Friday, December 26, 2008

A Bicentennial Birthday: December 29, 1808: The Tennessee Tailor

Who was the only former President to serve in the Senate after leaving the Presidency? Who was the first Vice President to become President because of an assassination? Who was the only President to be buried with his head resting on a copy of the Constitution? Who was nicknamed Sir Veto because of the number of vetoes he made as President? Who added the state of Nebraska to the union, and purchased Alaska from Russia?
The give-away question: Until recent years who was the only President to be impeached?

On December 29, 1808, Andrew Johnson was born at Casso’s Inn, a popular inn and stable in Raleigh, N.C., where his parents – Jacob and Mary Johnson – worked. Johnson was three when his father died from health complications received by trying to save several men from drowning in a river, and his mother did her best to support her family. He was apprenticed to a tailor named John J. Selby when he was 14, and never received a formal education.

His education came from two major sources: customers who would read to him while he worked as an apprentice; and from his wife, Eliza, who taught him arithmetic and worked to improve his ability to read and write.

Johnson moved to Greeneville, Tennessee with his older brother, mother, and stepfather in 1826, and started a tailor’s shop there by nailing a sign reading A. Johnson, Tailor over his door. In Greeneville he met Eliza McCardle, marrying her on May 17, 1827. He joined a debating club and, with that experience, entered politics. He was elected Alderman for Greeneville in 1828, then mayor, then to the Tennessee House of Representatives, then the Tennessee Senate, then the US House of Representatives, then the Tennessee governorship, then the US Senate. Throughout all of this, Johnson was often a staunch supporter of the Constitution over States Rights – a stand that did not always sit will with other Southern legislators.

"Honest conviction is my courage; the Constitution is my guide." -Andrew Johnson
As the events of 1856-1861 drew the United States closer to – then into – a civil war, Senator Johnson warned that the dissolution of the Union would produce many minor countries ruled by various forms of government. In spite of Johnson's strong support of the Constitution and the Union, Tennessee seceded from the United States. Johnson rejected the Confederacy and was the only Southern senator to remain in the U.S. Senate after secession. In 1862, Lincoln appointed him military governor of Tennessee where Johnson ruled with a firm hand, silencing anti-Union sentiment. In 1864, Johnson – a Democrat – joined Lincoln – a Republican - on the election ticket against George McClellan, winning the election and taking the office of Vice President in March 1865. Lincoln was assassinated a month later.

"I have been almost overwhelmed by the announcement of the sad event [Lincoln's assassination] which has so recently occurred. I feel incompetent to perform duties so important and responsible as those which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me." – Andrew Johnson
Johnson faced many problems as a ‘Southern’ President trying to rebuild and reunify a nation after four years of civil war. Many of the problems came from Congress but perhaps a greater source was from his own cabinet. His claim to fame in most history books came when Johnson attempted to dismiss one of his fiercest critics, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton claimed that Johnson acted in violation of the Tenure of Office Act enacted the previous year, then barricaded himself in his office. This act stated the president may not dismiss certain publicly elected officers without the consent of the Senate.
As a result, Congress – controlled by the Radical Republicans - voted to impeach Johnson and eleven charges were brought against him. Only three of these charges were voted upon, and these failed by one vote each of reaching the two-thirds majority required for impeachment. Upon Johnson's acquittal, Edwin Stanton came out of his office and resigned. Johnson finished his term, but was not nominated again for the Presidency.

"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
[Lincoln] had lived, the vials of wrath would have been poured out upon him." –
Andrew Johnson
The life of Andrew Johnson can be described with words like determined, honest, honorable, courage, and integrity. Just before his death in 1875, Johnson wrote:

"I have performed my duty to my God, my country, and my family. I have nothing
to fear in approaching death. To me it is the mere shadow of God's protecting
wing . . . Here I will rest in quiet and peace beyond the reach of calumny's
poisoned shaft, the influence of envy and jealous enemies, where treason and
traitors or State backsliders and hypocrites in church can have no peace."
Johnson was returned to the US Senate from Tennessee in March, 1875. When he heard the news of his election, he said:

“I have reached the summit of my ambition."
He soon suffered a stroke and died on July 31, 1875. He was buried in Greeneville, Tennessee.

A Selection of Web Resources:
Andrew Johnson Museum and Library

Local Library Resources:
Andrew Johnson, by Mike Venezia
The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation, by Howard Means
The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, by Chester Hearn
Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States, by Rita Stevens

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