Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson, seventeenth President of the United States, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, on December 29, 1808. To say that his incidental commission as a brigadier general of volunteers while military governor of Tennessee during the Civil War was one of the least noteworthy events of his long and distinguished career would be a monumental understatement. In his youth he knew nothing but poverty, was apprenticed to a tailor, and was once advertised as a runaway. He moved to Tennessee at the age of eighteen, settled in Greeneville, and married the daughter of a shoemaker, who is popularly supposed to have taught her husband how to read and write while he sat cross-legged on his table stitching pantaloons. His political career began with election to the village board of aldermen; he then became mayor and in 1835 was elected to the state legislature. He progressed subsequently to candidate for presidential elector in 1840, member of the state senate in 1841, Congressman in 1843, governor of Tennessee in 1853, and United States Senator in 1857. During all these years Johnson subscribed to the principles of Jacksonian democracy, although he quarreled with many of his own party. Resident in an area where slaves were few and violently opposed to pretensions by right of birth or fortune, he actively espoused the cause of "white representation," whereby slaves would count for nothing in state and national proration instead of the three-fifths of a white person which under the Constitution had been allotted them. This change would of course have given east Tennessee, where slaves were few, increased representation in both the legislature and Congress. Nevertheless, he claimed to be orthodox on the institution of slavery per se, assailed the abolitionists on all occasions, and supported the doctrine which pronounced Congress powerless to bar slavery from the territories. In 1861, the period when Senators and representatives from the South were defecting to the newly formed Confederacy, Johnson was one of only two Senators from the thirteen states of the Confederacy who kept his seat and adhered to the Union. The other was L. W. Powell from the border state of Kentucky. In March, 1862, Johnson was appointed military governor of Tennessee, with commission of brigadier general of volunteers dating from March 4. He made his headquarters in Nashville, which remained in the hands of Union troops from then until the war's end, and strove to reestablish the authority of the Federal government. Supported by the military and perforce compelled to exercise the arbitrary powers of a dictator, he at length brought about the restoration of civil government—an accomplishment which later served to exempt Tennessee from the worst features of Reconstruction. When in 1864 Lincoln was re-nominated by the Republicans under the Union party label, Johnson was a logical candidate for vice-president, relieving the party of the sectional character which previously had attached to it. Ill from typhoid during the previous winter, Johnson attended the inauguration only at Lincoln's earnest behest, arriving at the ceremonies intoxicated. After a rambling and pugnacious speech, he garbled the oath badly, embarrassing everyone present including Lincoln, who later absolved him by remarking, "He made a bad slip the other day, but . . . Andy ain't a drunkard." Less than six weeks later he was sworn in as President and immediately confronted by the enormous complexities of the end of the war—demobilization, the newly liberated freedmen, and the problems arising from the thousands of ex-Confederates and the relationship of their former state governments to the Union. At first Johnson, caught up in the wave of hysteria which swept the North after Lincoln's assassination, thundered that "treason must be made infamous, and traitors . . . impoverished." Soon, however, the moderation which marked Lincoln's policies asserted itself and brought him into a power struggle with the Republican radicals in Congress. At the root of the struggle, as the latter clearly saw, was the increased representation of the white South in Congress occasioned by emancipation, which would be coupled with the return to power of the ex-Confederate leaders, unless the Negro vote could be controlled. Another factor in the conflict was the accident of fate which threw the executive power, with its vast patronage, into the hands of a Tennessee Democrat of the states' rights school. Such vindictive, bitter, and spoils-hungry men as Benjamin Wade, Benjamin F. Butler, Charles Sumner, and Thaddeus Stevens reasoned that this power must be nullified or, if necessary, its wielder removed from office. The President's naturally oppugnant nature did little to alleviate the situation, and his monotonous use of the veto power, even though most of the measures were passed over his veto, continuously worsened his already poor relations with the legislative branch. The climax of the battle was reached when, in defiance of the "Tenure of Office Bill," he suspended from office Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who had been little more than an espionage agent for the Radicals. Soon afterwards, in February, 1868, Johnson was impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presided over the Senate, organized for the occasion as a "Court of Impeachment." From a mass of irrelevant, and in many cases fraudulent, allegations, Johnson's counsel soon established that the only legal question of any importance involved was that of the Tenure of Office Act, a statute declared unconstitutional fifty-eight years later. The subsequent vote stood 35 to 19 for conviction, one less than the necessary two-thirds. "The single vote [cast for acquittal by Senator J. W. Grimes of Iowa, who was virtually driven from political life for his courage] marks the narrow margin by which the Presidential element in our system escaped destruction." During the remainder of his term Johnson maintained his position vis-a-vis Congress, but with no more success than previously. His principal accomplishment in this period was the extension of his previous grants of amnesty until they embraced all classes of ex-Confederates without exception. In 1872 he was defeated in an attempt to be elected to the lower house of Congress, but two years later he was elected once again to the United States Senate, the only ex-President in history to achieve the distinction. He took his seat on March 5, 1875, and even then, the corruption of the Grant administration contrasted sharply with the courageous honesty of Johnson. He died on July 31, 1875, while visiting a daughter near Elizabethton, Carter County, Tennessee, and lies buried in the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Greeneville.

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Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.