Andrew Johnson was born in a log house in Raleigh, North Carolina, on December 29, 1808. His father was a laborer who drowned when his son was 3 years old. Johnson never attended any type of formal school, but managed to acquire basic reading skills largely on his own. At age 10 he was apprenticed to a tailor.
In 1826 Johnson’s family moved into eastern Tennessee. He opened his own tailoring shop in Greenville and was married in 1827. His wife helped him learning arithmetic and writing. Johnson’s shop became profitable and was the center of political discussion among the working elements of the community.
Johnson began as a Jacksonian Democrat at the lowest rungs of public service, then climbed steadily. He was a local alderman (1828-30), mayor (1830-33), state senator (1835-37 and 1839-41). He was elected to Congress in 1843 and served five terms. He returned to Tennessee in 1853 and was elected governor, and worked to establish the first tax-funded public schools in the state.
In 1857, Johnson took a seat in the U.S. Senate as a Democrat. Like most of his fellow party members, he fought against the protective tariff and laws designed to regulate slavery. When the secession crisis erupted, Johnson remained loyal to the Union; he would eventually become the only Southern Senator remaining in that body.
To reward his loyalty, Abraham Lincoln appointed Johnson to be the military governor of Tennessee. He was closely guarded there since many in the state regarded him as a traitor. His ties to the president would later enable him to secure an exemption for his state from the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 1864, Johnson was selected as Lincoln’s running mate in the Election of 1864, bringing a large measure of diversity to the ticket. Johnson’s detractors have charged that he was drunk while giving a speech at the inauguration. The truth of the allegation is impossible to judge, but Johnson was suffering from typhoid fever at the time and had fortified himself with a shot of brandy before speaking. In any event, Lincoln voiced his full support.
In April 1865, Johnson was sworn in a few hours after Lincoln’s death. He initially retained the previous cabinet and expressed a willingness to continue existing policies. As time passed, however, he developed a much more conservative view and opposed many of the plans of the Radical Republicans. He offended congressional Republicans by vetoing an extension of the Freedmen Bureau and by offering amnesty to many former Confederate officials.
In the 1866 off-year elections the Republicans gained enough strength to override presidential vetoes. Johnson continued to fight, arguing that Reconstruction was a presidential function; Congress thought the responsibility was theirs.
In the fall of 1867 an impeachment move was launched against Johnson, based largely on his violation of the Tenure of Office Act. He was impeached by the House of Representatives, but escaped conviction (and removal) in the Senate by a single vote.
Johnson's hope to receive the Democratic nomination in the Election of 1868 was snuffed. Following his term, he returned to his home in Greenville, Tennessee. He lost bids for the Senate and House in 1869 and 1872, but was elected to the Senate by the state legislature in 1875 and served for several months before his death on July 31, 1875.
Johnson’s presidency was largely a failure. He served in difficult times and lacked the personality to salve the passions of contending forces. However, through the offices of his secretary of state, William H. Seward, positive steps were taken in foreign affairs. Alaska, known as “Seward’s Folly," was purchased from Russia in 1867 and efforts were made to enforce the Monroe Doctrine by opposing the French presence in Mexico.
Johnson also provided a valuable service by contesting the efforts of Congress to erode the powers of the presidency.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Andrew Johnson.
Notwithstanding a mendacious press; notwithstanding a subsidized gang of hirelings who have not ceased to traduce me, I have discharged all my official duties and fulfilled my pledges. And I say here tonight that if my predecessor had lived, the vials of wrath would have poured out upon him.
Speech in Cleveland, 1866