Andrew Johnson (December 29, 1808 – July 31, 1875) was the seventeenth President of the United States (1865-69), succeeding to the Presidency upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He was one of only two U.S. Presidents to be impeached.
At the time of the secession of the Southern states, Johnson was a U.S. Senator from Greeneville in eastern Tennessee. As a Unionist, he was the only southern Senator not to quit his post upon secession. He became the most prominent War Democrat from the South and supported the military policies of US President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War of 1861–1865. In 1862 Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of occupied Tennessee, where he proved to be energetic and effective in fighting the rebellion and beginning transition to Reconstruction.
Johnson was nominated for the Vice President slot in 1864 on the National Union Party ticket. He and Lincoln were elected in November 1864. Johnson succeeded to the Presidency upon Lincoln's assassination on April 15, 1865.
As president he took charge of Presidential Reconstruction the first phase of Reconstruction which lasted until the Radical Republicans gained control of Congress in the 1866 elections. His conciliatory policies towards the South, his hurry to reincorporate the former Confederates back into the union, and his vetoes of civil rights bills embroiled him in a bitter dispute with some Republicans. The Radicals in the House of Representatives impeached him in 1868 while charging him with violating the Tenure of Office Act, a law enacted by Congress in March 1867 over Johnson's veto, but he was acquitted by a single vote in the Senate.
Johnson was born on December 29, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Jacob Johnson and Mary McDonough. Andrew Johnson's father, Jacob, died when Andrew was around three years old, leaving his family in poverty. Johnson's mother then took in work spinning and weaving to support her family and later remarried. She bound Andrew as an apprentice tailor when he was 14 or 10. In the 1820s, he worked as a tailor in Laurens, South Carolina. Johnson never attended any type of school and taught himself how to read and spell.
At age 16 or 17 Johnson broke his apprenticeship and ran away with his brother to Greeneville, Tennessee, where he found work as a tailor. At the age of 18, Johnson married Eliza McCardle in 1827. Between 1828 and 1852, the couple had five children: Martha (1828), Charles (1830), Mary (1832), Robert (1834), and Andrew Jr. (1852). Eliza taught Johnson arithmetic and also tutored him to improve his literacy and writing skills.
Johnson was attracted to Andrew Jackson's states' rights Democratic Party. He became a spokesman for the more numerous yeomen farmers and mountaineers against the wealthier, but fewer, planter elite families that had held political control both in the state and nationally. In 1839 Johnson was elected to the Tennessee Senate, where he served two consecutive two-year terms. In 1843 he became the first Democrat to win election as the U.S. Representative from Tennessee's 1st congressional district. Among his activities for the common man's interests as a member of the House of Representatives and the Senate, Johnson advocated 'a free farm for the poor' bill where farms would be given to landless farmers. Johnson was a U.S. Representative for five terms until 1853, when he was elected governor of Tennessee.
Johnson was elected governor of Tennessee, serving from 1853 to 1857. He was then elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate, serving from October 8, 1857 to March 4, 1862. He was chairman of the Committee to Audit and Control the Contingent Expense (Thirty-sixth Congress). Before Tennessee voted on secession, Johnson who lived in Unionist east Tennessee toured the state speaking in opposition to the act, which he said was unconstitutional. Johnson was an aggressive stump speaker and often responded to hecklers, even those in the Senate. At the time of secession of the Confederacy, Johnson was the only Senator from the seceded states to continue participation in Congress. His explanation for this decision was "Damn the negroes, I am fighting those traitorous aristocrats, their masters."
Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of occupied Tennessee in March 1862 with the rank of brigadier general. During his three years in this office, he "moved resolutely to eradicate all pro-Confederate influences in the state." This "unwavering commitment to the Union" was a significant factor in his choice as vice-president by Lincoln. Johnson vigorously suppressed the Confederates and later spoke out for black suffrage, arguing, "The better class of them will go to work and sustain themselves, and that class ought to be allowed to vote, on the ground that a loyal negro is more worthy than a disloyal white man. According to tradition and local lore, on August 8, 1863, Johnson freed his personal slaves.
The morning after Lincoln's assassination, Johnson was sworn in as President of the United States on April 15, 1865 by Lincoln's newly appointed Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. Johnson was the first Vice President to succeed to the U.S. Presidency upon the assassination of a President and the third vice president to become a president.
Johnson had an ambiguous party status. He attempted to build a party of loyalists under the National Union label, but he did not identify with the two main parties while President—though he did try for the Democratic nomination in 1868. Asked in 1868 why he did not become a Democrat, he said "It is true I am asked why don't I join the Democratic Party. Why don't they join me...if I have administered the office of president so well?
Northern anger over the assassination of Lincoln and the immense human cost of the war led to demands for harsh policies. Vice President Andrew Johnson had taken a hard line and spoke of hanging rebel Confederates. In late April, 1865 he was noted telling an Indiana delegation that, "Treason must be made odious... traitors must be punished and impoverished ... their social power must be destroyed." However, when he succeeded Lincoln as President, Johnson took a much softer line noting, "I say, as to the leaders, punishment. I also say leniency, reconciliation and amnesty to the thousands whom they have misled and deceived. and ended up pardoning many Confederate leaders and ex-Confederates to maintain their control of Southern state governments, Southern lands, and black people.
His class-based resentment of the rich appeared in a May 1865 statement to W.H. Holden, the man he appointed governor of North Carolina: "I intend to confiscate the lands of these rich men whom I have excluded from pardon by my proclamation, and divide the proceeds thereof among the families of the wool hat boys, the Confederate soldiers, whom these men forced into battle to protect their property in slaves. In practice, Johnson was not at all harsh toward the Confederate leaders. He allowed the Southern states to hold elections in 1865, resulting in prominent ex-Confederates being elected to the U.S. Congress; however, Congress did not seat them. Congress and Johnson argued in an increasingly public way about Reconstruction and the manner in which the Southern secessionist states would be readmitted to the Union. Johnson favored a very quick restoration, similar to the plan of leniency that Lincoln advocated before his death.
Although strongly urged by moderates in Congress to sign the Civil Rights bill, Johnson broke decisively with them by vetoing it on March 27. His veto message objected to the measure because it conferred citizenship on the Freedmen at a time when eleven out of thirty-six States were unrepresented and attempted to fix by Federal law "a perfect equality of the white and black races in every State of the Union." Johnson said it was an invasion by Federal authority of the rights of the States; it had no warrant in the Constitution and was contrary to all precedents. It was a "stride toward centralization and the concentration of all legislative power in the national government. Johnson, in a letter to Governor Thomas C. Fletcher of Missouri, wrote, "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.
The Democratic Party, proclaiming itself the party of white men, north and South, aligned with Johnson. However the Republicans in Congress overrode his veto (the Senate by the vote of 33:15, the House by 182:41) and the Civil Rights bill became law.
The last moderate proposal was the Fourteenth Amendment, also authored by moderate Trumbull. It was designed to put the key provisions of the Civil Rights Act into the Constitution, but it went much further. It extended citizenship to everyone born in the United States (except Indians on reservations), penalized states that did not give the vote to Freedmen, and most importantly, created new Federal civil rights that could be protected by Federal courts. It guaranteed the Federal war debt (and promised the Confederate debt would never be paid). Johnson used his influence to block the amendment in the states, as three-fourths of the states were required for ratification. (The Amendment was later ratified.)
The moderate effort to compromise with Johnson had failed and an all-out political war broke out between the Republicans (both Radical and moderate) on one side, and on the other Johnson and his allies in the Democratic party in the North, and the conservative groupings in the South. The decisive battle was the election of 1866. Johnson campaigned vigorously but was widely ridiculed. The Republicans won by a landslide (the Southern states were not allowed to vote), and took full control of Reconstruction. Johnson was almost powerless.
Historian James Ford Rhodes has explained Johnson's inability to engage in serious negotiations:
As Senator Charles Sumner shrewdly said, "the President himself is his own worst counselor, as he is his own worst defender." Johnson acted 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 colored people, his unyielding position 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; and for the quarrel and its unhappy results Johnson's lack of imagination and his inordinate sensitiveness to political gadflies were largely responsible: it was not a contest in which fundamentals were involved. 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.
Johnson notified Congress that he had removed Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War and was replacing him in the interim with Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas. Johnson had wanted to replace Stanton with former General Ulysses S. Grant, who refused to accept the position. This violated the Tenure of Office Act, a law enacted by Congress in March 1867 over Johnson's veto, specifically designed to protect Stanton. Johnson had vetoed the act, claiming it was unconstitutional. The act said, "...every person holding any civil office, to which he has been appointed by and with the advice and consent of the Senate ... shall be entitled to hold such office until a successor shall have been in like manner appointed and duly qualified," thus removing the President's previous unlimited power to remove any of his Cabinet members at will. Years later in the case Myers v. United States in 1926, the Supreme Court ruled that such laws were indeed unconstitutional.
The Senate and House entered into debate. Thomas attempted to move into the war office, for which Stanton had Thomas arrested. Three days after Stanton's removal, the House impeached Johnson for intentionally violating the Tenure of Office Act.
On March 5, 1868, a court of impeachment was constituted in the Senate to hear charges against the President. William M. Evarts served as his counsel. Eleven articles were set out in the resolution, and the trial before the Senate lasted almost three months. Johnson's defense was based on a clause in the Tenure of Office Act stating that the then-current secretaries would hold their posts throughout the term of the President who appointed them. Since Lincoln had appointed Stanton, it was claimed, the applicability of the act had already run its course.
There were three votes in the Senate: one 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, thirty-five Senators voted "guilty" and nineteen "not guilty." As the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority for conviction in impeachment trials, Johnson was acquitted; the 35-19 vote was one less then the majority required. A single changed vote for guilty would have convicted and removed Johnson from office. Seven Republican senators were disturbed by how the proceedings had been manipulated in order to give a one-sided presentation of the evidence. Senators William Pitt Fessenden, Joseph S. Fowler, James W. Grimes, John B. Henderson, Lyman Trumbull, Peter G. Van Winkle, and Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, who provided the decisive vote, defied their party and public opinion and voted against conviction.
Before 1960 most historians held the impeachment of Andrew Johnson as a violation of American values regarding division of powers and fair play. Had Johnson been successfully removed from office, he would have been replaced with Radical Republican Benjamin Wade, making the presidency and Congress somewhat uniform in ideology, although in many ways Wade was more "radical" than the Republicans in Congress. This would have established a precedent that a President could be removed not for "high crimes and misdemeanors," but for purely political differences.
The U.S. experienced tense relations with the United Kingdom and its colonial government in Canada in the aftermath of the war. Lingering resentment over the perception of British sympathy towards the Confederacy resulted in Johnson initially turning a blind eye towards a series of armed incursions by Irish-American civil war veterans into British territory in Canada, named the Fenian Raids. Eventually, Johnson ordered the Fenians disarmed and barred from crossing the border, but his hesitant reaction to the crisis helped motivate the movement toward Canadian Confederation.
Johnson was an unsuccessful candidate for election to the United States Senate from Tennessee in 1868 and to the House of Representatives in 1872. However, in 1874 the Tennessee legislature did elect him to the U.S. Senate. Johnson served from March 4, 1875, until his death from a stroke near Elizabethton, Tennessee, on July 31 that same year. In his first speech since returning to the Senate, which was also his last, Johnson spoke about political turmoil in Louisiana. His passion aroused a standing ovation from many of his fellow senators who had once voted to remove him from the presidency. He is the only former President to serve in the Senate.
Interment was in the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, Greeneville, Tennessee, where he was buried with a copy of the Constitution. Andrew Johnson National Cemetery is now part of the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site.
By the 1930s a series of favorable biographies enhanced his prestige. Johnson's Republican critics of the 1860s appeared as disreputable to liberal historians as did the Republican critics of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Furthermore, a Beardian School (named after Charles Beard and typified by Howard K. Beale) argued that the Republican Party in the 1860s was a tool of corrupt business interests, and that Johnson stood for the people. Historian Eric Foner says that by 1948, historians regarded Reconstruction, "as a time of corruption and misgovernment caused by granting black men the right to vote." They rated Johnson "near great." but have later changed their minds, rating Johnson "a flat failure".
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s brought a new perspective to the practice of history as well as to civil legislation. Historians noted African American efforts to establish public education and welfare institutions, gave muted praise for Republican efforts to extend suffrage and provide other social institutions, and excoriated Johnson for siding with the opposition to extending basic rights to former slaves.
Johnson's purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867 is believed to be a most important foreign policy action, with the purchase proving itself vital to national security during the Cold War (mid-1940s until the early 1990s). The idea and implementation is credited to Seward as Secretary of State, but Johnson approved the plan. Gold was not discovered in Alaska until 1880, thirteen years after the purchase and five years after Johnson's death, and oil was not discovered until 1968.
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