|Born||Dec. 29, 1808, Raleigh, N.C.|
|Political party||Democrat; elected Vice President as Unionist|
|Education||no formal education|
|Military service||military governor of Tennessee, 1862-64|
|Previous public office|| ♦ alderman, Greeneville, TN,1829-30|
♦ mayor of Greeneville, 1831-35
♦ Tennessee State Constitutional Convention, 1834
♦ Tennessee House of Representatives, 1835-37, 1839-41
♦ Tennessee Senate, 1841-43
♦ House of Representatives, 1843-53
♦ governor of Tennessee, 1853-57;
♦ U.S. Senate, 1857-62
♦ Vice President, 1865
|Subsequent gov. service:||U.S. Senate, 1875|
|Died||July 31, 1875, Carter Station, Tenn.|
Johnson's father was a laborer and his mother a barmaid. His father died when he was three, and his mother barely survived by sewing and taking in laundry. She could not afford to send him to school, and Johnson became a tailor's apprentice at 14. He and his brother opened their own tailor shop in Carthage, North Carolina; then, at 18, he opened his own shop in Greeneville, Tennessee. He married the next year and his wife, Eliza, taught him how to read, write, and count. He learned how to speak in public by participating in a debating society at a nearby college.
Johnson became active in local politics, identifying with poor whites and denouncing the rich planters and financiers. As governor of Tennessee, he supported free public education. He also supported slavery (and actually owned several slaves himself) and attacked abolitionists. But he broke with his party while he was in the Senate to support homesteading on Western lands (providing 160 acres for each settler who worked the land for five years), eventually getting the Homestead Act passed by Congress in 1862.
Johnson ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 1860, but was never in real contention. He supported Democrat John C. Breckinridge over Lincoln in the election.
When the Civil War came, Johnson denounced the secessionists, and by June 1861 he was the only Southern senator to remain in his seat and refuse to join the Confederacy. He sponsored a resolution in the Senate declaring that the aim of the war was reunion and not the emancipation of slaves.
President Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of Tennessee in 1862, and he managed to end rebellion in the state by 1864. Johnson was an obvious choice for the Vice Presidential nomination, running as a Democrat with the Republican Lincoln on a coalition Unionist ticket. Only 42 days into his second term Lincoln was shot, and Johnson succeeded to the Presidency on April 15, 1865.
Johnson began his Presidency by issuing a proclamation of amnesty on May 29, 1865, to all citizens in the states that had seceded except for certain civil and military officers and citizens with property worth more than $20,000; he appointed provisional civil governors in the Southern states; he reestablished state governments on lenient terms (requiring merely that they ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and absolved the U.S. government from paying Confederate debts); and he issued pardons to 14,000 Southern officers who applied, including General Robert E. Lee.
Johnson refused to confiscate the property of former rebels. He left questions of voting rights to the states and did nothing when the new state governments instituted “black codes” that deprived former slaves of the right to vote, serve on juries, testify in lawsuits, or possess firearms (and in many states banned them from occupations other than farming).
In 1866 he vetoed a civil rights bill that would have extended citizenship and legal protection to the former slaves and denounced the proposed 14th Amendment, which would have accomplished the same thing. On August 20, 1866, Johnson announced that the “insurrection” was over and that “peace, order, tranquility and civil authority now exist in and throughout the whole of the United States.”
Radical Republicans in Congress fought Johnson and pushed stiffer Reconstruction measures on the South. When Congress reconvened in December 1865, it refused to seat Southern congressional delegations, thus preventing the South from obtaining a majority in Congress. In April 1866 Congress developed its own plans for Reconstruction, which would guarantee blacks the right to vote but take it away from former Confederate soldiers. In June Congress passed the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing black voting rights and due process of law. All the Southern states except Tennessee refused to ratify it, and Congress refused to lift its ban on their representation in the national legislature. In July Congress extended the life of the Freedmen's Bureau, the agency to protect freed slaves, over Johnson's veto.
To defeat the radical Republicans, Johnson organized a National Union Movement of Democrats and conservative Republicans to try to elect supporters of his Reconstruction policies in the 1866 elections. He campaigned across the Midwest for his candidates and policies. The result was that voters chose radical Republicans over the Democrats favored by Johnson, and the new Congress had a veto-proof Republican majority determined to bend the President to its will.
On March 2, 1867, Congress passed the first Reconstruction Act: it divided the South into five military districts, with Freedmen's Bureau officials and military tribunals protecting the rights of blacks. The military would create a new list of voters in each state, who would, in turn, organize state constitutional conventions. The military governors could purge civil officials and state legislators whom they viewed as “disloyal.” An army of occupation, 20,000 strong, enforced military rule. Johnson vetoed this Reconstruction law, which was then passed over his veto, and thereafter did as little as possible to enforce it. He began removing Republican office holders from the executive branch and replacing them with Democrats, and he encouraged Southern states to vote against ratification of the 14th Amendment.
To prevent Johnson from interfering with congressional policies, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act on March 2, 1867. Johnson vetoed this law, but Congress passed it over his veto. It prevented Johnson from dismissing cabinet secretaries or other high-level officials until the Senate had consented to their successors, thus giving the final word on dismissals to the Senate.
To test the law, Johnson asked for the resignation of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and then suspended him when he refused to resign. On January 13, 1868, the Senate refused to concur in Stanton's suspension. Disregarding the Tenure of Office Act, Johnson fired Stanton on February 21. Three days later the House of Representatives impeached Johnson for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The articles of impeachment concentrated on this violation of the law but added that Johnson's conduct toward Congress had involved “disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach.” It did not include the charge by one member, George S. Boutwell, that Johnson himself was part of the plot to murder Lincoln. The Senate acquitted Johnson on May 16, 1868. The vote was 35 for conviction and 19 for acquittal, one vote short of the two-thirds majority necessary for conviction. Seven Republicans voted to dismiss the charges. The acquittal was unpopular, and all five of these senators who sought reelection were defeated.
In spite of the domestic turmoil and impeachment crisis, in foreign affairs the Johnson administration was quite successful. Most of the credit rests with Secretary of State William Seward, who had a free hand to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, warning European powers not to interfere in the Western Hemisphere.
In 1863 the French emperor Napoleon III had put Maximilian on the throne as emperor of Mexico. At the end of the Civil War, U.S. pressure forced the French to pull their troops out of Mexico and abandon Maximilian, who soon fell victim to a Mexican firing squad.
The Johnson administration tamped down a crisis with Great Britain by enforcing neutrality laws, which prohibited U.S. citizens from using military force against other nations, against the Irish-American Fenians who made several armed forays into Canada in an attempt to annex Canadian territory. Civil War claims against Great Britain for building Confederate naval vessels that sank Union ships were sent to arbitration.
In another foreign policy triumph, Secretary Seward negotiated a treaty to purchase Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. Though at the time it was ridiculed as “Johnson's Polar Bear Garden” and “Seward's Folly,” the purchase of Alaska turned out to be a great bargain. But Seward was unable to get Senate consent to acquire the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Greenland, or Iceland.
Andrew Johnson left office embittered, riding out of the capital without even speaking to his successor on Inauguration Day. He was defeated in a House election in 1872. When he returned to the Senate in 1875, only 13 of the 35 senators who had voted for his impeachment remained. One of them, Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, shook his hand in a gesture of reconciliation. Three months later, on vacation at his daughter's home in Tennessee, Johnson collapsed from a stroke. He requested that he be buried with a copy of the Constitution as a pillow and the Stars and Stripes for his shroud.
Although not successful as president, Johnson was a shrewd politician who repeatedly defeated both Whigs and Democrats in his home state. But by failing to take advantage of the opportunity of remaking the South in the months after Appomattox and by undermining Congressional Reconstruction, he contributed materially to its failure and kept the South a "white man's country."
His conflict with Congress weakened the Presidency for the remainder of the century. He is presently considered among the worst American presidents.