The controversial president of Reconstruction; the anti-planter populist; the poor yet ambitious Raleighite; all these are valid statements for Andrew Johnson, the man that ascended to the presidency after Abe Lincoln’s death and quickly fell in infamy. Of all the characters that characterized the immediate aftermath of the War of Northern Aggression, Johnson was certainly up there. He had a humble start in life but made his way to the tip top of the political elite — though Lincoln’s survival would have most likely put an end to that.
Andrew Johnson was born to Jacob Johnson and Mary McDonough Johnson, two poor White assistants at a tavern in Raleigh, NC, in 1808. He had one brother, born in 1804, and a sister that died before he was born.
–Johnson’s birth home
Unfortunately, his father died in 1811 after plunging into a frigid creek to save a few friends. A single mother with two children was a recipe for poverty in the 19th century (and usually still is today). His mother then married Turner Doughtry who financially ruined the family even more. Searching to secure a future for her son, Mary apprenticed young Andrew along with his brother to James J. Selby, a local tailor. While he worked with Selby, he taught himself to read, using whatever he could. Newspapers especially, as well as a copy of the Speaker that he got from a friend, though his literacy would need much more than this.
Johnson ran away in 1824, supposedly for getting caught throwing rocks at a woman’s house. Him and his brother ran south to Carthage, working for a time there before again fleeing further still to Laurens, South Carolina. They returned in 1825 but Selby wouldn’t take him back or officially let him go so he would have to go without work for four years. Not wanting to spend four years unemployed and desiring to make a living, young Andrew traveled west, to Tennessee, hoping to be successful like so many Carolinians before him. Since his mother and father-in-law could not make ends meet, he took them with him.
Johnson settled in Greeneville where he used the knowledge he acquired during his apprenticeship to become a tailor. He also married a local girl, Eliza McCardle. McCardle’s father had died and she was living with her mother, barely getting by, so the two made a good match with little opposition. The family’s fortunes were glistening soon enough and Johnson gained enough wealth to buy a brick house for his own self and Eliza, a 100 acre farm for his mother and stepfather, as well some property that he could rent out. His wife helped him develop his reading and writing skills and he used the local colleges to self educate himself further. Johnson had raised himself out of poverty and into the middle class of the day, sometimes called “mechanics” and consisting of craftsmen. With a stable home, his first daughter, Martha, was born in October of 1828. Another child, Charles, came in 1830. Mary and Robert soon followed with about two years in between each birth.
Johnson’s humble beginning had led to a staunch distrust of the local gentry, seeing them as opportunistic oligarchs. Much of what he did in his later life would reflect this belief. Johnson was a man that had growb to be political and in 1829 he and several other colleagues won elections to the seven-man board of aldermen. He was reelected the following years until he won the position of mayor in 1834. In 1835 he campaigned for the seat Greene county and Washington county shared in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Johnson was a convincing and passionate speaker and listeners always felt like he told the truth. Together with his humble start, this served him well. August 6th, election day, saw Johnson win with 1,413 votes to 800. This victory solidified his populist mind as it was the farmers that won him the victory. Although he didn’t like party labels, he did let it be known that he approved of Andrew Jackson’s policies. Reflecting the Jacksonian era, Tennessee was now entering a period where the Whigs and Democrats were evenly balanced, though the Democrats gradually gained power. Johnson spent his time in the House of Representatives as a quiet representative, voting in favor of his district. One policy he opposed was the establishment of a bill that prohibited any speech inciting rebellion amongst slaves or free persons of color. The reason he opposed it is unclear as he was not an abolitionist but he is also said to have never wholeheartedly supported any vote he made. He may have found the bill to be contradictory to the constitution but who knows? He also went on to oppose a bill that supported the improvement and development of railroads in East Tennessee, believing that railroads only disenfranchised the middle class and destroyed the beauty of the land.
Due to his disapproval of railroads for East Tennessee, Johnson lost his reelection in 1837 but won it back in 1839. East Tennessee it seems was hungry for progress in the sphere of infrastructure. Like mentioned before, he never went in wholeheartedly into a vote and so his voting pattern was at times in line with Whigs and at times in line with Democrats. A moderate by day’s standards. In 1843, Johnson was elected as a representative to the House of Representatives for Tennessee’s 1st District. There, he crusaded heavily against government spending, calling for efficiency and an end to reckless and useless spending. Additionally, he regarded the Smithsonian Institute as useless but not if it were turned into a university. He also called out the selection process in the army and navy, complaining that many of those chosen were not talented and only got in because they were sons of politicians and aristocrats. Johnson also had a very negative opinion of government clerks, saying they should work eight hours a day, not six. He advocated for pay cuts to government workers not associated with common labor as well. The imbedded mold he had gained from his upbringing certainly never left him.
Once the Mexican-American War came, Johnson was fully behind James K. Polk’s warhawk mindset. From James E. Sefton’s book, Andrew Johnson and the uses of constitutional power, Johnson once stated that the war “ought to be prosecuted with sufficient energy, and for a suitable length of time, to make the Mexicans feel their own weakness and inability to cope with the American republic in arms…” (Sefton, pg. 36). His relationship soon soured with president Polk though, and he spent the next few years advocating for reform of the American government in general. Some of these reforms included term limits for federal judges and Supreme Court justices as well as direct election of Senators by the people as they were appointed by state legislatures during his time. Sadly none of these reforms came to fruition however, at least not by Johnson’s lead.
During his senatorial years, Johnson really made the transition from a local populist from East Tennessee to a more national candidate. He also did what he did best, make enemies. If he wasn’t harking on the president, he was sure to be harking on the governmental system as a whole or another congressman who mistakingly criticized his beloved middle class of traders, mechanics, and tavern keepers. He even got into a spat with Jefferson Davis for this very thing, claiming Davis was essentially just another stuck-up aristocrat.
As things heated up in the early 1850s over slavery, Johnson, who owned four slaves, began addressing the issue more. He defended the peculiar institution, citing the constititution and Black inferiority as reasons it was justified. He wanted the Fugitive Slave Law hardened and opposed the abolition of the slave trade in Washington D.C. He also accused abolitionists of antagonizing the South and wanting to break up the Union, showing his Union sympathies.
Indeed, as future years would show, Johnson was a staunch Southern Unionist. When the war came, Johnson abandoned Tennessee and stayed in the Senate. Johnson was a unionist through and through, but he was also a Southerner and Tennessean populist.