"Please Don't Call Me Andy" Johnson: Number 17 in a Series
Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency
at one of the most crucial times in American history, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865.
The Civil War had just ended, and the biggest political issue of the day was how to deal with the South, and especially with
all of those people who had been formerly held as slaves. Even the most apt of presidents would've been challenged by
such a task. Johnson, who was a talented politician, wasn't talented enough.
Born into poverty in Raleigh,
North Carolina, in 1808, at a young age Andrew and his brother became indentured servants to a local tailor. After two
years, the brothers both broke their "bond" and ran away, never to return. In 1826, when he was just 18, Johnson
moved to Tennessee. A year later he married Eliza McCardle, and together they had five children, three sons and two
daughters. Andrew Johnson never attended school – any school. Even though he had taught himself to read,
it was his well educated wife, Eliza, who greatly improved Andrew's education. (Kelly)
More than likely because
Johnson had always been considered an excellent speaker, he quickly found his way into politics. He became the mayor
of Greenville, Tennessee, when he was only 22, and in 1835 was elected to the Tennessee legislature. In 1843, he was
elected to the the US House of Representatives. He left Congress in 1853 to become the governor of Tennessee, which
he quit in 1857 to become a Senator. (Andrew Johnson)
His early political aspirations included railing against the "Southern
plantation aristocracy," and even campaigning for free farms for the poor. (17. Andrew Johnson) Indeed, it was
Johnson who first introduced legislation that would eventually become the Homestead Act in 1862 (Andrew Johnson)
then came the Civil War. When Tennessee succeeded from the Union at the start of the Civil War, Johnson didn't, becoming
the only Southern Senator to remain loyal to the North (Andrew Johnson) This made him loved in the North, and
hated in the South. In 1862 President Lincoln appointed him Military Governor of Tennessee. And in 1864, because
of his loyalty to the North, he was chosen as the Lincoln's running mate for his second term, (17. Andrew Johnson) replacing
Hannibal Hamlin, who had served as Lincoln's first Vice President. (Hannibal Hamlin)
Hamlin never really wanted
to be the vice president. He left a position in the Senate where he truly had power, to one in which he felt, at best,
a figurehead. One of the few things Hamlin is known for is banning alcohol from the congressional floor, undoubtedly
changing the tenor of politics in Washington forever, but not necessarily for the better. Say what you will about
Hamlin, he was a loyal guy, and did the best he could, even encouraging Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
All that just to be dumped at the end of Lincoln's first term, which is probably why he went on to oppose Johnson over Reconstruction.
Andrew Johnson served as Lincoln's Vice President for just six weeks (42 days) before Lincoln was
assassinated. (Andrew Johnson) Only John Tyler served less time as Vice President, replacing William Henry Harrison
after only 31 days in office. (Lists of Vice Presidents of the United States by Time in Office) Even so, Johnson barely
escaped assassination himself. As part of the plot to assassinate Lincoln, other assassins were assigned to kill both
Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State Seward. Seward, though, attacked, was not killed. And Johnson was not attacked
at all, the assassin assigned to him having "lost his nerve." (Andrew Johnson)
Johnson started his presidency
with the support of the "Radical Republicans," who sought for major changes in the South as part of Reconstruction.
They found out in a hurry, though, that Johnson didn't support those changes. (The Impeachment)
it seems that Abraham Lincoln, an opponent of slavery, had a vice president who was not. After all, Johnson did own
slaves. (List of Presidents of the United States who Owned Slaves). And Johnson went on record stating that the US Constitution
guaranteed citizens the right to own slaves. (Andrew Johnson) As well, he sought to limit the rights of freed slaves.
Indeed, the bigger mystery might be why Johnson chose to stay in the Senate after Southern succession.
president, Andrew Johnson favoured a more "conciliatory" stance with the South, opposing such things as the 14th
Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship for all Blacks, because he saw it as too divisive. (Hannibal Hamlin) As well,
Johnson set into motion policies that would pardon all Southern combatants if they would swear their loyalty to the Union,
including many of those who held positions of leadership in the Civil War. Even though his legislation granted freedom
to all Blacks, he allowed the South to keep many of the pre-war restrictions on their former Slaves. In short, not much
changed in the South, especially if you weren't White. And Johnson did all this while Congress was not in session, which
didn't set very well with any of those folks who really wanted to give the former slaves their 40 acres and two mules –
the Radicals. (17. Andrew Johnson)
What followed was a string of events – vetoes and overrides of
vetoes and firings and reinstatements and firings again and even arrests – that finally resulted in impeachment.
(The Impeachment) The Radicals in Congress wouldn't seat any Representative or Senator from the South, and Johnson vetoed
legislation which would've improved the lives of former slaves, only to have his vetoes over-ridden. (17. Andrew Johnson)
It is said that Johnson "...had no interest in compromise." But that was OK, because both Congress and the Senate
didn't need to compromise. They had a majority. (The Impeachment) Finally having had enough, the House of
Representatives voted to impeach the president on February 24, 1868. (The Impeachment) Andrew Johnson become the
first, though not the last, president to be impeached. (Andrew Johnson)
As a quick Civics lesson, impeachment
is not a removal from office. It is only "a statement of charges," much like being indicted for a crime.
According to the Constitution (Article 2, Section 4), the House of Representatives has the sole power to impeach a president,
to bring him up on charges, which only requires a simple majority. The Senate, then, is where the president is tried.
A conviction by the Senate requires a "super majority" – two thirds, 67 out of 100. The only things
conviction on impeachment charges can do are to remove a president from office, and/or to bar him from holding future
offices. Any possible civil or criminal charges are left to the respective courts after the president is removed from
The biggest charge against Johnson was that he violated the Tenure of Office Act, which
had been passed over Johnson's veto, by firing his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. The Tenure of Office Act attempted
to limit who the president could assign to his cabinet, requiring that all hiring and firing be first approved by the Senate.
Johnson could've easily been impeached. The Republicans held more than the two-thirds majority
they needed to do so. The only reason he wasn't impeached is because there were enough representatives who were more
concerned with insuring the balance of powers and the office of the president in general. (The Impeachment) Therefore,
Johnson was left to finish the few months left of his presidency.
Even though Johnson was the sitting president, and even though he wanted
to run again, his own party did not nominate him in 1868, instead going with somebody whose name only comes up on Jeopardy!,
Horatio Seymour. Seymour lost the presidency to Ulysses S. Grant. (Andrew Johnson)
Perhaps the one really good
thing that Andrew Johnson accomplished during his tenure was the acquisition of the Alaska territory from Russia in 1867,
but even that wasn't appreciated at the time. Originally the purchase was called "Seward's folly" or "Seward's
Icebox," after Secretary of State William Seward, because most folks considered Alaska to be worthless frozen wasteland.
They quickly changed their minds in 1896 with the Klondike Gold Rush. (Treaty with Russia)
Andrew Johnson tried to stay
in politics following his presidency, though he lost attempts at both the Senate (1869) and the Congress (1872). However,
in 1875 he was once again elected to the Senate, becoming the only president to have served in the Senate both before and
after being a president. But his victory was short lived. He died after serving only a few months, at the age
of 66, on July 31, 1875. (Andrew Johnson)
"17. Andrew Johnson."
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"Treaty with Russia for the Purchase of Alaska." Web Guides.
The Library of Congress (25 Apr. 2017): n. pag. Web. 18 Jan. 2019 https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/alaska.html