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  Name:  Andrew Johnson
  Born:  December 29, 1808
  Died:  July 31, 1875

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Johnson, Andrew (December 29, 1808 – July 31, 1875)

Andrew Johnson was the 17th president of the United States, a congressman, a senator, and the Union military governor of Tennessee. 

He was born on December 29, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Mary McDonough Johnson and Jacob Johnson, a bank porter.  His father died when young Johnson was only three years old, and his widowed mother worked as a spinner and weaver to support her sons.  Johnson worked as a tailor’s apprentice from the age of 14, and then in 1827 opened his own tailor shop in Greeneville, Tennessee, where his family had moved.

Inspired by the spirit of Jacksonian democracy, Johnson helped found the Democratic Party in his region, and was elected town councilman in 1829 and mayor in 1831.  He was a strict constructionist of the U.S. Constitution and an advocate of states’ rights who distrusted the power of government at all levels.  He won election to the Tennessee state legislature in 1835, 1839, and 1841, before being elected to Congress in 1843.  As a member of the U.S. House, Johnson opposed federal government involvement in the economy through tariffs and internal improvements.  He lost his congressional seat in 1852 because of gerrymandering by the Whig–dominated state legislature. In 1853, he narrowly elected governor of Tennessee, and reelected two years later.  In 1857, the Tennessee state legislature elected him to U.S. Senate.

While in the Senate, Johnson became an advocate of the Homestead Bill, which was opposed by most Southern Democrats and their slave–owning, plantation constituents. This issue strained the already tense relations between Johnson and wealthy planters in western Tennessee. He further antagonized them when he initially endorsed Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1860.  After the national party split into regional factions, Johnson backed the Southern Democratic nominee, John Breckinridge, but by then the rupture between Johnson and most Southern Democrats was too deep to heal.  The break became final when he allied himself with pro–Union Whigs to fight the secessionist Democrats in his state for several months after Lincoln’s election.

When the Civil War began, Johnson was the only senator from a Confederate state who did not leave Congress to return to the South. During the war, he joined Republicans and pro–war Democrats in the National Union Party.  By 1862, Union military forces had captured enough of Tennessee for Lincoln to name him as the state’s military governor. In order to attract the political support of War Democrats in 1864, Lincoln selected Johnson as his vice–presidential running mate on the National Union ticket. Johnson delivered his vice–presidential inaugural address while inebriated, which lent credence to rumors that he was an alcoholic.

Within six weeks of taking office as vice president, Johnson succeeded to the presidency in April 1865 after Lincoln’s assassination.  The new president faced the difficult situation of developing a policy for the postwar reconstruction of the Union.  Committed to limited government and a strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution, Johnson’s Reconstruction plan would have allowed the former Confederate states to return quickly to the Union. This would have left the civil rights of the former slaves completely under the authority of the former slave–owners who controlled the state governments.

Incensed at these policies, congressional Republicans wrested control of Reconstruction from the president and began passing their own program over Johnson’s vetoes. The implementation of military districts and supervision across the South in 1867 piqued the president to aid Southern resistance and to attempt to thwart the process by firing Secretary of State Edwin Stanton, who was cooperating with Radical Republicans on Reconstruction.  Stanton’s removal violated the recently passed Tenure of Office Act and prompted the Republican–controlled House to impeach the president in February 1868.  The removal trial in the Senate in May 1868 resulted in his acquittal by one vote.

Johnson remained in office as the lamest of lame–duck presidents, and unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1868. At the end of his term in March 1869, he returned to Tennessee where he began rebuilding his political base of support.  Over the next few years, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for various offices.  Finally, in 1875, an alliance of Republicans and a faction of the Democratic Party in the Tennessee legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate. He served only five months before he died on July 31, 1875, near Elizabethton, Tennessee.

Sources consulted: Trefousse, Hans L., “Johnson, Andrew,” American National Biography; Dictionary of American Biography.


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