President Andrew Johnson: Biography, Accomplishments & Quotes

Instructor: Emily Romeo

Emily has taught college History and has a Ph.D. in History from The University of Chicago.

Andrew Johnson was the 17th president of the United States. In this lesson, find out more about Johnson's history, his remarkable rise to the vice presidency, and his appointment to the office of the president. Without any formal education, Johnson rose through the political ranks to become a champion for poor, white populations in the south.

Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States

Early Life and Politics

Andrew Johnson was a southern Democrat from humble origins. Born in a log cabin in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1808, his father died when Andrew was three, leaving the family in poverty. Andrew's mother worked as a seamstress. Andrew was apprenticed to a tailor from 10 to 17 and eventually, he and his family moved to Greenville, Tennessee, where Andrew established a successful tailoring business. Andrew married Eliza McCardle, the daughter of a shoemaker, in 1827. While Andrew had no formal schooling, Eliza was better educated and tutored her husband.

Even without any formal education, Johnson was able to improve his position in society. His humble upbringing, and the disdain he felt from the wealthier classes, stuck with him, however. It is likely that his support for white supremacy was a way to compensate for these early feelings of inferiority. His distaste for the wealthy planter class in the south, and his belief in white supremacy, influenced his political decisions as his thoughts turned to public service.

Johnson was elected alderman for his district of Greenville in 1829, and mayor of the city five years later. When Tennessee adopted a new constitution in 1831, which denied the vote to free black populations in the state, Johnson supported it, and campaigned expressing his views. This campaign made Johnson a household name in Tennessee, and in 1843 he was the first Democrat from that state to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Johnson served five terms, but during his tenure in office he differed from his fellow Democrats by rejecting southern secession, regardless of his support for slavery.

Johnson ran for governor of Tennessee in 1853 and won on a conservative, populist platform. He found that his powers as a governor were limited, and after serving for two years, Johnson returned to national politics by winning a seat in the U.S. Senate. When Tennessee seceded from the Union following Abraham Lincoln's election of 1860, Johnson refused to accept secession, and was the only southern senator to retain his seat during the U.S. Civil War.

Lincoln chose Johnson to run as his vice president during his reelection campaign of 1864. Lincoln was concerned about his chances and hoped that a balanced ticket, one with a vice president who was both a southerner and a Democrat would help his reelection efforts. His gamble paid off. Lincoln and Johnson won a sweeping victory as the tide turned toward the Union in the course of the war.

17th President of the United States

After Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, Johnson was sworn in as the 17th president of the United States. Johnson's approach to southern Reconstruction revealed his racism, as well as his antagonism toward the wealthy southern planter class. Unwilling to push for legal equality or suffrage for former slaves, Johnson confronted congressional Republicans who sought a more complete reformation of southern society.

Johnson also sought a quick reincorporation of the former confederate states on relatively lenient terms. His Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon in May 1865 was a sweeping amnesty for most rebellious southerners. It returned to them their property, except, of course, former slaves, and asked only that they affirm their support for the Constitution. At the same time, however, Confederate political leaders, high-ranking military officers, and persons with taxable property over $20,000 had to request a personal pardon from Johnson himself. Johnson held the wealthy planter class uniquely responsible for the war.

Johnson also called for a rejection of the 14th Amendment. He felt that formally extending citizenship rights, and equal protection to freed people went too far. During the 1866 congressional elections, he went on a ''swing around the circle'' speech campaign arguing against the amendment. His arguments failed to persuade his audiences and his reputation took a hit. Republicans gained even more control over Congress as opposition to Johnson grew.

Impeachment and Later Life

Johnson was again at odds with Congress over the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which were designed to deal with disorder in the south. To limit the power of the president, Congress passed two laws of questionable constitutionality: The Command of the Army Act, and the Tenure of Office Act. When Johnson replaced the Secretary of War without senate approval, Congress argued that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act and drafted a resolution to impeach him. Johnson was spared removal by a vote of 35 to 19, one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove the president.

After his term as president was over, Johnson again won a seat in the U.S. Senate. A few months after he was elected in 1875, however, Johnson died from a stroke. He was buried, per his request, in Greenville, with his body wrapped in an American flag, and with a copy of the Constitution under his head.

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