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date: 23 October 2021

Johnson, Andrewfree

(29 December 1808–31 July 1875)

Johnson, Andrewfree

(29 December 1808–31 July 1875)
  • Hans L. Trefousse

Andrew Johnson.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-13017 DLC).

Johnson, Andrew (29 December 1808–31 July 1875), seventeenth president of the United States, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, the son of the bank porter Jacob Johnson and the seamstress Mary McDonough. He lost his father at an early age and was apprenticed to the tailor James J. Selby. Like many poor whites, he never went to school but apparently learned to read and write at the tailor shop. At the age of fifteen he engaged in some youthful prank and ran away, causing Selby to post a reward of $10 for his apprehension. He returned in 1826 to settle his affairs with his employer but was unable to do so. He left on foot for Tennessee, then worked at his trade in Columbia, only to come back after six months to help his family. Together with his mother and stepfather, he set out once more for Tennessee, this time reaching the village of Greeneville, where he made his permanent home.

In Greeneville Johnson met Eliza McCardle (Eliza McCardle Johnson), a shoemaker’s daughter, whom he married in nearby Warrensburg in 1827. The attractive brunette and the swarthy, carefully groomed, black-haired newcomer had five children.

Johnson soon prospered. Talented and adept at business, he also frequented a local debating society, where he displayed a gift for public speaking. In 1829 he was elected alderman on a mechanics’ ticket. He remained in village government for the next eight years, serving as mayor in 1834 and again in 1837. In 1835 he was elected to the Tennessee legislature, where he stood out as an advocate of economy and an enemy of railroads. He was defeated for reelection in 1837 but regained his seat in 1839.

By that time Johnson, whose political affiliation had not been too clearly determined, had become a Democrat of the strictest sort. Taking Andrew Jackson as his model, he combined Jacksonian notions of the rule of the common man with Jeffersonian concepts of agrarianism—principles from which he never swerved afterward. His oratorical gifts and organizational talents enabled him to build up a firm following in his home county of Greene, and in 1841 he moved to the state senate. There he stood out as one of the leaders of the so-called “immortal thirteen,” a group of Democrats who prevented the election of a U.S. senator by refusing to go into joint session with the Whig assembly.

In 1843 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he remained for the next ten years. Making a name for himself as an advocate of extreme economy, he was also the sponsor of a homestead act, a measure to enable every head of a family to enter sixty acres of public land free of charge. These policies estranged him from more conservative members of the Democratic party, including President James K. Polk, although he strongly supported the war with Mexico. They also alienated him from such southern spokesmen as Jefferson Davis because they would not benefit slaveholders. That he was an orthodox defender of slavery (he himself acquired some eight or nine slaves) and firmly insisted on the superiority of the white race made no difference: many southern leaders considered him unreliable.

During the biennial campaigns for his seat, Johnson was subjected to fierce attacks, particularly from “Parson” William G. Brownlow, who ran against him in 1845. He replied in kind and made enemies not only among Whigs but also among Democrats, particularly the “Nashville clique,” which resented his populist appeals to the common man. Finally, in 1853, his opponents succeeded in so gerrymandering his district as to make his reelection impossible.

Johnson turned the tables on his antagonists. Securing the nomination for governor when he could no longer hope to win in his home district, he defeated Gustavus A. Henry, the author of the redistricting bill, and was elected governor in spite of opposition within his own party. He emphasized his populism in a sensational inaugural address in which he declared that Christianity and democracy proceeded in converging lines, but because of the limited powers of Tennessee governors, the chief executives were unable to accomplish much. He did, however, use his office as a forum for his ideas, and in 1855 he was reelected after a bitter campaign against the Know-Nothing candidate, Meredith P. Gentry, whose intolerance he had effectively denounced.

Johnson had always viewed the governorship as a stepping stone to higher office, and in 1857 he realized his ambition. Chosen U.S. senator, he advanced there the same causes he had espoused in the House. Still opposing federal expenditures, he voted against many internal improvement projects and resumed his advocacy of the homestead bill. Endlessly agitating for the measure, he finally succeeded in obtaining its passage on 19 July 1860, only to have it vetoed by President James Buchanan two days later.

Johnson had hopes of winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 1860. His quest was in vain, and the split in the party led him reluctantly to endorse the proslavery ticket of John C. Breckinridge and Joseph Lane. In spite of his spirited defense of the “peculiar institution,” however, he opposed secession. Like the majority of the citizens of East Tennessee, he was an unconditional Unionist.

The election of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent secession crisis confronted Johnson with a difficult choice. Should he, like other Tennessee Democrats, uphold southern pretentions, or should he declare his Unionism, a position more popular among the opposition in East Tennessee than among his own party associates? Johnson never hesitated; fully convinced that the Union must be preserved and knowing that there would be no future for him in a southern Confederacy dominated by men like Jefferson Davis, whom he had fought for years, he defied the southern mainstream. After introducing constitutional amendments calling for the direct election of presidents, limitation of the terms of Supreme Court justices, and the division of the remaining territories between free and slave states, on 18–19 December 1860, in a ringing Senate speech in support of these amendments, he called secession treason and demanded that the government enforce the Constitution and the laws. Although he never said that states could be coerced—he wanted individuals to be held to their obedience—he was denounced as a traitor throughout the South. But in the North he became a hero, and his reputation was not diminished by two more antisecession speeches on 5–6 February and 2 March 1861.

One of the results of Johnson’s militant addresses was that Unionists in Tennessee defeated the call for a convention and elected loyal delegates. After the firing upon Fort Sumter, however, not even Johnson’s campaigning in company with his erstwhile opponent, the Whig Thomas A. R. Nelson, could overcome secessionist sentiment in a second election, although East Tennessee remained Unionist. The senator had to flee to the North, where he was lionized as the only member of the upper house of Congress from a seceding state who remained loyal.

After a number of addresses in midwestern cities, Johnson returned to Washington to take part in the special session of Congress, which opened on July fourth. He vigorously supported all measures to further the war effort and cosponsored the Johnson-Crittenden Resolutions declaring that the war was not being prosecuted for the purpose “of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions” of the insurgent states “but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution” and that as soon as these objects were accomplished the conflict ought to cease.

Johnson also sought to obtain help for East Tennessee, then occupied by the Confederates. He implored the administration and traveled to Ohio and Kentucky to gain the support of generals in command but made little headway. When in December he returned for the regular session of Congress, he became a member of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which sought to spur on laggard generals.

On 3 March 1862, shortly after the fall of Nashville, Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of Tennessee. Hoping to lead his fellow citizens back to their allegiance to the United States, the governor established at Nashville a vigorous regime seeking to discourage Confederate sympathizers. He kept order, disallowed the election of disloyal candidates, and sought to strengthen the defenses of the city. But because of the continued southern occupation of East Tennessee until 1863 and frequent hostile raids elsewhere in the state, he was unable to organize the new government the president desired. Although he collaborated with conservatives to secure the exemption of Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation, by the summer of 1863 he came to the conclusion that slavery should go. This put him at odds with conservative Unionists, a rift that was deepened when he imposed more stringent oaths for voters than had Lincoln. He demanded a declaration of a desire for the success of the Union, whereas the president had merely demanded a pledge of allegiance. Not until January 1865 did he finally succeed in inaugurating steps leading to the formation of a Unionist government.

Because of the need to attract “war Democrats” to the Lincoln ticket, Johnson was nominated vice president at the 1864 Baltimore National Union Party Convention. During the subsequent campaign, he promised blacks that he would be their “Moses,” leading them out of bondage. Still, he never abandoned his racist prejudices. In November 1864 he was elected vice president, and on 4 March 1865 he took the oath of office. Already weakened by illness, he sought to steady himself with whiskey before the ceremony. He was obviously inebriated and delivered a painful harangue.

On 14 April Johnson urged Lincoln to punish leading insurgents swiftly. That night, Johnson was awakened by the news of Lincoln’s assassination. Taking the oath on the morning of 15 April at the Kirkwood House, he made a few dignified remarks and announced his intention to keep Lincoln’s cabinet.

Shortly after his assumption of the presidency, Johnson conferred with his former colleagues on the Committee on the Conduct of the War, whom he reassured about his attitude. “Treason must be made infamous and traitors must be impoverished,” he said. Charles Sumner and Salmon P. Chase even thought he favored black suffrage. In reality, however, he had no such ideas. Firmly believing in the illegality of secession, he was convinced that the seceded states were still members of the Union. Therefore the federal government had no right to dictate suffrage qualifications to them. Accordingly, after recognizing the Restored Government of Virginia, on 29 May 1865 he issued a proclamation of amnesty to all former insurgents who were willing to take an oath of loyalty. Only fourteen exempted classes, including all persons worth more than $20,000, were excluded. At the same time, in a proclamation later extended to other states, he unfolded the so-called Presidential Plan of Reconstruction by appointing William W. Holden provisional governor of North Carolina and inviting the legal voters of 1861 to set up a loyal government. He suggested that they ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, nullify the secession ordinances, and repudiate the Confederate debt, but he did not insist upon extending suffrage to the freedmen; neither did he insist upon these conditions. Although he urged Mississippi to enfranchise those blacks who could read and write or who owned property, he made it clear that he was doing so only because of political considerations, and the state failed to take his advice.

The result of these policies was a resurgence of conservative power in the South. Not one of the restored states enfranchised a single freedman; on the contrary, they enacted stringent black codes, remanding the freedmen to a status close to slavery. They elected former Confederate officers, including Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, to Congress. At the same time, Johnson ordered General Oliver O. Howard, the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, to restore lands already cultivated by blacks to their former white owners.

When Congress met again in December 1865, all the states except Texas had been organized in accordance with the president’s plan. Both for ideological and political reasons, the indiscriminate readmission of southern Democrats did not suit the Republican majority. The radicals, led by Thaddeus Stevens, prevailed upon their colleagues to set up a Joint Committee on Reconstruction, to which all matters pertaining to the South were to be referred. In addition, on opening day, 4 December, the clerk of the House refused to include a single southern member-elect in his roll call.

Johnson’s conciliatory message, written by George Bancroft, was well received, but a favorable report on conditions in the South composed by General Ulysses S. Grant conflicted with one submitted by Carl Schurz, who had also toured the section at the president’s request. Schurz had found the situation so bad that he incurred the president’s anger and was coldly received.

A complete break between the president and the Republicans in Congress followed. In February 1866 Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill extending the life and powers of the organization, and in March he vetoed the subsequent Civil Rights Act granting citizenship and equal protection of the laws to freedmen. When on Washington’s Birthday he bitterly attacked leading radicals, it was clear that the president and Congress could no longer cooperate. The Freedmen’s Bureau Bill veto was upheld, but the veto of the Civil Rights Act was overridden. From then on a two-thirds majority was available to override all of the president’s objections, and a new Freedmen’s Bureau Bill was passed on 16 July 1866. And much as he disliked the Fourteenth Amendment, passed in June 1866, he did not have the power to veto it, although he sought to prevent its ratification in the states. His assertions that all was well in the South were contradicted by a riot in Memphis in May and a massacre of black and white Unionists in New Orleans in July, and that month his policies caused three members of his cabinet to resign.

The election of 1866 was a test of popular opinion of the president and Congress. Johnson, eager to organize a new party of conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats, called a National Union convention in Philadelphia in August; the Republicans countered with a Southern Loyalists’ meeting, and two opposing Soldiers’ and Sailors’ conventions also met. Late in August the president embarked upon an ill-advised “swing around the circle,” a campaign tour to Chicago, but his speeches were so crass that they did him more harm than good. The fall elections further strengthened the radicals. Johnson might well have compromised, but pugnacious as ever he refused to budge. Animated by his devotion to what he considered the correct interpretation of the Constitution and by his racial prejudices, he persisted in his opposition to the Fourteenth Amendment and counseled southern states to refuse to ratify it.

This intransigence led to restrictions on his powers and more stringent Reconstruction measures. After arranging for a meeting of the Fortieth Congress immediately after the expiration of the Thirty-ninth, on 2 March 1867 the Republicans enacted the Tenure of Office Act, requiring senatorial approval of dismissals of presidential appointees, and a military appropriations act mandating that orders of the president be issued through the commanding general of the army. In addition, they passed the Reconstruction Acts remanding southern states to military rule and requiring black suffrage and the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment prior to readmission to the Union. Johnson’s vetoes, as usual, were overridden.

In the meantime, a movement to impeach the president had been inaugurated. Upon the motion of James M. Ashley, an investigation was started to see whether Johnson was guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. Johnson did not make things easier for himself by allowing his attorney general to so construct the Reconstruction Acts as to lessen greatly their impact. Congress passed another measure specifically reversing these interpretations.

Johnson, however, remained as determined as before. Aware of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton’s collaboration with the radicals, on 12 August 1867 the president dismissed him and appointed General Grant secretary ad interim. He also replaced the more radical commanding generals in the South, first Philip H. Sheridan and Daniel E. Sickles, then John Pope.

When Congress reconvened in December, the judiciary committee brought in a resolution of impeachment. Because the charges were not based on any specific criminal acts, on 7 December they were easily defeated. But in January 1868, in accordance with the Tenure of Office Act, the Senate, refusing to concur in Stanton’s suspension, ordered his reinstatement.

Johnson was now determined to rid himself of his troublesome subordinate once and for all. After first trying to induce General Grant to cooperate with him in denying the secretary access to the war office—an effort that not only failed but brought about a complete break between the president and the general—he sought to persuade General William T. Sherman or John Potts, the clerk of the War Department, to take over. Unsuccessful in these attempts, he appointed Lorenzo Thomas, the adjutant general, secretary ad interim. Amid scenes of great excitement, the House impeached Johnson on 24 February. It framed eleven tenuous charges, concerning mainly the alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act by the dismissal of Stanton and the appointment of Thomas but also including an accusation that the president had disregarded the command of the army provisions of the appropriations act and that he had delivered speeches tending to bring Congress into disrepute. The eleventh article, drawn up by Thaddeus Stevens, combined most of these accusations as well as an allegation that he had failed to carry out the Reconstruction Acts.

The trial that followed was dramatic. The chief justice presided; the prosecution, called the managers, included Stevens and Benjamin F. Butler as well as the moderate John A. Bingham. Johnson’s defense team boasted of such luminaries as former justice Benjamin R. Curtis, future secretary of state William M. Evarts, and former attorney general Henry Stanbery. To keep Thomas out, Stanton barricaded himself in the War Department. On 13 March Johnson’s counsel asked for a delay of forty days; ten were granted, and on 30 March the formal trial opened with a flamboyant speech by Butler. The president made a number of deals with doubtful senators, assuring James W. Grimes that he would no longer obstruct the Reconstruction Acts, appointing John M. Schofield secretary of war, and promising patronage to Edmund G. Ross of Kansas. When on 16 May a ballot was taken on the eleventh article of impeachment, seven Republicans deserted their party to acquit Johnson by one vote, with the same result on 26 May when the Senate considered the second and third articles.

Thus the impeachment failed, partially because of concern about the constitutional implications of a conviction for the separation of powers, partially because of the weakness of the case, and partially because of fear of the legally mandated succession of Benjamin F. Wade, the president pro tem of the Senate, who was unorthodox on financial matters as well as an advocate of feminist and workers’ causes. The presidential system of government was thus preserved, and conservative southerners were greatly encouraged.

During Johnson’s remaining months in office he had little real power. His effort to obtain the Democratic nomination for president failed. Encouraged by the purchase of Alaska negotiated by Secretary of State William H. Seward in 1867, he tried to settle outstanding differences with Great Britain, particularly those arising from the Alabama claims, but the Senate rejected the convention negotiated by his envoy, Reverdy Johnson, and the Earl of Clarendon. A temporary peace with Indian nations capped his western policy, and a sweeping amnesty on Christmas 1868 included even Jefferson Davis. In February 1869 Johnson also pardoned the surviving members of the Lincoln assassination conspiracy, including Dr. Samuel A. Mudd.

On 4 March 1869, Johnson left office. Returning to Greeneville, he was anxious for vindication. In the fall he sought unsuccessfully to win reelection as senator from Tennessee. He made another unsuccessful effort in 1872, when he contested the seat for congressman-at-large. Finally, in 1875, overcoming almost incredible odds, he was returned to the Senate. One last speech in the special session called by President Grant betrayed Johnson’s animus against Grant. He died a few months later near Carter’s Station, Tennessee.

A skillful politician in his home state, Andrew Johnson was confronted with an unfamiliar milieu when he became president. His term, on the surface, was a failure; in reality, however, he so undermined Reconstruction efforts that in the end the congressional policy did not succeed. For another three generations the South remained a “white man’s country,” just as he had desired.


The papers of Andrew Johnson are in the Library of Congress and are being published in an annotated and extended form by LeRoy P. Graf, Ralph W. Haskins, and Paul H. Bergeron, eds., The Papers of Andrew Johnson (1967–). Each volume contains a valuable introduction. The most modern biographies are Hans L. Trefousse, Andrew Johnson: A Biography (1989), and the shorter James E. Sefton, Andrew Johnson and the Uses of Constitutional Power (1980). Older treatments include Lately Thomas, The First President Johnson: The Three Lives of the Seventeenth President of the United States of America (1968); George Fort Milton, The Age of Hate: Andrew Johnson and the Radicals (1930); Lloyd Paul Stryker, Andrew Johnson: A Study in Courage (1929); and Robert Winston, Andrew Johnson: Plebeian and Patriot (1928). The presidential period has been well covered in Albert Castel, The Presidency of Andrew Johnson (1979), and in part in Eric L. McKitrick, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (1960). The impeachment is treated in Michael Les Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (1973), and in Hans L. Trefousse, Impeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction (1975), as well as in the pioneering but dated David Miller DeWitt, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (1903).