After a decade in the House of Representatives from 1843 to 1853, Johnson looked beyond. He was an ambitious man and always had been, so it would not suffice to remain as a representative and he wished to gain the Vice Presidency. However, that election was a few years away. Besides, it would be good to gain fame in another sector of government. Governor of Tennessee it was, he decided.
He won the Democratic convention easily and his opponent, Gustavus Henry was able to be contended with. In Memphis, a city with a large Irish population, Henry hounded Johnson for voting against relief funds for victims of the Irish potato famine. “Admitting the vote, Johnson reminded everyone that he had also urged congressmen to give up on their own, produced from his pocket the receipt for a fifty-dollar donation, and asked the chagrined former colleague, ‘How much did you give, sir?'” (Sefton, pg. 55). Suffice to say, Johnson won that particular debate.
He also wound up winning the governorship, though it was small and the margin was just 2,250 votes in his favor. This only again reflected the uncertain politics of Tennessee at the time, split almost half in half by the Democrats and Whigs. This split played a large part in Johnson’s eventless governorship where he was only truly able to succeed in the way of education reform. Due to his eventless term, Johnson, always one to relentlessly accomplish more, ran again in 1855.
By that time however, the Whig party had begun to dissolve into various other parties. In Tennessee, it dissolved slowly into the Know-Nothing and Republican parties, though the Republicans wouldn’t be too influential in Tennessee for a few years, having just been founded.
Johnson hammered at the Know-Nothing’s anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic behavior, equating America as a beacon of light. This campaign was much more eventful than the last, with Johnson and his opponents making joint appearances more often. Johnson even received death threats from Know-Nothing supporters, though nothing came of them. The Democrats had grown over the last few years as the Whigs dissolved, enabling Johnson to win a second term as governor, though his inauguration was one that could be forgotten.
If the Know-Nothings didn’t want to try to kill Johnson, it seems the universe certainly did. During his second term, a fire at the Nashville in caused him to lose $2,000 of cash and risk his life to save a woman. A year later, his train derailed and his arm was injured. Regardless, Johnson pressed on with his career and helped campaign for James Buchanan’s presidential bid in 1856. His main talking point was slavery and how it was natural in society. He also spoke on Southern Unionism, describing the Union as vital to Southern institutions. Due in part to his speeches, the Democrats carried Tennessee by 7,500 votes. They also won both houses of the General Assembly and seven of the ten congressional seats, securing Johnson’s election as senator for Tennessee.
With 1860 rolling around and abolitionism exploding in the North, Johnson began to show how oblivious to the crisis swelling up in the country. He reasoned that the states needed eachother and it would be in their best interest to keep the union, therefore it would continue. Northern antagonism on the cause of slavery was too great though.
Though Johnson may have been blind to the magnitude of the crisis, he did see it. Repeatedly he called for the end of Northern antagonism and attacks on the South, though he never went so far as to advocate secession. His senatorial years before the war came revolved primarily on campaigning against Northern antagonism and Southern secessionism. One near victory he recieved was the passing of the Homestead act in both chambers of congress, an act he had birthed. The president, then James Buchanan, vetoed it however. The senate then upheld the veto with Southern senators such as Jefferson Davis switching their votes.
Johnson backed John C. Breckenridge during the 1860 presidential campaign, believing him to be a unionist. Lincoln won however and with talk of secession all around, ideas of pro-slavery amendments and even a system of alternating Northern and Southern presidents took the stage. It was all too late though and South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, sparking the powder keg that bow was the United States. Johnson’s rhetoric geared toward what he called the unconstitutionality of secession. In a speech on December 18, a day after South Carolina began considering secession, Johnson harped on secession, declaring he would uphold the constitution through thick and thin. Appropriate comparisons to Andrew Jackson were made and thousands rushed to read his speech after it was given, but sentiments in the South were set. The response from the South reflected this. One farmer wished to send his slave to whip Johnson and an Arkansas newspaper all but called him a spineless scalawag. Effigies of Johnson were burned throughout Tennessee although East Tennessee hailed him.
The crisis only worsened in the coming months. In April Johnson rode home by train. It was a chaotic ride as secessionist crowds protested the train and a lynching was even feared, though it was halted by Jefferson Davis. Johnson’s popularity had crumbled in the South except for in East Tennessee where many residents shared his sentiments. Still, East Tennessee was not safe for someone like Johnson and when Tennessee seceded on June 8, 1861, Johnson made his way back to Washington by carriage. Johnson was not held as a traitor in the Southland and cautiously as a “good” Southerner in the North. His days of populism were over but his political career was about to take a whole new turn.