“Honest conviction is my courage; the Constitution is my guide.” Andrew Johnson
Abraham Lincoln wasn’t supposed to have been the only one assassinated that fateful night at Ford’s Theater.
In fact, Andrew Johnson and his wife were offered tickets to sit in Lincoln’s box with him. They turned them down. But John Wilkes-Booth discovered where Johnson was staying that night and hired a hit man to take him out. That hit man, fortunately, chickened out at the last minute, sparing Johnson’s life.
Thus, Andrew Johnson became our country’s 17th president and history was forever changed.
To be fair to Johnson, trying to repair our country immediately following the Civil War would have been a huge undertaking for any man. But to follow a man like Abraham Lincoln, well, those were some very large shoes to fill.
Frankly, Johnson was never meant to be president, historians say. Johnson would never have been selected as Lincoln’s vice president had anyone been able to predict the future.
But, as we’ve seen in the past, and will see again in the future, never under-estimate the power of the office of the vice presidency. You never know what will happen. Andrew Johnson (our president of the week), or anyone else, certainly didn’t see the presidency coming.
Johnson’s upbringing was just as humble as Lincoln’s. When Johnson was just a young boy (around age four), his father drowned in a river trying to save some men. His mother, finding no other way to feed or support her family, was forced to basically sell her sons off as apprentices.
Faced with hunger and poverty, Johnson would be a champion for the little man from here on out. In fact, he always had a chip on his shoulder regarding social classes and hated what he called “aristocracy.”
“I have grappled with the gaunt and haggard monster called hunger,” he would later say.
Johnson, was sent to apprentice for a tailor. He hated it so much that he eventually ran away. Because he had been more or less bought, his runaway was treated in much the same way as that of a runaway slave. Notices were sent to newspapers, rewards were offered, etc.
Johnson’s Political Start
Ironically, Johnson eventually opened up a tailor shop of his own in eastern Tennessee. You could say that technically, that’s where his political career began. Amazingly, and somewhat like Lincoln, Johnson was mostly self-taught. He never attended a single day of school.
His shop became a gathering place of sorts for local politicians. Because of his relationship with them, he was able to rise through the local offices. He first served as alderman, then mayor and then onto the state legislature. Those local and state offices led him to Congress, the office of governor and then U.S. Senate.
Ironically, Johnson said he would have made different life choices had he been better educated. For example, he often said he would have been a teacher–not a politician.
Johnson and Lincoln
Lincoln was a Republican. Johnson was a Democrat. So, how did they end up on the same ticket together? When Lincoln’s first-term vice president withdrew from re-election, the search for a new running mate began.
Andrew Johnson, though a pro-slavery southerner, was anti-secession. He tried to prevent Tennessee from seceding. When they did anyway he refused to give up his Senate seat, making him the only Southern senator to stand with the union. So, this rare southerner loyal to the union created the perfect ticket to balance Lincoln’s northern ties and views.
What made him even stronger in the eyes of Republicans was that his conviction and loyalty to the Union cost him a lot. He was basically looked at as a villain and a traitor in Tennessee. His wife and children, who still lived there, were basically run off by a mob and their house taken over by Confederate soldiers.
Unfortunately for Johnson, the day of the Inauguration doesn’t place him in the best light. It’s said that he, much to the surprise of Lincoln, asked if it was even necessary that he be at the Inauguration. I’m sure some that day wish he hadn’t been.
Just minutes before Lincoln gave his now famous second Inaugural speech, Johnson gave one, too. The difference between Lincoln and Johnson, however, is that Johnson was completely and utterly drunk. His remarks were so wonky that Cabinet members later figured he was “Either crazy or drunk.” One member said it was so awkward and embarrassing that he wished he could have crawled through a hole.
Johnson wasn’t an alcoholic, ironically. The story goes that he had been sick and was trying to fortify himself before his big moment. Unfortunately, he may have gone a bit heavy on the whiskey. Lincoln, along with his Cabinet, forgave him, saying “I have known Andy for many years…he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared. Andy ain’t a drunkard.”
Andrew Johnson’s Presidency
Like I mentioned earlier, Johnson’s job of restoring the country would have been tough in any situation. Johnson made it even tougher on himself though because of his position on slavery (at one point he even owned slaves).
The major issue of his presidency was obviously reconstructing the country. How was he supposed to bring back the states that had seceded and what would he do with the ones who had? Some argued the states didn’t need “bringing back” because from a legal standpoint they were never really allowed to leave in the first place. Another issue at hand was did the states that left need to be punished?
It was no secret that Andrew Johnson was on the racist side. He didn’t support giving black men the right to vote. At one point he even said they didn’t need the right to vote because they probably didn’t know what voting was anyway. To say it didn’t mesh well with a very Republican Congress would be a huge understatement.
His first few weeks in office, Johnson tiptoed around the issues carefully. But then Congress left for recess for a few months and Johnson went to work. No one knows what Lincoln would have done, but it’s obvious it wouldn’t have been what Johnson did.
Johnson came up with his own reconstruction plan and punishing the South was not part of it. He quickly accepted them back into the Union and favored amnesty for most of the ex-confederates. The freed slaves, however, received little protection under Johnson’s plan. They weren’t offered citizenship or the right to vote.
What was the Civil War fought for then, some wondered? Johnson obviously failed to grasp the reality of what had just happened. When Congress came back from their recess and Johnson announced the restoration of the South was completed, they were baffled and outraged. Thus began Johnson’s ugly relationship with Congress.
So, Congress passed their own Reconstruction Acts. Johnson just vetoed them. He vetoed everything that came his way. In fact, his 29 presidential vetoes blew away the previous record of 12 (set by Andrew Jackson, Johnson’s hero).
With the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Congress knew it had the votes to override President Johnson’s likely veto. They overturned 15 of his vetoes and that record still stands today. In fact, it was this precedence that changed the entire nature of Congress being able to out-power the president, in a sense.
In 1867, Congress rejected his veto of the Tenure of Office Act. The act was designed to restrict the power of the president to remove appointees from office without the approval of the Senate. Johnson retaliated by trying to fire Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. No reason. Just retaliation. And Congress knew it. Some historians say it was a trap for him and, in the views of the radical republicans of Congress, a reason to finally get rid of him.
The impeachment charges? “High crimes and misdemeanors.”
It was a two month trial that got ugly. The House voted to impeach him. But over on the Senate side, in a rare move, senators decided that the dignity of preserving the presidency for posterity was more important than politics. The Senate acquitted him by one vote.
Eliza Johnson was the youngest-married First Lady, at age 16 (President Johnson was just 18). The couple were married by minister Mordecai Lincoln–the first cousin of Abraham Lincoln’s father. The two had five children. Eliza is often credited as helping Andrew learn to write (though it’s said he did know the alphabet prior to their marriage) and to speak well.
One of their daughters later said, “Little has been written about my mother as she always opposed any publicity concerning her private life. She was the stepping stone to all the honors and fame my father attained.” What we do know is that her physical condition deteriorated the older she got, likely due to issues during childbirth.
It’s said that Eliza assumed the “First Lady” duties during official functions like visits from heads of state and formal dinners but left the other responsibilities to her daughters. They rarely went out in public. Some speculation is that the Johnsons had just lost a son and a son-in-law in the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination was a horrible reminder hanging over their heads of what was a possibility for President Johnson as well.
- Johnson was the only former president to be elected to the Senate, though he only served for a year before he died of a stroke in 1875. Up to this point in history he was one of the few men elected to the presidency who wasn’t a lawyer.
- He is one of nine presidents who never attended college. In fact, Johnson never had a single day of schooling in his life.
- Johnson installed the first telegraph office in the White House and later an electric bell system that connected the upper floors to the servants’ hall.
- He was one of two presidents to ever be impeached (the second was Clinton, of course).
No one knows for certain how Abraham Lincoln would have handled the country’s restoration following the Civil War. But, read up on President Lincoln and then ask your kids, how do they think President Lincoln would have handled it? How did their view on slavery and races differ? How would that differing view have affected their approach to reconstruction?
Recently, I discovered a gem of a podcast! It’s a series by The Washington Post that was done leading up to the latest election. They go in-depth on each president and talk to experts, historians, etc. Oh my goodness, it is awesome! If you are even the slightest bit interested in history, I suggest checking it out. You can find Andrew Johnson’s podcast here. It mainly focuses on what type of man was needed following the Civil War and why Andrew Johnson’s characteristics made him so ill suited for the job.
As I usually mention, I have this really awesome book I love that I bought in the Mount Rushmore gift shop. It’s a small, easy to read book aptly titled The Presidents of the United States of America. Find it here. It probably has the most thorough, in-depth summary of each president all neatly packaged into a single page for each. I love it!
Also, like I’ve mentioned before, the History Channel has an amazing documentary on the lives of each of our presidents. I’ve been watching it every single week. It is seriously fascinating. You can find it here. It’s a great watch for younger kids and especially any older kids who are learning about our American history. They also have a more condensed and less expensive version that you can find here. Both versions are great because they both have different information about each president.
Other sources are linked throughout.
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.