President Andrew Johnson : Reconstruction President and Rebuilding a Nation

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U.S. President Andrew Johnson : aka Reconstruction President
The 17th President of the United States of America

Andrew Johnson residence: Greeneville, TN
President Andrew Johnson Home Picture.jpg
Library of Congress

Johnson, Andrew

When President Abraham Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, from an assassin's bullet, just as the Civil War was ending, the man who had to fill his place and take up his unfinished work was Vice President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Without preparation, the new president was suddenly called upon to handle the most complicated problem the federal government had ever faced. This was the problem of how to deal with the defeated South and how to reunite a country that had been torn apart by four years of war.

Johnson made great efforts to carry out this task. But he was unable to reduce the bitterness between North and South and bring the country's affairs back to normal. He was a man of courage and good intentions, but he did not know how to take advice or how to work with people. His disagreements with Congress led to his impeachment--a formal charge of misconduct or crime. He was the first U.S. president to be impeached, and he barely avoided being removed from office.

Early Years

No American president ever began his life in greater poverty than Andrew Johnson. He was born on December 29, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina, the younger of two surviving children of Jacob and Mary McDonough Johnson. Jacob Johnson was employed as a porter and handyman. One winter day in 1811, he rescued two men from drowning in an icy river, but he himself died soon afterward from exhaustion and cold. Andrew was thus left fatherless at the age of 3. The penniless widow supported herself and her two young sons, Andrew and his brother, William, by weaving cloth, but on more than one night, the family went to bed hungry.

At the age of 14, Andrew was apprenticed to a tailor. The boy learned quickly, and before long, he ran away to work for himself. In 1826, when he was 18, the Johnson family moved to Greeneville, Tennessee, where Andrew started his own tailor shop.

Johnson never went to school, but he had learned a little reading at the tailor's house in Raleigh. In Greeneville he married Eliza McCardle, who taught him to write. Five children were born to them, three boys and two girls. His tailoring business did well and he bought property in the town. He became a leader of the young men of the neighborhood, who would often meet at the A. Johnson Tailor Shop to discuss politics and hold debates on public affairs.

Johnson Enters Politics

Johnson was elected to his first political office, town alderman, in 1829. Thereafter, his rise in politics was rapid. He served as mayor of Greeneville and in both houses of the state legislature. In 1843, he was elected to the first of five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was elected governor of Tennessee in 1853 and a U.S. senator in 1857. He was serving in the Senate at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

Johnson thought of himself as a man of the common people, and he was a popular speaker among the simple mountain folk of eastern Tennessee. In a voice that could be heard for great distances, he would address them on the benefits of democracy and honest labor and on the evils of high taxes and government spending. Johnson often spoke of his own humble beginnings. He pointed to himself as an example of how a poor boy might rise to wealth and prominence through ambition and hard work.

Secession and the Civil War

The secession crisis of 1860-61 opened a new chapter in Johnson's life. When Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the Southern states, including Johnson's own state of Tennessee, prepared to secede, or break away, from the Union. One of the main disputes between North and South was over slavery. Johnson, like nearly all Southerners, was loyal to the institution of slavery. But unlike most Southerners, he was even more loyal to the United States. He was ready to sacrifice everything to keep it from breaking apart.

During 1861, Johnson traveled all over his home state, trying to persuade the people not to take Tennessee out of the Union. He repeatedly risked his life as he faced crowds of people who had once been his friends but were now his enemies, telling them that secession was treason. In self-defense he carried a loaded pistol, and more than once he was forced to use it. Johnson did not give up until the last hope of saving his state was gone. Tennessee seceded in June 1861.

Although Johnson was now a man without a state, he stayed on in Washington, D.C., as the loyal senator from a disloyal state. Previously a lifelong Democrat, as a Unionist he now allied himself with the Republicans, the party of Lincoln.

Military Governor to Vice President

After the Union Army recaptured parts of Tennessee in early 1862, Lincoln, deeply impressed with Johnson's courage, asked him to return as the state's military governor. Johnson instantly agreed. He remained at his post until nearly the end of the war, although there was hardly a week during that entire period when his life was not in danger. His loyalty had its reward. When Lincoln ran successfully for re-election in 1864, he chose Johnson as his vice president.


At their inauguration in 1865, an incident took place that gave the public an unfavorable first impression of the new vice president. Johnson had been suffering from typhoid fever, and his friends suggested that he take a little whiskey, then considered a remedy for many ailments. He took too much, however, and his inaugural speech was confused. Six weeks later, Lincoln was dead and Andrew Johnson was president.

The Reconstruction Question

 When the war finally ended in 1865, a majority of Northerners wanted to ensure that the South's loyalty to the Union would never again be in danger. In addition to the preservation of the Union, the victory had resulted in the destruction of slavery. The North now felt that the South should give the newly freed blacks the same protection and the same rights as other citizens. Most Republicans in Congress, however, felt that the Southern states would not take such steps without a certain amount of pressure. They believed that laws would have to be passed to "reconstruct" the South.

Johnson's Stance

 Johnson's failure to understand Northern feelings on this question of reconstruction led to the failure of his entire presidency. A strong believer in states' rights, he felt that the South should be allowed to deal with blacks in its own way, without interference from the federal government. Johnson believed that he, and not Congress, should decide when the Southern states were ready for readmission to the Union. In his opinion they should be readmitted immediately. He insisted that Congress had no right to pass laws for the South when Southern representatives were not present to vote.

The Dispute with Congress

But Congress was unwilling to readmit the Southern representatives until a full study could be made of conditions in the South. These differences of opinion led to the bitterest quarrel that has ever occurred between a president and Congress. Matters worsened when several Southern legislatures in late 1865 and early 1866 passed state laws, known as Black Codes, which discriminated against African Americans.

Early in 1866, Congress passed the Freedmen's Bureau bill and the Civil Rights bill, which gave some federal protection to Southern blacks. Johnson vetoed (rejected) them both, although the Civil Rights bill was repassed over his veto. Later in the year another Freedmen's Bureau bill was successfully enacted. In the spring, Congress approved the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which defined citizenship to include African Americans and entitled them to the equal protection of the laws. It also stated that certain leaders of the former Confederate government could not hold public office until further notice. Johnson advised the Southern states not to ratify, or approve, the amendment. (It was ratified in 1868.)

All of this led Congress to pass the Reconstruction Acts in March 1867. They were vetoed by Johnson but were repassed over his veto. The acts put the South under military occupation, set up new state governments, and gave blacks the right to vote and hold public office. Many former Confederate leaders were forbidden either to vote or to hold office.


 The dispute came to a head in 1868. Earlier, in 1867, Congress had enacted the Tenure of Office Act, which forbade the president from removing certain officeholders without the approval of the Senate. Johnson had wanted to get rid of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, because he thought Stanton was too friendly with leaders in Congress. Early in 1868 he dismissed Stanton. The House of Representatives thereupon impeached the president; that is, it officially accused him of breaking the law. In his trial by the Senate, which followed, Johnson was judged not guilty by the bare margin of one vote. It was found that the Tenure of Office Act did not apply to cabinet members who were held over from a previous term, and Stanton had been appointed by Lincoln.

Foreign Affairs

 The Johnson administration was involved in two important events abroad. In 1866, Secretary of State William H. Seward, who had served in the post under Lincoln, forced France to withdraw its troops from Mexico, where it had earlier attempted to create an empire under Maximilian of Austria. Seward also negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, although the price, $7.2 million, was thought much too high.

Later Years

After his acquittal by the Senate, Johnson served out the rest of his term of office without further disturbance. He sought but failed to win the Democratic nomination for president, and with the end of his term in 1869, he returned to Tennessee. For several years thereafter, he tried, without success, to return to public office. Finally, in 1874, he was once more elected to the Senate from his home state, taking his seat in March 1875. Johnson was able to attend only the one session, however. He suffered a stroke and died on July 31, 1875.

Eric McKitrick
Columbia University
Author, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction

Content provided by the New Book of Knowledge, Copyright 2007 Scholastic Library Publishing

Recommended Reading: Andrew Johnson : A Biography (Signature Series) (Hardcover). Description: On April 14, 1865, just as the American Civil War came to an end, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a Confederate actor. The next morning Andrew Johnson was suddenly elevated to the position of president of the United States at a time when the nation was still suffering from the effects of war. This biography explores the enigma of the homeless and uneducated tailor whose spectacular rise to power ended in disgrace. It relates how his term in office undermined the process of reconstruction and left a legacy of racism. Over a century later, Johnson remains the only president of the United States to have been impeached. The author explores Johnson's undeniable skills as a political leader and his stubborn attachment to a mythical view of the America of his youth, which proved to be his undoing. Continued below…

From Library Journal: Known for his Carl Schurz: A Biography (LJ 2/15/82), Trefousse delivers the first Johnson study in years, a definitive assessment of his career and presidency. Johnson's papers and other sources reveal his fatal idealization of the agrarian utopia, his fierce advocacy of strict Constitutional constructionism, and his imprudent insistence upon the Republican Party’s adoption of his views on race. Trefousse demonstrates that Johnson, because of his upbringing, was out of step with the great changes emerging at the end of the Civil War. His stubborn attachment to his increasingly archaic views was responsible for his political and military success, but also for his impeachment. A brilliant, compassionate portrait of a dynamic era of social change and national healing, and of the tragic failure of an American leader. Not to be missed. --Susan E. Parker, Harvard Law Sch. Library. About the Author: Hans L. Trefousse is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His other books include The Radical Republicans, a path breaking history of Reconstruction.

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Recommended Reading: Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy. Description: From School Library Journal: One of our more controversial political figures, Andrew Johnson came closer than any other U.S. President to being removed from office through impeachment. This study by Stewart (Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution), a Washington lawyer who has argued against impeachment in Senate proceedings, examines Johnson's rocky relationship with the post-Civil War radical Republicans. Continued below…

He breaks with those historians who have suggested that Johnson followed what would have been Lincoln's path to reconstruct the South, as he discusses the complex impeachment proceedings against Johnson and the effectiveness of the impeachment process in calming political tensions, if not in removing Presidents from office. Readers who wish to broaden their understanding of Lincoln in this anniversary year will do well to select this well-researched work even if their collection already includes such examinations as Howard Mean's narrower The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation.—Theresa McDevitt, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania Library. From Publishers Weekly: Fresh from his masterful The Summer of 1787, Stewart takes on one of the seamiest events in American history: the vengeful impeachment of Lincoln's successor as president; the Senate failed to convict Andrew Johnson by a single vote. At issue was the continuation of Lincoln's plans to reintegrate the South into the union after the Civil War. But also at stake, as always, was party politics. Stewart takes readers through a tangled web of motives and maneuverings in lively, unadorned prose. He's skilled at characterizing his large cast of characters and, as a lawyer, has a practiced nose for skullduggery, of which there was much. Corruption deeply marred the entire impeachment effort. Justifiably, Stewart holds his nose about most of the people involved and admires few of them. As he sums it up, in 1868 none of the country's leaders was great, a few were good, all were angry, and far too many were despicable. Stewart offers little analysis and advances no new ideas about what he relates, but he tells the story as well as it's ever been told. Black and white photos.


Recommended Reading: Andrew Johnson: The American Presidents Series: The 17th President, 1865-1869 (Hardcover). Description: The unwanted president who ran afoul of Congress over Reconstruction and was nearly removed from office. Andrew Johnson never expected to be president, but just six weeks after becoming Abraham Lincoln’s vice president, the events at Ford’s Theatre thrust him into the nation’s highest office. Continued below…

Johnson faced a nearly impossible task—to succeed America’s greatest chief executive, to bind the nation’s wounds after the Civil War, and to work with a Congress controlled by the so-called Radical Republicans. Annette Gordon-Reed, one of America’s leading historians of slavery, shows how ill-suited Johnson was for this daunting task. His vision of reconciliation abandoned the millions of former slaves (for whom he felt undisguised contempt) and antagonized congressional leaders, who tried to limit his powers and eventually impeached him. The climax of Johnson’s presidency was his trial in the Senate and his acquittal by a single vote, which Gordon-Reed recounts with drama and palpable tension. Despite his victory, Johnson’s term in office was a crucial missed opportunity; he failed the country at a pivotal moment, leaving America with problems that we are still trying to solve. About the Author: Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School, where she has taught since 1992. She is the author of the celebrated Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, co-author with Vernon Jordan of Vernon Can Read!, and editor of Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History. She lives in New York City.


Recommended Reading: The Presidency of Andrew Johnson (American Presidency Series) (Hardcover). Description: Andrew Johnson, who became president after the assassination of Lincoln, oversaw the most crucial and dramatic phase of Reconstruction. Historians have therefore tended to concentrate, to the exclusion of practically everything else, upon Johnson's key role in that titanic event. Although his volume focuses closely on Johnson's handling of Reconstruction, it also examines other important aspects of his administration, notably his foreign, economic, and Indian policies. As one of the few historians to do this, the author provides a broader and more balanced picture of Johnson's presidency than has been previously available. Continued below…

Johnson has always been an enigma: much is known about what he did, little about why he did it. He wrote few letters, kept no diary, and rarely confided in anyone. Most historians either admire or despise him, depending on whether they consider his Reconstruction policies right or wrong. Castel achieves an objective reassessment of Johnson and his presidential actions by examining him primarily in terms of his effectiveness in using power and by not judging him--as most other scholars have--on moralistic or ideological grounds. The book begins with an overview of America at the end of the Civil War and a description of Johnson's political career prior to 1865. Castel recounts the drama of Johnson's sudden inheritance of the presidency upon Lincoln's death and then examines how Johnson organized and operated his administration. Johnson's formulation of a Reconstruction policy for the defeated South comes under special scrutiny; Castel evaluates Johnson's motives for that policy, its implementation, and its reception in both North and South. He descries and analyzes Johnson's quarrel with the Republican dominated Congress over Reconstruction, the triumph of the Republicans in the election of 1866, the president's frustrated attempt to remove Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton from office, his bitter dispute with General Ulysses S. Grant, and his impeachment by Congress. Johnson's impeachment trial is covered in detail; Castel explains how it was that Johnson escaped conviction and removal from office by the narrowest possible margin. The book concludes with a discussion of Johnson's place in history as judged by scholars during the past one hundred years. This study sheds light on the nation's problems during the chaotic period between 1865 and 1869 and contributes a great deal to a much improved understanding of the seventeenth president. This book is part of the American Presidency Series.


Recommended Reading: Uncle Tom's Cabin (Wordsworth Classics), by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Author). Description: Edited and with an Introduction and Notes by Dr Keith Carabine, University of Kent at Canterbury. Uncle Tom's Cabin is the most popular, influential and controversial book written by an American. Stowe's rich, panoramic novel passionately dramatizes why the whole of America is implicated in and responsible for the sin of slavery, and resoundingly concludes that only 'repentance, justice and mercy' will prevent the onset of 'the wrath of Almighty God!'. "[S]hould be required reading for all Americans...[G]old standard for studying Black American History."

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