He was a patriot accused of treachery. He had every reason to loathe public service after his impeachment in 1868, but he continued to serve America and eventually became a U. S. senator after his single term as president (1865–69). He lost a son in the Civil War, but understood the necessity of war in preserving the Union. He was a slaveowner who freed his slaves and then ordered the emancipation of all slaves in his home state. His greatest accomplishment was considered a joke in his own day.
Had Andrew Johnson been told at the age of fourteen that he would someday be president of the United States, he certainly would have been skeptical. At the time, in the early 1820s, he was apprenticed to a tailor, and he could neither read nor write. Later, Andrew Johnson was a tailor by trade, an orator by gift, and eventually a politician by demand. After running away from North Carolina to Tennessee, he married Eliza McCardle, a young woman in Greeneville, where Johnson had chosen to settle. Eliza helped him learn to read and to write, and Johnson became involved in local politics when he was elected to the Greeneville Board of Aldermen at age nineteen.
Johnson’s rise to the presidency included a stop on practically every rung of the American political ladder. He began with his service as a town alderman and was elected mayor of Greenville in 1830. He subsequently served in the Tennessee State House, the Tennessee State Senate, and as a representative in the United States Congress. In 1853 he was elected governor of Tennessee; after four years, he was elected United States senator. President Abraham Lincoln chose Johnson for a running mate in 1864 because Johnson was a southern Union loyalist, and Lincoln wanted to increase his chances for reelection by broadening his support base. Lincoln and Johnson, of course, won the 1864 election, and Johnson became president upon Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865. Andrew Johnson held almost every possible electable office at the municipal, state, and federal level for a man of his day.
Why was he so reviled? Johnson believed that the South should be welcomed back into the Union in the aftermath of the Civil War; most of Congress did not agree. For his convictions, Andrew Johnson became the first president to be impeached. Choosing to fire Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from his cabinet, Johnson gave Congress the impetus to bring him up on charges of violating the Tenure of Office Act. The dispute was a simple one over the question of whether or not the president had the power to fire an appointed official without congressional approval.
Ultimately, Johnson was not convicted, but the harm was permanent. The Democratic Party nominated Horatio Seymour in the election of 1868, and Seymour lost the electoral vote to Republican Ulysses Grant by 134 electoral votes, although they were only separated in the popular vote by about 320,000 (less than 6 percent).
Adding to the humiliation of his impeachment and his failure to be renominated by his party was the horrible fact that Johnson lost his son Charles in service to the cause. A medical officer in the Union army, Charles lost his life when he was thrown from a horse in Nashville in April 1863.
Johnson’s legacy is an interesting one. The purchase of Alaska in 1867, known jokingly as “Seward’s Folly” for Johnson’s Secretary of State William Seward, greatly increased the size of America and was not truly appreciated until much later. Andrew Johnson’s home in Greeneville and his final resting place nearby (Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, also in Greeneville) are amazing tributes to a disliked but diligent public servant. Tucked away in the hills of east Tennessee, the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site is one of the National Park Service’s hidden treasures. The site boasts a modern museum, Johnson’s tailor shop, early childhood home, and Homestead, Andrew and Eliza Johnson’s home beginning in 1851.
Few presidents started out life with less than Andrew Johnson, and fewer still inspired such a palpable amount of venom in their adversaries. Disliked by many in his home state for his collusion with President Lincoln, Johnson was also despised by multitudes on Capitol Hill for his willingness to reconcile the defeated South with the Union. Until the end of his days, the former president chose to serve his state and his nation, and he was serving as senator from Tennessee at the time of his death in 1875.
This portrait of President Andrew Johnson, by Washington Bogart Cooper, is on view at the National Portrait Gallery, in "America's Presidents," the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House.
Special thanks to the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site and National Park Service rangers Susan Georgion and Burke Greear for taking time to talk with us during the research for this journal.
Andrew Johnson / Washington Bogart Cooper / Oil on canvas, after 1866 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution