Andrew Johnson

1808 - 1875

Andrew Johnson, 17th president of the United States (1865-1869). Johnson was the first U.S. president ever to be impeached, which means that he was charged and tried for misbehavior in office. Johnson became president at a critical time in American history. He succeeded Abraham Lincoln when Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, only a few days after the War for Southern Independence ended. In addition to these trying circumstances, Johnson also had trouble cooperating with other political leaders while proceeding to accomplish his aims.

Johnson’s impeachment was the result of a struggle to preserve the powers of the presidency in the face of attacks by a determined Congress of the United States. Even though Johnson contributed materially to his own difficulties, he must be respected for his staunch defense of the rights reserved to the president by the Constitution of the United States.

Early Life

Johnson’s parents, Jacob and Mary McDonough Johnson, were very poor people. Johnson’s father worked as a porter and sexton in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Johnsons were living in a small log house in Raleigh in 1808, when Andrew, the younger of their two sons, was born.

When Johnson was still young, his father died. After a time, Johnson’s mother married again, but the family was still too poor to send him to school. At the age of ten, Johnson was apprenticed to a tailor so that he would learn a trade.

When Johnson was 17, he and his family traveled west through the mountain passes to Greeneville, in eastern Tennessee, where they settled. When the only tailor in Greeneville moved elsewhere, Johnson opened a tailor shop in a small frame building. The building still stands, along with a sign over the door that reads: “A. Johnson Tailor.”

In 1827, soon after opening his shop, Johnson married Eliza McCardle. She was intelligent and had had some schooling. With the help of his wife, Johnson improved his reading and learned writing and arithmetic.

By applying himself to his trade, Johnson earned a comfortable living for his family. In time he accumulated enough savings to buy a farm of about 40 hectares (100 acres). The Johnsons had two daughters, Martha and Mary, and three sons, Charles, Robert, and Andrew.

Johnson was a thickset man of average height. He was always neat, but he was not handsome. He had dark hair and eyes, a swarthy complexion, and a large-featured face. Johnson was an extremely serious man. However, what he lacked in humor and imagination he made up for by an unshakable faith in what he believed was right and just. He felt a kinship with working people and small farmers, and he disliked people of wealth or privilege.

Early Political Career

In 1829 Johnson ran successfully for alderman on a platform that appealed to Greeneville’s working class. In 1834 he was elected mayor of Greeneville. Johnson then served in the Tennessee house of representatives from 1835 to 1837 and from 1839 to 1843, when he was elected to the state senate.

Soon after entering politics, Johnson identified himself with the democratic ideals represented by President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837). Johnson supported Jackson’s political stands, and he even used Jackson’s picture as a campaign symbol. Many people came to think of Johnson as a second Jackson. In addition, Johnson was becoming a skillful campaigner, who was noted for his forceful speeches and sharp debates.

United States Congressman

In 1843, Johnson became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress, where he served until 1853. In Congress he was a champion of the poor. He fought for a homestead law that would make free grants of public lands to settlers who farmed the land. He succeeded in getting a homestead bill passed by the House, but the bill was not passed by the upper chamber, the U.S. Senate.

Although Johnson supported many measures to extend democracy throughout the country, he went along with the proslavery views held in the Southern states. However, because few people in Johnson’s district owned slaves, this was not a major issue to his constituents.

In 1852 the legislature in Tennessee, which was controlled by the Whig Party, combined election districts in such a way that Johnson, a member of the Democratic Party, would have to run for Congress in a predominantly Whig district. This kind of redistricting for political advantage is called gerrymandering. Instead of running for Congress, Johnson ran for governor of Tennessee and was elected in a close race.

Governor of Tennessee

On the day of Johnson’s inauguration, in 1853, the retiring governor called for him in a carriage to escort him to the swearing-in ceremony. In true Jacksonian style the new governor declined the ride, declaring that he was “going to walk with the people.” The people indicated their approval in 1855 by reelecting him as governor.

 Johnson was determined to give the children of Tennessee a better education than he had had. In his first message to the state legislature he asked for “a tax of 25¢ on the polls, and two and a half cents on the hundred dollars, of all the taxable property of the State … for the common schools.” In 1854 the reluctant legislature enacted a law providing for the support of schools by direct taxation. Other laws set standard requirements for teachers and opened teaching jobs to women on equal terms with men. In addition, during Johnson’s governorship a state library was established.

Another of Johnson’s projects was to aid Tennessee farmers. He served as president of the state’s first agricultural bureau, which was founded in 1854. In 1857 an agricultural fair was held in Tennessee for the first time.

United States Senator

 Some aristocratic Southern Democratic leaders considered Johnson a crude, low-class upstart. Nevertheless, his popularity with the ordinary citizen was tremendous. In 1857 the Tennessee legislature acknowledged Johnson’s political strength by electing him to the U.S. Senate. Johnson greeted the news of his election with the words, “I have reached the summit of my ambition,” an opinion he held the rest of his life.

As senator, Johnson continued to work for a homestead law, and he was disappointed when President James Buchanan vetoed the homestead act of 1860. On the slavery issue, Johnson still followed the orthodox Southern line, but with no great enthusiasm. He voted for the resolutions proposed in 1860 by Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi to implement the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, which stated that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories of the United States.

Presidential Election of 1860

In January 1860 the Democratic National Convention met in Charleston, South Carolina, to select a presidential candidate. The Tennessee delegation put Johnson’s name up for the office, but he did not win the nomination. The Democrats split into two groups. One faction nominated Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois for president. The Southern faction, which opposed Douglas’s stand on slavery, nominated Buchanan’s vice president, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. Johnson, going along with the Southerners, supported Breckinridge. The Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the election with ease, largely because of the split in the Democratic ranks.

War Democrat

 In December 1860, the nation was so divided over the tariffs issue that Southern states were considering secession, or leaving the Union. On December 18, Johnson delivered a speech in the Senate, denouncing secession and declaring for the federal Union. Two days later, South Carolina seceded. When the War for Southern Independence began the following year, Johnson remained in the Senate, after his Southern colleagues walked out and his own state of Tennessee seceded. He was a chief spokesman for the small group of loyal Democrats known as the War Democrats.

Military Governor

By early 1862, parts of Tennessee had been occupied by the Union Army. In March 1862, President Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of Tennessee, with the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. Johnson’s purpose was, as he explained to his fellow Tennesseeans, “as speedily as may be, to restore the government to the same condition as before the existing rebellion.”

The bitterness, hatred, violence, and lawlessness of the times made Johnson’s task extremely difficult. Except in eastern Tennessee, he was regarded as a traitor. When Nashville’s mayor and city council refused to swear allegiance to the United States, Johnson replaced them with loyal Unionists.

Vice President of the United States

In June 1864 the Republicans met in Baltimore, Maryland, and renominated President Lincoln. The convention was known as the National Union Convention to attract the support of the War Democrats. To reward the Southerners who had remained loyal to the Union, Johnson, a War Democrat, was nominated as Lincoln’s running mate in place of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. In November the Lincoln-Johnson slate was elected.

On inauguration day, March 4, 1865, Johnson felt weak and sick. He was ill with typhoid fever and had taken some brandy before the ceremony. He made a long, rambling speech, boasting of his rise from humble origins. His friends were embarrassed, and his enemies used the unfortunate incident to label him a ruffian and an alcoholic. However, Lincoln defended Johnson by stating, “I have known Andy Johnson for many years; Andy ain’t a drunkard.”

Only six weeks after Johnson was sworn in as vice president, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

President of the United States

Johnson was sworn in as president by the chief justice of the United States Salmon P. Chase, on April 15, 1865, a few hours after Lincoln died. The new president immediately announced that he would retain Lincoln’s Cabinet. Johnson faced many difficult issues upon becoming president. Although most of them concerned reuniting the country torn apart by war, several international situations also required attention.

Foreign Affairs

In foreign affairs, Johnson allowed himself to be guided by his secretary of state, William H. Seward. Seward’s most farsighted act of diplomacy was the acquisition of Alaska from Russia for $7,200,000. However, in 1867, when the purchase was made, it was ridiculed as “Seward’s folly.”

 In 1863, by force of arms, France had set up a European prince as the so-called emperor of Mexico. This was a flagrant violation of the U.S. policy called the Monroe Doctrine, which forbade European intervention in the western hemisphere. During the war, Seward had been unable to do more than register the disapproval of the United States. By 1867, however, Seward’s firm pressure on France had resulted in the withdrawal of all French troops from Mexico.

Seward was not able to solve one vexatious international problem that was also connected with the War for Southern Independence. Supported by Johnson, Seward insisted that Great Britain pay for damages caused by the Alabama and other cruisers of the Confederate States of America that had been built and outfitted in British ports. In January 1869, almost at the end of Johnson’s term, a settlement of the claims was submitted to the Senate for ratification. In April 1869 the Senate rejected the convention.

Another instance of international conflict during Johnson’s administration was the raiding of Canada by Irish revolutionaries based in the United States, known as the Fenians. In June 1866, 1500 Fenians crossed into Canada and were defeated by Canadian militia. When the Fenians retreated into New York, they were arrested. Although they were soon freed, the Fenians did not again invade Canada during Johnson’s term.


 Embittered by Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson was at first inclined to be vindictive in his treatment of the defeated Confederate leaders, who also represented the privileged class that he hated. In the first month of his administration the president and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton hunted down and imprisoned officials of the Confederacy. “Treason must be made infamous and traitors must be impoverished,” President Johnson said. His attitude won him the approval of the militant wing of the Republican Party, called the Radical Republicans.

However, to the chagrin of the Radicals, the best legal minds in the North counseled that if they went to court and tried the Southern leaders for treason, the constitutional facts would find the Confederate leaders innocent of any wrong doing. Not wishing to risk embarrassment, or worse, have the North proven to have been on the "wrong side" of the law during the war, Johnson soon dropped these punitive activities, for more constructive tasks. Basing his program for Reconstruction of the Union on the policy of conciliation developed by Lincoln, Johnson started a process to restore the former Confederate states to full membership in the Union. First, the white residents were to take an oath to uphold the Union. When 10 percent of a state’s 1860 voting population had taken the oath, they could elect a state government. When that government wrote a constitution recognizing the end of slavery, it could apply to Congress for the power to once again elect senators and representatives to the U.S. Congress.

The job was simplified by the fact that Johnson, like Lincoln, denied that the states had ever broken away from the Union and by the fact that Congress was adjourned from April to December 1865.

On May 9, 1865, Johnson recognized a Reconstruction government in Virginia. On May 29 he issued two proclamations. One was a proclamation of amnesty, which restored full citizenship to many former Confederates if they would swear allegiance to the Union. The other proclamation dealt with the restoration of civil government in North Carolina. The “loyal” people of the state were to elect delegates to a convention, which was to make constitutional and other changes needed to restore the state to the Union. Johnson issued similar proclamations for other seceded states.

In compliance with Johnson’s wishes, the Southern state conventions repealed the ordinances of secession, abolished slavery, and, with the exception of Mississippi, ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery in the United States. The conventions also repudiated state debts contracted during the war.

In line with a suggestion of Lincoln’s, Johnson’s Reconstruction program included a recommendation that a few highly qualified blacks be given the vote, but none of the Southern states followed his recommendation. Instead, new state laws, known as the Black Codes, limited the civil rights of blacks and placed many economic restrictions on them.

Congressional Opposition

By the time Congress convened in December 1865, all the Southern states except Texas had established Reconstruction governments in accordance with Johnson’s program. However, Congress was not pleased. The Radical Republicans were angered by the reemergence into public life of former Confederate leaders. Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, the leader of the congressional Radicals, attacked the president’s policies. Stevens declared, “The punishment of traitors has been wholly ignored by a treacherous Executive … ” A long battle between the president and Congress began.

The Radicals in Congress set up a Joint Committee on Reconstruction. In February 1866, Congress passed a bill to enlarge the scope of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which Congress had established in March 1865 to help the freed slaves. Johnson vetoed the bill. However, in July 1866 a second bill was enacted over his veto. In April 1866 the first Civil Rights Act, which was designed to nullify the Black Codes by guaranteeing equal civil rights to blacks, was also passed over Johnson’s veto.

The 14th Amendment

The conflict between the executive and legislative branches continued over the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The provisions of the amendment were similar to those of the Civil Rights Act, which Johnson had vetoed on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional invasion of states’ rights. When the president submitted the amendment to the states for ratification, he reiterated his opposition and advised the states to reject it. All the Southern states except Tennessee refused to ratify the amendment. The Radicals used the rejection to discredit Johnson’s Reconstruction program, claiming that the South could not be trusted with self-government.

Radical Control of Congress

During the congressional elections of 1866, Johnson campaigned through the East and Midwest for his Reconstruction program and against the Radicals. His efforts hurt his cause more than they helped. Hecklers in his audiences exasperated him into heated and undignified arguments. Radical newspapers played up the incidents and revived the false accusation that Johnson was an alcoholic.

The elections were a great victory for the Radical Republicans, who were elected and reelected in such numbers that they dominated Congress. They made an all-out attack on Johnson’s Reconstruction program, replacing it with a severe one of their own, embodied in the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. Under this program, civil governments already in place in the Southern states were to give way to military rule. To regain their civil governments and win representation in Congress, the states would have to enfranchise the blacks and ratify the 14th Amendment. This was a wildly blatant overthrowing of the Constitution by the Radicals.  If a state was a member of the union, then the Constitution guaranteed them representation in the federal government.  However, if the states were not members of the union (which was contrary to Lincoln's and Johnson's claims), then they had no ability to ratify an Amendment to a Constitution they had no part in.

Other measures were passed in February 1867 to prevent the president from interfering with the congressional Reconstruction program. The Tenure of Office Act forbade him to remove federal office holders, including Cabinet members, without the consent of the Senate. The Army Appropriations Act included the “command of the army” provisions, which were designed to deprive the president of his constitutional right to command the army. This act was condemned by Johnson, but he signed it into law. The other acts were vetoed by Johnson, but were passed over his veto. Congress now seemed all-powerful.

Dismissal of Stanton

Secretary of War Stanton had been working with the Radicals from the beginning of Johnson’s presidency. In August 1867, while Congress was adjourned, Johnson suspended Stanton and named General Ulysses S. Grant to the post. In January 1868 the Senate refused to accept Stanton’s suspension. When Grant stepped out in favor of Stanton, the president again dismissed Stanton and appointed General Lorenzo Thomas as secretary of war. Supported by the Radicals, Stanton barricaded himself in his War Department office and refused to let Thomas in.

Congress seized on the Stanton affair to attempt to oust Johnson from the presidency. According to Section 4 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution, the president or any other federal officer may be removed from office if he is impeached and convicted of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” In addition, according to the United States Constitution, the House of Representatives has the power to impeach, or accuse, while the Senate tries and judges in cases of impeachment.


 On February 24, 1868, a resolution of impeachment was passed by the House of Representatives, and a committee was appointed to “report articles of impeachment” against the president. The committee consisted of seven Radicals, including Thaddeus Stevens, all of whom had voted for the impeachment resolution. By March 4 the committee had prepared 11 articles of impeachment, and on March 5, Chief Justice Chase began presiding over the impeachment trial of President Johnson before the Senate.

Of the 11 articles of impeachment, 10 were related to Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act and the “command of the army” provisions of the Army Appropriations Act. The only other charge was a general accusation that Johnson had attempted to undermine Congress. An outrageous charge that Johnson had been involved in Lincoln’s assassination was withdrawn at the last minute.

The president did not personally participate in the trial. He left his defense to his lawyers, who easily proved that the president’s purpose in removing Stanton had been to test the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act. Furthermore, Johnson’s lawyers argued that the act did not pertain to Stanton, since he had been appointed by Lincoln, not by Johnson. The act applied to Cabinet officers, but only for the term of office of the president who had appointed them.

On May 16 and May 26, 1868, the Senate voted on three of the articles of impeachment. The Radicals had been pressing hard for a solid Republican vote, which would have given them more than the two-thirds majority required for conviction. However, 7 Republicans joined 12 Democrats in voting against conviction. The final count of 35 to 19 was one vote short of the two-thirds that were needed for conviction. Johnson had been acquitted.

Last Year in Office

In May 1868, while the impeachment trial was still in progress, the Republicans nominated Grant as their presidential candidate. Johnson hoped to receive the Democratic nomination, but he did not actively seek votes or woo the Democrats by offering them government offices. At the Democratic convention in July 1868, Johnson needed 212 delegate votes to be nominated. He never got enough, and through several ballots his support dwindled away. Finally the convention chose Governor Horatio Seymour of New York as its candidate.

Johnson and Congress continued to battle each other to his last day in office. He vetoed Reconstruction bills, and Congress promptly overrode his vetoes. In his last annual message to Congress, Johnson criticized its Reconstruction program, and in his final address, made as he prepared to leave the White House, he bitterly attacked the Radical Republicans.

Last Years

 After his return to Tennessee, Johnson was active in state politics. In 1872 he ran unsuccessfully for the office of congressman at large. Two years later he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Johnson was the only president to serve in the Senate after his White House tenure. On March 5, 1875, he took his seat, and on March 20, 1875, he delivered the last speech he was to make. He vigorously attacked President Grant’s policies and third-term ambitions. Johnson closed his speech with the words “Let peace and prosperity be restored to the land. May God bless this people; may God save the Constitution.”

Soon after, the Senate recessed, and Johnson returned to Tennessee. While visiting his daughter, he suffered a paralytic stroke. He died in 1875, and he was buried in Greeneville