Seventeenth President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), by his own hard-working ethic and insatiable desire to honorably better himself, became the kind of speaker that one New York Times correspondent would write with grudging admiration how this individual “cut and slashed right and left, tore big wounds and left something behind to fester and remember. His phraseology may be uncouth, but his views are easily understood and he talks strong thoughts and carefully culled facts in quick succession.”
As with several other presidents, Johnson was born into poverty; his early years were spent in North Carolina, his father died when Johnson was three, and his mother apprenticed the boy to a tailor.
He became a very skilled tailor but disliked his boss and ran away, eventually relocating in the Tennessee mountain village of Greeneville where he set up his own very successful tailoring business.
When 15 year old Eliza McCardle (1810-1876) first saw Andrew, she commented to a friend, “There goes my beau;” they were married a year later in her mother’s house, the ceremony being presided over by Mordecai Lincoln, the uncle of the former 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.
She helped immensely with her husband’s education, especially in arithmetic and writing. And, when her husband became interested in politics, she fully supported his ambition, but rarely joined him in public appearances.
Johnson was elected mayor of Greeneville, served in the state legislature and five terms in the House of Representatives, and as governor and U.S. Senator before being picked by Abraham Lincoln to replace Maine’s own Hamilton Hamlin as vice-president when Lincoln was elected to a second term in 1864.
Andrew Johnson’s speeches and convictions resonated with the farmers and day laborers of the Tennessee mountains and valleys, a constituency that had little use for the wealthy plantation slave owners. Johnson was against high tariffs and wasteful government spending because they raised the cost of living for working people, spoke up for freedom of speech and religion and, although a Democrat, maintained a feisty independence in what was morally right.
Before Bill Clinton, and later Donald Trump, Andrew Johnson was the only president to undergo an impeachment trial, due to the obnoxious Radical Republicans who were doing their best to subvert the executive and judicial branches in attempts to pursue their own agendas, especially in relation to revenge against the former Confederate states and its citizens. Johnson, like his predecessor Lincoln, believed in a more moderate policy of healing and reconciliation as best for the country, which antagonized most of Congress; his acquittal was due to the vote of one man, Senator Edmund Ross, of Kansas, who was one of the subjects of JFK’s 1956 book, Profiles in Courage.
Droves of fascinating material on Johnson’s own presidency exists and could prove that his ranking as one of the worst presidents is grossly unfair.
In 1874, Johnson became the only former president to be re-elected to the U.S. Senate, was strangely given a hero’s welcome by the entire chamber including his former political enemies. Being a gentle forgiving man, Johnson shook hands with these enemies.
He died within six months of a stroke while visiting his daughter in July 1875, at the age of 66.
A visitor to the White House, Charles Dickens described Johnson’s face as “remarkable…indicating courage, watchfulness and certainly strength of purpose.”
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