ndrew Johnson, the 17th president of the United States, was born in Raleigh,
North Carolina. His father died when young Johnson was only three years old, and
he was raised by his mother who worked as a spinner and weaver to support her
sons. Johnson worked as a tailor's apprentice from the age of 14, then opened
his own shop in 1827 after his family moved to Greeneville, Tennessee.
Inspired by the spirit of Jacksonian democracy, Johnson helped found the
Democratic party in his region and was elected to the town council in 1829, then
as mayor in 1831. He was a strict constructionist and an advocate of states'
rights who distrusted the power of government at all levels. He won elections to
the Tennessee state legislature in 1835, 1839, and 1841, before being elected to
Congress in 1843. As a member of the U.S. House, Johnson opposed government
involvement in the economy through tariffs and internal improvements. He lost
his seat in 1852 because of gerrymandering by the Whig-dominated state
legislature. He won a narrow victory for governor in 1853 and served two terms.
In 1857 he was elected to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.
While in the Senate, Johnson became an advocate of the Homestead Bill, which was
opposed by most Southern Democrats and their slave-owning, plantation
constituents. This issue strained the already tense relations between Johnson
and wealthy planters in western Tennessee. He further antagonized them when he
initially endorsed Stephen Douglas for the Democratic presidential nomination in
1860. After the party split into regional factions, Johnson backed the Southern
Democratic nominee, John Breckinridge, but by then the rupture between Johnson
and most Southern Democrats was too deep to heal. The break became final when he
allied himself with pro-Union Whigs to fight the secessionist Democrats in his
state for several months after Lincoln's election.
When the Civil War began, Johnson was the only Senator from a Confederate state
who did not leave Congress to return to the South. During the war, he joined
Republicans and pro-war Democrats in the National Union party. By 1862 Union
military forces had captured enough of Tennessee for Lincoln to name him as the
state's military governor. In order to attract the political support of War
Democrats in 1864, Lincoln selected Johnson as his vice-presidential running
mate on the National Union ticket. Johnson delivered his inaugural address while
inebriated, lending credence to the rumors that he was an alcoholic.
Within six weeks of taking office as vice president, Johnson succeeded to the
presidency after Lincoln's assassination. The new president faced the difficult
situation of developing a policy for the postwar reconstruction of the Union.
Committed to limited government and a strict constructionist interpretation of
the Constitution, Johnson's Reconstruction plan would have allowed the former
Confederate states to return quickly to the Union. This would have left the
civil rights of the former slaves completely under the auspices of the former
Incensed at these policies, Radical Republicans in Congress wrested control of
Reconstruction from the president and began passing their own program over
Johnson's vetoes. The implementation of military districts and supervision
across the South in 1867 piqued the president to aid Southern resistance and to
attempt to thwart the process by firing Secretary of State Stanton, who was
cooperating with Radical Republicans. Stanton's removal violated the recent
Tenure of Office Act and prompted the Republican-controlled House to impeach the
president. The Senate trial resulted in his acquittal by one vote.
Johnson remained in office as the lamest of lame-duck presidents, and
unsuccessfully sought the Democratic party's presidential nomination in 1868. At
the end of his term, he returned to Tennessee where he began rebuilding his
political base of support and unsuccessfully seeking the Democratic nomination
for various offices. Finally in 1875,an alliance of Republicans and a faction of
the Democratic party in the Tennessee legislature again elected him to the U.S.
Senate. He served only five months before he died.