyman Trumbull
Lyman Trumbull
Lyman Trumbull was a United States Senator from Illinois during the American Civil War, and co-author of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.-Education and early career:...

, Peter G. Van Winkle
Peter G. Van Winkle
Peter Godwin Van Winkle was a United States Senator from West Virginia.Born in New York City, he completed preparatory studies, studied law, and was admitted to the bar, commencing practice in Parkersburg, Virginia in 1835...

 and notably Senators Grimes and Ross, who provided the decisive vote; purportedly 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.

Completion of term

To fulfill promises made during the impeachment tial, Johnson nominated John M. Schofield as War Secretary and he was confirmed. Stanberry resigned and Johnson replaced him with William M. Evarts as Attorney General. He was unceasing in his objections to the Reconstruction Acts and continued to veto bills seeking to admit seceded states under their provisions, though overrides ensued. Johnson persisted in his perceived role as protector of the white race. The President had measurable support to run for re-election and he was amenable to the idea; but it became evident at the Democratic Convention that there could be no serious contention on his part, when he came in second on the first ballot and faded from there; Horatio Seymour
Horatio Seymour
Horatio Seymour was an American politician. He was the 18th Governor of New York from 1853 to 1854 and from 1863 to 1864. He was the Democratic Party nominee for president of the United States in the presidential election of 1868, but lost the election to Republican and former Union General of...

 received the Democratic nomination, which Johnson endorsed, though silently. One of Johnson's last significant acts as President was to grant unconditional amnesty
Amnesty is a legislative or executive act by which a state restores those who may have been guilty of an offense against it to the positions of innocent people, without changing the laws defining the offense. It includes more than pardon, in as much as it obliterates all legal remembrance of the...

 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.

Judicial appointments

Andrew Johnson appointed only nine Article III federal judges during his presidency, all to United States district court
United States district court
The United States district courts are the general trial courts of the United States federal court system. Both civil and criminal cases are filed in the district court, which is a court of law, equity, and admiralty. There is a United States bankruptcy court associated with each United States...

s. Johnson is one of only four presidents who did not appoint a justice to serve on the Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

. In April 1866 he nominated Henry Stanbery
Henry Stanbery
Henry Stanbery was an American lawyer and Presidential Cabinet member.Born in New York, he was the son of Jonas Stanbery, a physician. The family moved to Zanesville, Ohio in 1814. Henry Stanbery graduated from Washington College in Washington, Pennsylvania and studied law...

 to fill the vacancy left with the death of John Catron
John Catron
John Catron was an American jurist who served as a US Supreme Court justice from 1837 to 1865.-Early life:Little is known of Catron's early life, but he served in the War of 1812 under Andrew Jackson...

, but the Republican Congress eliminated the seat. Johnson also appointed one judge to the United States Court of Claims
United States Court of Claims
The Court of Claims was a federal court that heard claims against the United States government. It was established in 1855 as the Court of Claims, renamed in 1948 to the United States Court of Claims , and abolished in 1982....

, Samuel Milligan
Samuel Milligan
Samuel Milligan was a Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, and a judge of the United States Court of Claims....

, who served from 1868 to 1874.

Foreign policy

Johnson forced the French out of Mexico by sending an army to the border and issuing an ultimatum. Many critics considered Johnson's actions were passive and delayed, and thought his defense of the Monroe Doctrine in this instance was weak. The French withdrew in 1867, and the government they supported quickly collapsed. Secretary of State Seward
William H. Seward
William Henry Seward, Sr. was the 12th Governor of New York, United States Senator and the United States Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson...

 negotiated the treaty for the purchase of Alaska
Alaska purchase
The Alaska Purchase was the acquisition of the Alaska territory by the United States from Russia in 1867 by a treaty ratified by the Senate. The purchase, made at the initiative of United States Secretary of State William H. Seward, gained of new United States territory...

 from Russia on April 9, 1867 for $7.2 million. This is equivalent to $ in present day terms. Critics sneered at "Seward's Folly" and "Seward's Icebox" and "Icebergia." Nevertheless, the Senate approval of the Alaska treaty was Johnson's singular legislative accomplishment in the midst of a political war with Congress. Johnson's purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

 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. Seward also negotiated to purchase the Danish West Indies
Danish West Indies
The Danish West Indies or "Danish Antilles", were a colony of Denmark-Norway and later Denmark in the Caribbean. They were sold to the United States in 1916 in the Treaty of the Danish West Indies and became the United States Virgin Islands in 1917...

, but the Senate refused to approve the purchase in 1867 (it eventually happened in 1917). The Senate likewise rejected Seward's arrangement with Britain
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 to arbitrate the Alabama Claims
Alabama Claims
The Alabama Claims were a series of claims for damages by the United States government against the government of Great Britain for the assistance given to the Confederate cause during the American Civil War. After international arbitration endorsed the American position in 1872, Britain settled...


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
Fenian raids
Between 1866 and 1871, the Fenian raids of the Fenian Brotherhood who were based in the United States; on British army forts, customs posts and other targets in Canada, were fought to bring pressure on Britain to withdraw from Ireland. They divided many Catholic Irish-Canadians, many of whom were...

 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
Canadian Confederation
Canadian Confederation was the process by which the federal Dominion of Canada was formed on July 1, 1867. On that day, three British colonies were formed into four Canadian provinces...


Post-presidency and historian's views

The ex-President's oratory continued to excel and he traveled extensively throughout Tennessee and the country to reiterate his views, especially on reconstruction. He campaigned for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1869, though his effort was unsuccessful by a narrow margin. In 1872 he ran for election to fill Tennessee's new at–large seat in the House of Representatives. Though he lost in this election as well, according to Gen. Lillard Thompson, he reprised his old ability to affect an audience, and set the stage for future success. In 1873 Johnson contracted cholera during an epidemic but soon recovered; that year he also suffered financial losses of about half of his assets, when the First National Bank went under. His most recent failed political efforts finally bore fruit in 1874, when the Tennessee legislature elected him over five other candidates to the U.S. Senate. In his first and last speech in the Senate, Johnson spoke eloquently in opposition to Grant's military intervention between rival governments in Louisiana, espousing his typical devotion to the Constitution. He is the only former president to serve in the Senate.

During a Congressional recess, Johnson died from a stroke near Elizabethton, Tennessee
Elizabethton, Tennessee
Elizabethton is the county seat of Carter County, Tennessee, United States. Elizabethton is also the historical site both of the first independent American government located west of both the Eastern Continental Divide and the original thirteen British American colonies.Elizabethton is also the...

, on July 31, 1875. He was buried just outside Greeneville – 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
Andrew Johnson National Cemetery
The Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, administered by the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, is a United States national cemetery outside Greeneville, Tennessee, that was established in 1906. It features the grave of the seventeenth President of the United States Andrew Johnson.Andrew Johnson...

 in 1906, now part of the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site
Andrew Johnson National Historic Site
Andrew Johnson National Historic Site is a National Historic Site in Greeneville, Tennessee, maintained by the National Park Service. It was established to honor Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States, who became president after Abraham Lincoln's death...


Views of Johnson's policies changed over time, depending on historians' perception of Reconstruction. The widespread denunciation of Reconstruction after the compromise of 1877
Compromise of 1877
The Compromise of 1877, also known as the Corrupt Bargain, refers to a purported informal, unwritten deal that settled the disputed 1876 U.S. Presidential election and ended Congressional Reconstruction. Through it, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the White House over Democrat Samuel J...

 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 A. Beard
Charles A. Beard
Charles Austin Beard was, with Frederick Jackson Turner, one of the most influential American historians of the first half of the 20th century. He published hundreds of monographs, textbooks and interpretive studies in both history and political science...

 and typified by Howard K. Beale
Howard K. Beale
Howard Kennedy Beale was an American historian. He specialized in nineteenth and twentieth-century American history, particularly the Reconstruction Era. He also wrote biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Edward Bates, and Charles A. Beard. Beale was born in Chicago to Frank A. and Nellie Kennedy...

) argued that the Republican Party in the 1860s was a tool of corrupt business interests, and that Johnson stood for the people. Historians in opinion polls once rated Johnson "near great", but have since reevaluated and now consider Johnson "a flat failure".

The civil rights movement
Civil rights movement
The civil rights movement was a worldwide political movement for equality before the law occurring between approximately 1950 and 1980. In many situations it took the form of campaigns of civil resistance aimed at achieving change by nonviolent forms of resistance. In some situations it was...

 of the 1960s brought a new perspective on Reconstruction, which was increasingly seen as a noble effort to build an interracial
Racial integration
Racial integration, or simply integration includes desegregation . In addition to desegregation, integration includes goals such as leveling barriers to association, creating equal opportunity regardless of race, and the development of a culture that draws on diverse traditions, rather than merely...

 nation. Beginning with W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, and editor. Born in Massachusetts, Du Bois attended Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate...

' Black Reconstruction
Black Reconstruction
Black Reconstruction in America is a book by W. E. B. Du Bois, first published in 1935. It is revisionist approach to looking at the Reconstruction of the south after its defeat in the American civil war. On the whole, the book takes a Marxist approach to looking at reconstruction...

, first published in 1935, historians noted African American
African American
African Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have at least partial ancestry from any of the native populations of Sub-Saharan Africa and are the direct descendants of enslaved Africans within the boundaries of the present United States...

 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
Eric Foner
Eric Foner is an American historian. On the faculty of the Department of History at Columbia University since 1982, he writes extensively on political history, the history of freedom, the early history of the Republican Party, African American biography, Reconstruction, and historiography...

 denounced Johnson as a "fervent white supremacist" who foiled Reconstruction, whereas Sean Wilentz
Sean Wilentz
Robert Sean Wilentz is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1979.-Background:Born in 1951 in New York City, where his father Eli and uncle Ted owned a well-known Greenwich Village bookstore, the Eighth Street Bookshop, Wilentz earned...

 wrote that Johnson "actively sided with former Confederates" in his attempts to derail it. Johnson is today 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
Western Kentucky University
Western Kentucky University is a public university in Bowling Green, Kentucky, USA. It was formally founded by the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1906, though its roots reach back a quarter-century earlier....

, "Johnson is a particular favorite for the bottom of the pile because of his impeachment, despite his acquittal, and also due to his mishandling of Reconstruction policy, his inept dealings with his Cabinet and Congress, his bristling personality and his 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.' " And biographer Trefousse concludes that, while his courageous stand for the Union paid handsome political dividends, he was defeated during his term in the White House, not by his lack of education, or even his tactlessness, but by his failure to outgrow his Jeffersonian-Jacksonian background; put in other words, "Johnson was a child of his time, but he failed to grow with it."

See also

  • List of American Civil War generals
  • United States presidential election, 1864
    United States presidential election, 1864
    In the United States Presidential election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln was re-elected as president. The election was held during the Civil War. Lincoln ran under the National Union ticket against Democratic candidate George B. McClellan, his former top general. McClellan ran as the "peace candidate",...

  • History of the United States (1865-1918)
  • Tennessee Johnson
    Tennessee Johnson
    Tennessee Johnson is a 1942 American film about Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of the United States. It was directed by William Dieterle and written by Milton Gunzburg, Alvin Meyers, John Balderston, and Wells Root. It starred Van Heflin as Johnson, Lionel Barrymore as his nemesis Thaddeus...

  • List of Presidents of the United States
  • US Presidents on US postage stamps

Primary sources

External links

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