Andrew Johnson ascended to the Presidency of the United States under some of the most extraordinary circumstances in American history—a four-year civil war had just concluded and the President who had successfully held the country together had just been assassinated. Johnson was born on December 29, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina, and his parents, like their predecessor’s, were illiterate. He grew up in poverty, never went to school, and learned the tailor trade at the age of thirteen, opening his own tailor shop at the age of seventeen after migrating to Greeneville, Tennessee. In 1827, he married Eliza McCardle, and together the Johnsons would have five children.
Andrew Johnson became politically active shortly after his move to Tennessee. From 1828-1830, he served as an Alderman in Greenville, and, in 1834 and 1838, mayor. From 1835-1837 and 1839-1841, he served in the Tennessee House of Representatives. In 1841, he was elected to the Tennessee Senate. Johnson’s first venture into national politics came in 1843 when he was elected to Congress, where he served from 1843-1853. In 1853, Johnson was elected to the chief executive position in Tennessee, serving as governor from 1853-1857. In 1857, Johnson returned to Congress, this time as a Senator, resigning his seat in 1862 when Lincoln appointed him military governor of Tennessee.
As the states in the lower south rolled out of the Union one by one, Johnson worked hard to keep his state of Tennessee from joining them. But, after the bombardment of Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops, Tennessee followed her fellow southern states and joined the Confederacy. In 1864, President Lincoln tapped Johnson as his running mate for reelection to the chief executive’s office, even though Johnson was a Democrat and remained a Democrat throughout his tenure in office. However, shortly after Lincoln’s inaugural, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson assumed the Presidency.
Johnson’s primary concern as president was the reconstruction of the South. His stance on reconstruction was similar to Lincoln’s, in that he was not as harsh on the South as the Radical Republicans in Congress wanted. In May 1865, Johnson issued his Amnesty Proclamation, which required an oath of loyalty from former confederates, who would then be pardoned and have their property restored (except slaves) that had be confiscated by Federal officials during the war. The only people not included in this proclamation were high-ranking military and civilian Confederate officials and those who resigned their positions in the Federal government to serve the in the Confederacy. Johnson issued a second proclamation outlining his plan for how the states should go about getting themselves back into the Union. Under this plan, the President would appoint a governor to each state under reconstruction. A convention would then be called to draft a new constitution for the state. The franchise would be given only to those men who had taken the loyalty oath and who had been eligible to vote in 1861. The states were then directed to rescind their ordinances of secession, and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery.
Johnson’s reconstruction plan was not going well. In 1865, Congress established the Joint Committee on Reconstruction to decide what to do about those states that were nor fulfilling their obligation under reconstruction. Many states were electing former Confederates to office and adopting “Black Codes” which denied the freedmen their basic Constitutional rights, and Congress was denying Southerners elected from unreconstructed states their seats. Johnson felt threatened by this new joint committee, for he believed reconstruction should be left up to the President, not Congress.
Congress took a hard line with Johnson and his reconstruction policies, passing the Freedman’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Act over his vetoes. To put muscle behind the Civil Rights Act, Congress passed and got ratified the Fourteenth Amendment (which Johnson opposed) giving everyone born or naturalized in the United States citizenship and gave all person of all states equal protection of the law and saying a state could not deny any person their rights of life, liberty, and property without “due process of law.” Tennessee was one of the first states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment.
In 1867, President Johnson vetoed the Military Reconstruction Act which stated that all those states that had not yet been reconstructed be divided into five military districts and put under martial law and give blacks, who up to this point had been denied the franchise under presidential reconstruction, the right to vote. Johnson vetoed the bill, and, like Congress’s other reconstruction bills vetoed by Johnson, was overridden. The President refused to abide with the Military Reconstruction Bill. He relieved Philip Sheridan from command of the Louisiana and Texas district and suspended Edwin Stanton from the cabinet for disloyalty (Stanton had been working with Congress to undermine Johnson’s reconstruction policy.)
Stanton’s suspension outraged Congress, who began impeachment proceedings against Johnson for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the charge being he violated the Tenure of Office Act. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presided over the Senate trial with former Union General Benjamin Butler as the primary House manager trying the case against the President. The Senate acquitted Johnson of the charges 35-19, failing to get the required two-thirds vote to remove him from office by one vote (36 votes were needed). After the impeachment scare, Johnson was more willing to work with Congress under the Military Reconstruction Act.
Johnson did not stand for reelection in 1868, knowing he could not win under the circumstances. Instead, the Democrats nominated Horatio Seymour and the Republicans nominated the “Hero of Appomattox,” Ulysses S. Grant. Johnson returned to Tennessee, where he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1875. He served for just a few months before dying on July 31, 1875, in Elizabethtown, Tennessee. He is buried in Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, Greeneville, Greene County, Tennessee.
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