In celebration of the bicentennial of Andrew Johnson’s birth and to commemorate his legacy, the images exhibited in this collection attempt to examine Johnson’s controversial political career and, at the same time, provide a glimpse at his personal life and humble beginnings. A significant portion of the material represented in this online exhibit has been selected primarily from TSLA’s Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) Papers, 1846-1875; Military Governor Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) Papers, 1862-1865; and TSLA’s Tennessee Historical Society Civil War Collection, 1860-1982. The remainder of the images were drawn from various other sources, including the Library Photo and Oversized Photo Collections.
Johnson’s Personal Life and Humble Beginnings
Born December 29, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina, and orphaned at the age of four, Andrew Johnson rose from poverty to become President of the United States during one of the most controversial and difficult periods in the nation’s history. Johnson was never afforded a formal education. While his family never had much money, they found themselves in an even greater financial struggle after his father’s death. Andrew Johnson’s mother supported her children through spinning and weaving work before she eventually remarried. Johnson, along with his brother, William, was apprenticed to a tailor, during which time his life took a fateful turn.
During his apprenticeship, Johnson learned not only the tailor’s trade, but also began his informal education. In 1824, Johnson and his brother fled town after a minor scrape with the law. After venturing about for some time, which included a brief stay in South Carolina, Johnson relocated his entire family to Tennessee. He ultimately settled in Greeneville, where he used his apprenticeship skills to establish his own tailor shop.
In Greeneville, Johnson met and shortly thereafter married Eliza McCardle. It worked to Johnson’s advantage that Eliza was a well-educated woman. Through her devoted instruction, Johnson expanded his education and shaped his dream of becoming a politician. Johnson decided he needed to become an effective orator, and joined the Greeneville College debating society. Johnson’s tailor shop also became the scene of many local discussion groups, which eventually evolved into the tailor shop debating society.
Johnson’s Political Career
Johnson’s political career received its impetus through the efforts of some of the young men who frequently participated in debates at the tailor shop. In fact, Johnson’s hat was effectively thrown into the political arena by his fellow tailor shop debating society admirers. In 1829, he won a position as alderman. This election provided Johnson with his first public service position. Soon to follow was the state legislature and the beginning of a political career that spanned four decades.
In 1835, Johnson directed his attention to the Tennessee House of Representatives and was, despite the doubts of fellow Democrats, elected as the Representative for Greene and Washington Counties over Whig Matthew Stephenson. Stephenson was a former member of the Constitutional Convention and major contender. However, he apparently underestimated the vigor of his opponent, who won the election by a small margin. Although Johnson was defeated in the 1837 election, he won a seat in the Tennessee Senate in 1839. Thereafter, he served five terms in the U. S. House of Representatives (1843-1853), until he was elected governor of the State of Tennessee in 1853. One of Johnson’s most enduring legacies as governor was his support of the Bureau of Agriculture, which was established in 1854. This was Tennessee’s first state agency and it survives today as the Department of Agriculture.
Johnson served as governor until he was appointed U. S. Senator in 1857, and subsequently as military governor of Tennessee by President Lincoln in 1862. Johnson had argued passionately against secession before the outbreak of war, and Lincoln hoped that the state’s new military governor could quickly return Tennessee to the Union.
Always an advocate for the common man, Johnson’s early political career was marked by bold and decisive endeavors for change to benefit the masses. Among the more conspicuous of these efforts was his repeated, but failed, attempt at getting his beloved Homestead Bill passed. Another such effort, this time a successful one, was Johnson’s venture to pass a law providing for implementation of taxes to increase revenue and bolster the public school system in Tennessee. Other examples of Johnson’s political efforts were his support of the Compromise of 1850, introduction of amendments to the Constitution to allow for direct election of the President and U. S. Senators, and his late opposition to the poll tax. Following his term as military governor, a term which was ostensibly marked by police power governing, Johnson was named as Abraham Lincoln’s vice-presidential running mate in 1864.
Lincoln’s choice of Johnson as running mate was a carefully contrived strategy to appeal to Southern Unionists during the Civil War. Lincoln also hoped Johnson’s presence on the ballot would win the support of Northern Democrats.
Johnson’s sudden and unexpected ascent to the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination created a unique connection between Tennessee and the White House. As historian W. R. Brock points out in An American Crisis, “an accident of political history had ensured that the chief opponent of the policy of the national government was its head; and this was a situation unlikely to clarify men’s ideas or promote a satisfactory solution in the crisis of Reconstruction” (153). Paradoxically, Johnson—a Southerner—led the nation when many Southerners were disenfranchised in the years following the Civil War. It is little wonder that this “accidental” president interacted so uncomfortably with the postwar Congress.
While Johnson’s eagerness to restore the Union seemed to reflect a conciliatory spirit, other actions conflicted with this seeming open-mindedness. Johnson’s presidential term was tainted by his veto of the act to establish the Freedmen’s Bureau and a veto of the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave citizenship to blacks. On its face, Johnson’s platform may have appeared to embrace Union ideals; however, having been a slave owner himself, Johnson spoke unequivocally against abolitionists. The driving force behind Johnson’s fervent pro-Union stance was not one focused on the issues relating to slavery. Rather, it was one focused on preserving the Union, which, in Johnson’s eyes, took all precedence over peripheral issues.
As president, Johnson left a conflicting legacy. His support of the former Confederate states and his determination to pardon former Confederates frustrated and angered Congressional "Radicals." This frustration manifested itself in Congressional vetoes and ultimately in Johnson’s impeachment. Many of his actions and sympathies—before and after the war—remain subject to criticism by modern scholars. Johnson’s refusal to endorse Congressional reconstruction, along with his seeming approval of southern states’ efforts to impede progress and restrict the civil rights of blacks, has been viewed as responsible for many of the failures and shortcomings of Reconstruction. Some historians believe had Johnson appeared to support Congress in its efforts, Reconstruction would have been more successful.
Following his presidency, Johnson faced two failed attempts at winning elected office. However, in 1874, the Tennessee legislature elected him to the U. S. Senate. Johnson served in that office until his death in 1875; this final phase of his political career left him feeling vindicated for his earlier divisive actions as president. Indeed, despite his mixed reputation among scholars, the arc of Johnson’s political life remains unparalleled in American history. He is the only politician who has held all of the following offices: city alderman, mayor, state representative, state senator, governor, military governor, U. S. Representative, U.S. Senator, and President of the United States.
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Brock, W. R. An American Crisis: Congress and Reconstruction 1865-1867. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
Clemenceau, Georges. American Reconstruction 1865-1870 and the Impeachment of President Johnson. New York: The Dial Press, 1928.
Hall, Clifton R. Andrew Johnson: Military Governor of Tennessee. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1916.
Jones, James S. Life of Andrew Johnson, Seventeenth President of the United States. Greeneville, TN: East Tennessee Publishing Company, 1901.
McKitrick, Eric L., ed. Andrew Johnson: A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969.
Rable, George C. “Anatomy of a Unionist: Andrew Johnson in the Secession Crisis.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly v. 32 no. 4, Winter 1973.
Schroeder-Lein, Glenna R. and Richard Zuczek. Andrew Johnson: A Biographical Companion. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO.
Smalley, Ruth. An Interview with Andrew Johnson, Seventeenth President of the United States. Johnson City, TN: The Overmountain Press, 2003.
Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.
Stryker, Lloyd Paul. Andrew Johnson: A Study in Courage. New York: Macmillan, 1929.
T. B. Peterson & Brothers. Life, Speeches and Services of Andrew Johnson, Seventeenth President of the United States. Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson & Brothers, 1865.
Trefouse, Hans. Andrew Johnson: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.