1808 - 1875
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Election of 1860
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
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.
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.”
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.
President of the United States
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.
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.
of the United States
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, 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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Control of Congress
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Year in Office
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.
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.
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