Name:  Andrew Johnson

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Born:  December 29, 1808
Died:  July 31, 1875
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Andrew 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 slave-owners.

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.

Sources consulted: American National Biography; Dictionary of American Biography.











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