From Ohio History Central
Andrew Johnson, half-length portrait, facing left, circa 1885-1865
Andrew Johnson was the seventeenth President of the United States.
Andrew Johnson was born in 1808 in Raleigh, North Carolina to a working-class family. In 1818, his parents apprenticed him to a tailor and he spent several years learning this trade. Johnson moved to Greeneville, Tennessee, where he established his own tailoring business and in 1827 married Eliza McCardle. Up to this time, Johnson had received a limited education. While he worked on clothing in his shop, his wife tutored him.
As Johnson gained more confidence and experience, he began a political career. He was elected one of Greeneville's aldermen in 1829 and the city's mayor in 1834. He served several terms in the Tennessee legislature from 1835 to 1837 and from 1839 to 1843. In 1843, Tennessee voters elected Johnson to the United States House of Representatives. He held his seat for a decade. He contemplated running for reelection to a sixth term in 1852, but the Whig Party controlled the Tennessee legislature at the time. The Whigs had recently redrawn the congressional districts within Tennessee. Johnson was a member of the Democratic Party. If he had run for reelection in 1852, he would have been running in a district where voters had voted overwhelmingly for Whig candidates in the recent past. Rather than lose this election, Johnson chose to run for governor instead.
Johnson won the Tennessee governor's race in 1852. He held this position from 1853 until 1857. He identified with the working class. Coming from a poorer family, Johnson had struggled to improve his financial status. He also believed that education greatly assisted him in achieving his dreams. As a result of these beliefs, Johnson focused on improving access to education while he was governor. His major accomplishment was signing into law a bill that financed public education through taxation.
Following his second term as governor, the Tennessee legislature appointed Johnson to the United States Senate. He actively denounced secession and refused to give up his seat in the Senate after Tennessee decided to leave the Union. During the American Civil War, Johnson was a strong supporter of President Abraham Lincoln even though Johnson was a War Democrat and not a Republican.
For his loyalty to the United States, President Lincoln appointed Johnson the war governor of Tennessee in 1862. Johnson faced a number of problems as governor. He presided over a divided population. Many residents remained loyal to the Union, while others were staunch Confederates. For much of his tenure, Union forces controlled large sections of the state, but Confederate forces armies invaded Tennessee. For these reasons, Johnson's ability to govern was limited.
In 1864, Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party chose Johnson to run as Lincoln's vice-presidential candidate. Lincoln hoped that having a Southerner on the ballot would convince Southerners that his administration would be fair to former Confederates as the Civil War drew to a close. The Republicans also hoped to draw support from the Democratic Party by having Johnson, a War Democrat, on the ballot. Due to several important Northern battlefield victories in late 1864, Lincoln and Johnson won the election. Johnson served as vice president for only six weeks, before an assassin, John Wilkes Booth, shot and killed Lincoln. Johnson became president on April 15, 1865.
Johnson's presidential administration was contentious. Upon assuming office, Johnson retained all of Lincoln's cabinet officials. He at first followed a harsh policy toward the defeated Southerners, denying political rights to anyone who had supported the Confederacy in a military or governmental role during the rebellion. He also agreed to the arrest of several prominent Confederate officials. Johnson pursued this course at the urging of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Radical Republicans in the United States Congress.
Johnson, however, did not desire to punish all Southerners for the Civil War. He blamed wealthy and powerful planters for the conflict. Johnson wanted to reunite the nation as quickly as possible, while punishing the leaders of the rebellion. He granted political rights to all Southerners who swore allegiance to the United States except for wealthy landowners and Confederate officials. Those Southerners that Johnson excluded from political rights could attain them by seeking a pardon directly from him. During late 1865, Johnson pardoned hundreds of applicants every day. He granted pardons to roughly ninety percent of the people who asked for them. By December 1865, Johnson also had allowed ten of the eleven seceded states back into the Union. His only conditions were that the states adopt a constitution that repudiated secession, acknowledged the end to slavery, and repudiated any debts that the states had entered into during the Civil War.
The Radical Republicans in Congress were angered by Johnson's actions. They refused to allow Southern representatives and senators to take their seats in Congress. In 1866, the Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill, which granted African Americans equal protection under the law with whites. The Congress also renewed the Freedmen's Bureau in 1866. President Johnson vetoed both of these bills, but the Congress overturned both vetoes. Following the congressional elections of 1866, the Republican Party controlled more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses of Congress. As a result of the Republican election victory in 1866, the Congress now dictated how the reconstruction of the Union would proceed.
The first action the Republican majority took was to enact the First Reconstruction Act, in spite of Johnson's veto. This act split the South into five districts. In each district, soldiers of the United States would enforce martial law. To gain admittance to the Union, the Congress required Southern states to draft new constitutions, guaranteeing African-American men the right to vote. The constitutions also had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted African Americans equal protection under the law. In effect, Congress rejected Johnson's plan for Reconstruction and implemented a much harsher policy toward white Southerners.
While Congress repudiated Johnson's plan for Reconstruction, Johnson sought to destroy the Congressional plan as well. The Congress relied on Secretary of War Stanton to carry out its policies. Johnson decided to defeat Congressional Reconstruction by firing Stanton. By doing so, Johnson violated the recently passed Tenure of Office Act. This act stated that the president could not fire any officeholder who had received Senate approval before being hired until the Senate approved a successor. Johnson violated this act by firing Stanton and replacing him with Ulysses S. Grant. The House of Representatives immediately began impeachment proceedings. The president was impeached by a vote of 126 in favor of impeachment to forty-seven opposed on February 24, 1868. James Ashley, a representative from Toledo, Ohio, introduced the impeachment resolution. The Senate then tried the president on the impeachment charges. A guilty verdict would have removed Johnson from office. Salmon P. Chase, an Ohioan and the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, presided over the trial. In a vote of thirty-five to remove the president and nineteen opposed, Johnson remained president. The vote fell one vote short of having the two-thirds necessary to remove Johnson.
Johnson remained as president primarily because he privately had agreed to Congressional Reconstruction. More moderate Republicans also feared Johnson's successor if the Congress removed the president from office. Benjamin Wade, the president pro tem of the Senate, stood next in line for the presidency. Wade, an Ohioan, was a Radical Republican. Moderate Republicans feared that Wade would move quickly to secure African American equality with whites. They also were uncertain of the political and economic agendas that Wade would pursue. Johnson's willingness to work with the Congress convinced the Senate to keep Johnson as president.
Johnson failed to receive the Democratic Party's nomination for the presidency in the election of 1868. He finished out his term, which ended in March 1869, and returned to Tennessee. In 1874, Johnson was elected once again to the United States Senate. He is the only person to become a senator after serving as president. He died in 1875.
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<city> <place>Lawrence:</place></city>Regents Press of <state> <place>Kansas</place></state>, 1979.
- Horowitz, Robert F. Great Impeacher: A Political Biography of James M. Ashley. New York: Brooklyn College Press, 1979.
- Roseboom, Eugene H. The Civil War Era: 1850-1873. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1944.
- Trefousse, Hans L. Andrew Johnson: A Biography. New York, NY: Norton, 1989.