"This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men."—Andrew Johnson
"I have lived among negroes, all my life, and I am for this Government with slavery under the Constitution as it is. I am for the Government of my fathers with negroes, I am for it without negroes. Before I would see this Government destroyed, I would send every negro back to Africa, disintegrated and blotted out of space."—Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson (December 29th, 1808 - July 31st, 1875) was the 17th President of the United States. He became President when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. He was probably the most racist president the U.S. has ever had. Johnson was to become one of the least popular presidents in American history. He was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1868, but the Senate failed to convict him by one vote.
Johnson was born in a log cabin in North Carolina. He did not have a strong formal education, but he did have a trade. He was apprenticed as a tailor in 1822 and was the first president to not enter a career in law or the military. Four years later he opened his own business in Tennessee (he was not yet 18 and was still illiterate). Eventually, he taught himself how to read. In 1827 he married and his wife, Eliza McCardle, also helped Johnson to read and write. By 1834, he was an alderman and then a mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee. Johnson then followed many careers in politics as a Democrat. By 1861, Johnson was the only southern senator who did not resign to join the south. A year later he appointed as the military governor of Tennessee. In 1864, the Republicans were looking to broaden their base against the Democrats. So Lincoln eliminated his current vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, and Andrew Johnson was made the vice president.
Nobody ever wanted Andrew Johnson to become president. The Republicans simply wanted him as the vice president so Lincoln would win the 1864 election. Depending on if you agreed or disagreed with him, you would call him stubborn or principled. Johnson was a close-minded person who never listened to other people and never really cared what other people thought either. This gave him few friends in life and politics. For a role model, Andrew Johnson looked to a former president from his home state with a similar name, Andrew Jackson. Jackson and Johnson both believed that the union had to be preserved. It could actually be argued that Johnson was the last Jacksonian. Like Jackson, Johnson believed he represented the common man, but that could only be really seen to the common white man. Johnson believed that the former slaves should have truly just returned to the plantation and leave the political world to rights.
Johnson's attitude toward blacks, or “niggers” as he termed them in private conversation, was resolutely negative.
As Vice-President during Lincoln’s reign, Johnson had a strong disliking for the aristocracy whom he thought were there by the labor of the poor such as his own family. “Glassy-eyed and smelling of whiskey, he reminded Congress, the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, and pretty much everyone within hearing distance that they owed their positions to “plebeians” such as himself, then kissed the Bible and staggered away”. In response, the New York Times said “To think that one frail life stands between this insolent, clownish creature and the presidency! May God bless and spare Abraham Lincoln!”
When Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Johnson took his presidential oath whilst completely drunk.
As Reconstruction began, it seemed like there would be a standoff in Congress between the Johnson Administration and the radical Republicans. Both groups had their own solutions to Reconstruction. Then, Congress left on vacation, leaving Johnson alone. While it is expected for the president to enjoy a break from politics, Johnson instead made his own plan for Reconstruction. Nobody knows what Lincoln would have done, but Johnson's plan gave amnesty for former Confederates and quick entrance for the southern states into the union. As for the former slaves, they got no protection from Johnson's plan and were not given rights or the right to vote. When Congress returns, Johnson announces that Reconstruction is over and the news is shocking to the Republicans. With a grand majority in Congress, the Republicans started making their own Reconstruction measures. This included the first Civil Rights Act for blacks and even Native Americans. Johnson vetoed it. Congress then tried to extend the Freedmen's Bureau, an organization made during the Lincoln Administration to aid blacks in entering American society. Johnson vetoed it too. That would be the entire relationship between Congress and the president. Congress would pass something and Johnson would always veto it. In fact, Johnson vetoed so many times, that he beat the record at the time held by a president for vetoes. The president that Johnson beat? None other than his hero Andrew Jackson (Jackson vetoed 12 times during his presidency and Johnson vetoed 29 times). However, in the midterms, the Republicans gained so far a majority in Congress, that they could overrule the president.
The new relationship between Congress and the president was Congress passes, Johnson vetoes, Congress overrules. Their record of overturning Johnson 15 times still stands. Not only did Congress help the former slaves, they severely weakened Johnson's power. They even passed a bill that left Johnson unable to fire Cabinet members without the agreement from Congress. It was a trap and Johnson took the bait. Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and the Republicans immediately called for an impeachment. Johnson, in a sense, destroyed his own presidency by not compromising with his opponents. In February 1868, the House of Representatives voted to impeach the president 126 to 47. A vote in the Senate would decide the fate of Johnson's presidency. If 2/3 of the Senate voted to convict him, the Johnson presidency would be over. Tickets were sold as if it were the Olympics today. Washington D.C.'s high society got all dressed up as well as members of the military and diplomats from foreign nations to watch the impeachment. In the end, Johnson retained the presidency by a single vote. By that time, the 1868 election had begun and Johnson would lose the Democratic nomination.
In the end, it was clear that Johnson was no Lincoln. Johnson would die in July 1875, a few months after being elected to the very place he was nearly impeached in the Senate. He was the first and only president ever to do so. By giving making Congress the dominant branch during his presidency, that body of government would remain dominant and thus a series of weak presidents would follow.
- Some believe that Johnson was involved in Lincoln's assassination; Approximately seven hours before shooting President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth dropped by the Washington hotel which was Vice-President Andrew Johnson's residence. Upon learning from the desk clerk that neither Johnson nor his private secretary, William A. Browning, was in the hotel, Booth wrote the following note: "Don't wish to disturb you Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth." Browning testified before the military court that he found the note in his box later that afternoon.
Did Johnson and Booth know each other? In the 1997 publication "Right or Wrong, God Judge Me" The Writings of John Wilkes Booth edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper it is stated on p. 146 that Booth had previously met Johnson in Nashville in February 1864. At the time Booth was appearing in the newly opened Wood's Theatre. Also, author Hamilton Howard in Civil War Echoes (1907) made the claim that while Johnson was military governor of Tennessee, he and Booth kept a couple of sisters as mistresses and oftentimes were seen in each other's company. Lincoln had essentially ignored Johnson after Johnson's embarrassing behavior on Inauguration Day. Mary Todd Lincoln felt Johnson was involved in her husband's assassination. On March 15, 1866, she wrote to her friend, Sally Orne: "...that, that miserable inebriate Johnson, had cognizance of my husband's death - Why, was that card of Booth's, found in his box, some acquaintance certainly existed - I have been deeply impressed, with the harrowing thought, that he, had an understanding with the conspirators & they knew their man... As sure, as you & I live, Johnson, had some hand, in all this..." Some members of Congress also thought Johnson was involved and a special Assassination Committee was established to investigate any evidence linking Johnson to Lincoln's death. Nothing suspicious was ever found by the committee, yet a belief by some Americans that Johnson was somehow involved with Booth continued for many years.