President #17, C-SPAN Historians’ ranking #41
You Cannot Stop Reading This Unless You Have Prior Approval of the U.S. Senate
Andrew Johnson’s story could have been one of the most inspiring in American history. Here was a man born in to extreme poverty, with no formal education at all, and, through very hard work and dedicated service to his country, he ended up as President.
And once he became President, Andrew Johnson was a colossal failure. He accomplished almost nothing in office (well, we got Alaska!) He claimed to care deeply about the U.S. Constitution, but those feelings somehow manifested itself in overt racism.
Johnson would become most famous for surviving an impeachment trial by a margin of one vote. But, even though Johnson managed to stay in office, it did little to enhance Johnson’s historical reputation. Johnson ranks just one notch above James Buchanan. And it does not help Johnson’s reputation that he succeeded Abraham Lincoln.
Hans L. Trefousse, who will appear again on this blog, gives one of the fairest portrayals of Johnson that any modern historian could. And you can tell very quickly that Trefousse has little regard for our 17th President.
Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on December 29, 1808. His father, who was very likely illiterate, died when Andrew was three. His mother, unable to properly provide for her children, had Andrew serve as an apprentice tailor. While working as an apprentice, young Andrew was taught to read and write. (To this day, there are books that state that Johnson’s wife Eliza taught him how to read and write, but Trefousse insists that Johnson was already literate by the time he married.)
The life of an apprentice tailor was arduous. Johnson toiled for long hours for no pay. He was supposed to serve as an apprentice until he was 21. By the time he was around 16, Johnson decided to head out on his own. But, because he was breaking an apprentice contract, Johnson had to leave North Carolina to work on his own. Johnson ended up in Greeneville, Tennessee.
In Greeneville, Johnson quickly made a name for himself. He proved to be an excellent tailor, and this provided him with a steady income. This, in turn, made him acceptable to women as marriage material. Johnson’s wife, Eliza, would be one of his strongest supporters; although, she was plagued by illness much of her life.
Andrew Johnson quickly learned that he had an excellent speaking voice. And, he proved quite adept at using it to convince other people to do things. Naturally, he went into politics.
Johnson started out as an alderman in Greeneville, worked his way up to mayor, and then to a seat in the Tennessee Legislature. After losing his first reelection bid, Johnson returned two years later to Nashville and wouldn’t lose another election again until after his term in the White House was over.
From the Tennessee Legislature, Johnson made his way to the United States House of Representatives. Johnson’s heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson and his political philosophies would always be based on their philosophies. Johnson believed in an agrarian America, hard currency payments for debts, and a small government.
Since Johnson had come from such poor origins, he wanted others to have a chance to better themselves. His idea for this was homesteading. Johnson repeatedly pushed for a Homestead Act that would grant every white male (being white helped a lot in Andrew Johnson’s world) 160 acres of land free of charge from the Federal Government, provided that improvements were made to the land within one year.
Homestead laws, however, were not popular among Johnson’s fellow Southerners. For starters, most land in the West was not suitable for plantation slavery. Also, Southerners feared increased tariffs, feeling that the Federal government would have to recoup lost income from land sales. (The Homestead Act would not be passed until 1862 when there weren’t any Southerners around to vote against it. That also helped in the creation of the states of Nevada and West Virginia.)
Johnson left the House in 1853 after his district was reapportioned, making it far less inviting for him to run. So, Johnson decided to run for Governor of Tennessee.
Running a populist campaign, Johnson triumphed and moved into the highest office in the state of Tennessee. This was quite an accomplishment for an unschooled apprentice tailor. But, Johnson was not satisfied.
During Johnson’s time, the governor of Tennessee had little real power. He couldn’t veto legislation, and could only appoint officials in a few parts of the government. But, the job carried a great deal of prestige. And it thrust Johnson into the national spotlight.
Johnson hoped that he could garner the Democratic nomination for President in 1856. But, he had little support. Instead, Johnson decided to run for the Senate, which he entered in 1857.
To say that matters were contentious in Congress in 1857 would be understating the matter. Johnson took an unusual approach in the Senate. He was a Southerner (and a slave owner) who wanted to maintain slavery, but refused to back the idea of secession. In fact, Johnson was stridently opposed to secession.
Johnson’s opposition to secession came from several factors. First, Johnson had no regard for the rich Southern aristocrats who owned large amounts of slaves and prospered greatly from their work. Second, Johnson was an ardent admirer of Andrew Jackson and wanted to emulate his stand on the South Carolina Nullification Crisis. Third, Johnson was fanatically devoted to the wording of the Constitution. Johnson found no words in the Constitution that would allow a state to secede.
Andrew Johnson was the only Senator from a state in the Confederacy who refused to join up with the secessionists. Unpopular (to put it mildly) back home in Tennessee, Johnson spent the early days of the Civil War in Washington.
But by 1862, Union troops had made inroads in Tennessee, controlling enough territory that President Lincoln felt that there was a need to have a Union leader in control of the politics of the area. Johnson, who was widely heralded in the North for his anti-secessionist stance, was appointed the military governor of Tennessee.
While in the job, Johnson took a firm hand against secessionists. He also vowed not to surrender Nashville when Confederate troops tried to reclaim, going as far as to threaten to burn the city down rather than surrender it. (Union troops intervened in time.) Johnson swung over to the abolitionist side in 1863. Although, he did not embrace any sort of equality for blacks, especially voting rights.
Johnson was now one of the most popular Southerners in the North. And with the election of 1864 looming, Lincoln decided to add Johnson to the ticket. Although it may seem hard to believe, Lincoln was worried that he would lose his bid for reelection. So, he got rid of his Radical Republican Vice President Hannibal Hamlin in favor of Johnson, whom he felt would present a more conciliatory tone. (Lincoln also wanted to remove Johnson as a potential rival from the Democratic side.) For the 1864 election, the Republican Party became the Union Party. Once the war started to turn decisively in the Union’s favor, Lincoln won reelection easily.
Now, we skip ahead to the fateful day of March 4, 1865. At that time, Vice Presidents were inaugurated before a joint session of Congress in a smaller ceremony than the Presidential inauguration. Johnson was not feeling well that day (he likely was suffering from typhoid fever.) To make himself feel better, Johnson had a belt of whiskey. No change. He had another and decided to proceed into the Capitol for the ceremony. However, he decided to have one more glass of whiskey just to make sure.
In 1865, there were no food labeling laws like we have today. Because today, Johnson would likely have found his bottle of whiskey to have this advice: “WARNING: EXCESSIVE CONSUMPTION OF THIS BEVERAGE MAY LEAD TO EMBARRASSING DISPLAYS WHEN ADDRESSING A JOINT SESSION OF CONGRESS.”
Johnson stumbled his way through the oath of office, and then gave a speech that was about as coherent as you would expect from someone who had just downed three shots. He may have been the first Vice President to be given the hook (metaphorically) on stage to keep him from further embarrassing himself. The American public now had one image of Johnson: a stupid, bumbling drunk. (I can’t find a transcript of the speech online, but it’s probably something like this.)
Although Johnson had two sons who succumbed to alcoholism, Trefousse insists that Andrew Johnson did not have a drinking problem. There are no other reports of him appearing drunk in public. Johnson just picked the worst time ever to be drunk in front of a crowd.
Johnson’s term as Vice President was short. Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. Johnson was now thrust in to the highest office in the land and charged with the duty of sorting out the aftermath of the Civil War. Johnson initially took a hard line against the South and vowed numerous trials for treason. Quickly, he backed off that idea.
Before his death, Lincoln had proposed the “10 per cent plan” for the Confederate states. If 10% of the voters took a loyalty oath, a state would be readmitted to full status in Congress. Also, the defeated states would have to agree to abolish slavery.
Johnson adopted this plan, but immediately ran into objections from the Radical Republicans in Congress. This was a term used to describe the wing of the Republican Party that wanted to punish the South for the war, as well as give all of the recently freed slaves full voting rights.
To further infuriate the Radicals, Johnson appointed governors for all the Confederate states. Johnson picked several men who were strongly opposed by the Radicals, who felt that Johnson was just putting the Confederates back in charge. Johnson had even pardoned Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy.
The new state governments in turn chose new representatives for Congress, none of them allowing blacks to vote. When these Representatives and Senators came to Washington to be seated in Congress, they were turned away. Johnson could do nothing but complain.
A showdown was looming. First, Congress passed a law extending the Freedmen’s Bureau, a Federal agency that helped the newly freed slaves. Johnson vetoed it as being unconstitutional. Johnson believed that there were state governments in place to handle this matter. Congress quickly overrode Johnson’s veto.
Then, an even more ambitious bill, called the Reconstruction Bill was passed by Congress. This divided 10 of the 11 former Confederate states into five military districts that would be run by Army generals. (Tennessee was left out of this plan and Johnson insisted that Tennessee had never left the Union.) Johnson vetoed this bill, and Congress overrode it.
And so it would continue. Congress would pass a measure, Johnson would veto it, and Congress would override it. Johnson would veto 29 different bills and be overriden 15 times, more than any U.S. President. (One of the vetoes that was overridden made Nebraska a state.)
Johnson was most strongly opposed to something that he could not veto, the Fourteenth Amendment. Congress had made ratification of this amendment necessary for any state to be readmitted to Congress. Johnson could not tolerate an amendment that would allow equal rights for whites and blacks. Throughout his political career, Johnson made numerous speeches that showed he was overtly racist. Johnson did not believe that the United States could survive with the votes of black citizens.
In his veto message of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 (which later was turned into the Fourteenth Amendment), you can read how Johnson is appalled at the idea of the freed slaves becoming citizens. They lacked the “requisite qualifications to entitle them to the privileges and immunities of United States citizenship.”
So, Johnson decided to go around the country by train campaigning against the Fourteenth Amendment. This trip, known as the “Swing Round the Circle”, was a disaster. Johnson spoke to crowds of hecklers from the back of his train, deriding any civil rights legislation, while holding himself up as the lone defender of the Constitution. By the time of the 1866 off-year elections, the Radical Republicans won major gains in Congress, isolating Johnson politically.
But, the Radicals were not satisfied with just isolating Johnson politically. They wanted to finish him off for good by impeaching him. The first attempt, in 1867, did not get out of the House, as there were really no charges to bring against Johnson, except for being a jerk.
Congress then set a trap for Johnson with the passage of the Tenure of Office Act. This required that any officer appointed by the President with Senate approval could only be removed with Senate approval. Johnson knew that this act was unconstitutional and was hoping to test it in court.
Johnson decided that he wanted to remove his Secretary of War, William Stanton, whom he felt was disloyal to him (and he was.) Stanton, interestingly supported Johnson’s veto of the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson decided he wanted to replace Stanton with Ulysses Grant. But, Grant refused for a variety of reasons, most of them political. Johnson then asked William T. Sherman to take over. Sherman refused because he didn’t want to move to Washington and get involved with politics. Finally, Johnson turned to General Lorenzo Thomas to tell Stanton that he was suspended and that he, Thomas, was taking over as Secretary of War on an interim basis.
When Thomas got to Stanton’s office on February 21, 1868 to tell him to leave, Stanton balked because he knew that Thomas did not have Senate approval to remove him from his post. So, Stanton had Thomas arrested on charges of violating the Tenure of Office Act and remained in his office. Although Stanton would drop the charges to avoid giving Johnson the chance to test the legality of the Tenure of Office Act, Radical Republicans saw this as their chance to be rid of Johnson.
The House quickly convened and voted to impeach Johnson, just three days after Stanton’s attempted ouster. A trial in the Senate was quickly set up. And it appeared that Johnson was a dead duck.
However, Johnson’s attorneys felt that they had a good strategy to get an acquittal. First, they told Johnson, who wanted to appear in front of Congress to defend himself, to stay in the White House for the trial and keep his mouth shut, which he did. Second, the defense team knew that there wasn’t much of a case against Johnson and the charges were mainly political in nature.
Further helping out Johnson was the fact that the man who would have succeeded Johnson, Senate President pro tem Ben Wade of Ohio, was widely disliked by New York financiers. Wade favored an inflationary scheme to pay off Civil War debts. That is, Wade wanted the government to print a bunch of money, hand it out, and pay off the debt that way. Wade had also been defeated in his attempt to win reelection to the Senate, so he was a lame duck. Wade was also in favor of women’s suffrage and the right of labor to organize. Despite these stances, Wade was viewed foremost as a demagogue.
Finally, the case against Johnson didn’t get started in earnest until the end of March 1868. The trial finished in May, so even with a conviction, Johnson would only be out of office for eight or nine months.
The Republican prosecution team was also not the sharpest group around. Benjamin Butler was appointed chief prosecutor and he proved to be no match for Johnson’s lawyers, especially Henry Stanbery, who resigned his position as Attorney General to defend Johnson.
Yet another factor in Johnson’s favor was politics. Johnson still was able to wield patronage power. Johnson was not afraid to tell senators who were leaning toward acquittal that he could make it worth their while. One such Senator who was willing to listen to such a deal from Johnson was Edmund Ross of Kansas, who would later be one of the subjects in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.
Johnson managed to survive by the narrowest of margins, one vote. There were 27 states represented in Congress at the time. A 2/3 vote was neccessary for conviction, so 36 votes were needed. The vote ended up being 35 for guilty and 19 for not guilty. Seven Republicans broke ranks to vote to acquit. Some did it because they believed Johnson was innocent, and perhaps some were convinced by other means.
Regardless of how bad Johnson was as a President, the country was better served not to have him removed from office by impeachment. The impeachment process was put in place so Congress could remove a President or judge who was corrupt, not one who was merely unpopular.
Johnson served out the rest of his term in relative quiet. He still believed that he had done his best to preserve the Constitution. He believed that the Fourteenth Amendment would ruin the country. But, he was powerless to stop that amendment. General John Schofield took over as Secretary of War.
Despite the impeachment trial, Johnson entertained hopes of getting the Democratic nomination to run for President in 1868. But, the Democrats didn’t want him, still remembering him abandoning the party to run with Lincoln four years earlier. New York Governor Horatio Seymour ended up with the nomination. Grant and the Republicans won the election.
Although he did not attend Grant’s inauguration, Johnson was still in Washington on March 4, 1869. He conducted business at the White House and then moved out while the ceremony was going on. Johnson felt that Grant had betrayed him. He had no desire to wish him well.
Johnson went back home to Tennessee, where he was warmly received. He tried to get back into politics almost immediately, but was thwarted in a bid to win a Senate seat. A few years later, Johnson tried to win a House seat, but failed. Finally, in 1875, he won a seat in the Senate.
After being out of the spotlight, Johnson got a chance to go back to Congress and speak his mind. An unexpected special session afforded him an opportunity to be sworn in early and to give a speech. Johnson denounced Federal Reconstruction efforts in Louisiana. He had not lost his zeal for politics.
And there the story ends, Congress adjourned and Johnson went back home. On July 31, 1875, Andrew Johnson passed away at his daughter’s home in Carter Station, Tennessee of a stroke.
Trefousse’s biography does not try to look at Johnson sympathetically. Andrew Johnson’s selection as Vice President may have been one of Abraham Lincoln’s worst ideas. Johnson, as Trefousse points out, was a man of the Jacksonian Era. But, America was no longer in Andrew Jackson’s time. The country had been through a civil war. It had become industrialized. It had a growing population of people from all over the world. Andrew Johnson was ill-suited to be a leader in this time. Reconstruction was an awful time in American history. It’s hard not to see how a racist, backward-looking man only made matters worse.
Other stuff: Johnson is buried in the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Greeneville, Tennessee. It is part of the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site.
Andrew Johnson’s life was the subject of a 1942 film from MGM called “Tennessee Johnson.” Van Heflin played Johnson. It will air on Turner Classic Movies on Wednesday, July 15 at 9:30 am PT.
If you want more details on the impeachment trial, you can try Impeach Andrew Johnson, or this more legalistic one.