Sunday, February 7, 2021

JOHNSON WEEK: Andrew Johnson

President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875)


17th president of the United States, serving from 1865 to 1869.

Became American President after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Johnson being the vice president at the time.

Johnson never attended a day of school.

At age 14, Johnson's mother apprenticed him to a tailor. People read aloud to him at work and Johnson taught himself how to read. Later, his wife taught him writing and math.

Johnson's birthplace and childhood home, located at the Mordecai Historic Park in Raleigh, North Carolina

During his time in the Senate, he continued to advocate for a territory's right to decide whether the practice was allowed. When Lincoln was elected president in 1860, seceding confederate states began breaking off from the Union. But Johnson resisted, believing secession was detrimental to the country as a whole, and remained loyal to Lincoln even as his home state of Tennessee joined the confederates. Due in large part to his support for the president as a “Southern Unionist," Lincoln chose him as his vice-president in his run for re-election in 1864.

In Johnson’s day, typhoid fever was much more common in the U.S. than it is today—and Johnson happened to be struck with the infection shortly before Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1865. Though he made a recovery, he was still feeling ill before the ceremony. To combat the symptoms, he drank whiskey, slurring his words as a result. The public display of his inebriation led to rumors Johnson had a drinking problem. Lincoln himself was forced to address the rumors, reassuring Washington that they hadn’t just ushered a drunk into the Executive Branch.

Andrew Johnson was almost killed along with Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865 and if Booth had had his way, he would have taken several more lives that day, including Johnson’s. Meeting with three co-conspirators before their fateful encounter with Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, Booth instructed two of them to kill Secretary of State Seward and then told the third man, George Atzerodt, to attack Johnson. Around the same time Booth was preparing to shoot the President, his cohorts attacked Seward at his home, stabbing him to near-death. Atzerodt took up a post at a nearby hotel where he knew Johnson was staying and attempted to work up the courage to knock on his door and shoot him. But Atzerodt couldn’t do it. He went for a walk instead. After Lincoln’s death and a rash of arrests, he confessed his role in the crime and was hanged on July 7 of that year. Johnson, now the president, signed an executive decision ordering the man's death.

Johnson bought Alaska. For well over a century, Russia had claimed possession of Alaska. The Russians had first explored the 586,000-square mile territory during an expedition in 1741. Fur trading proved bountiful for years, but a slow decline of the export and increased concern they would be overrun by American or British forces led Russia into discussions to sell the land to the U.S. in the 1850s. After the Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward expressed interest, and by March 30, 1867, Johnson’s administration had secured Alaska for $7.2 million in gold. The property didn’t seem worthwhile to political observers, who labeled it “Johnson’s polar bear garden” and “Walrussia” in mocking editorials. Congress delayed the transaction until Johnson failed to secure the Democratic party nomination for president in 1868.

After Lincoln's death, he let the South decide how to treat the newly freed slaves which made the North angry.

The fourteenth amendment to the Constitution was passed by Congress during Johnson's presidency in 1866. It made former slaves full citizens of the United States even though Johnson did not want former slaves to have the same legal rights as white people.

Johnson was the first US President to be impeached. Less than three years into his term, Johnson was coming under heavy fire for his Southern philosophy on reconstruction and formerly enslaved people. Under his presidency, southern states began enacting "Black Codes" that limited the rights of Black Americans, angering the Republicans holding power in the Senate. Johnson also ignored the Tenure of Office Act of 1867, which was intended to limit the president’s power to dismiss officials without Senate approval: He fired Radical Republican ally and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Considering it a deliberate act of defiance, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson on February 24, 1868, with a vote of 126 to 47. Over 11 weeks, Johnson stood trial in front of the Senate, wisely backtracking on most of the positions that had irritated his political enemies. On May 16 and 26, votes were taken and he was allowed to remain in office for the rest of his term, being acquitted by one vote.


The impeachment and trial of Andrew Johnson had important political implications for the balance of federal legislative-executive power. It maintained the principle that Congress should not remove the President from office simply because its members disagreed with him over policy, style, and administration of the office. It also resulted in diminished Presidential influence on public policy and overall governing power, fostering a system of governance which future-President Woodrow Wilson referred to in the 1880s as "Congressional Government".

Following the melodrama of his impeachment, Johnson had largely lost the illustrious status afforded to a U.S. president. Still at odds with Congress over reconstruction, he became less motivated. In the White House, he was said to be preoccupied with a family of mice that had taken up residence in his bedroom. He left out water for them and made sure flour was available in case they wanted something to eat. Following his departure from office in 1869, Johnson served in the Senate—the only president ever to do so following his presidential term—before succumbing to a stroke in July 1875.



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