Today in History

Today in History: December 29

The 17th President

portrait
Andrew Johnson, between 1855 and 1865.
By Popular: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth president of the United States, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, on December 29, 1808. His father's death when the boy was three left the family in poverty. From age fourteen to age seventeen, young Johnson was apprenticed to a tailor. He then moved with his mother and stepfather to Greeneville, Tennessee, where he established himself as a tailor. Johnson never attended school but taught himself to read and write—he all but memorized the U.S. Constitution—and after his 1827 marriage to Eliza McCardle, a shoemaker’s daughter, acquired a good common education under her tutelage.

A gifted orator, Johnson quickly ascended the political ladder. In 1829, he won his first office, as an alderman. In steady succession he became mayor of Greeneville, a member of the Tennessee state legislature (1835-37, 1839-43), U.S. congressman (1843-53), governor of Tennessee (1853-57), and U.S. senator (1857-62). In Congress, Johnson supported the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War, and sponsored a homestead bill that anticipated the 1862 Homestead Act. He also was the only Southern senator who firmly supported the Union and remained in the Senate throughout both the secession crisis and the Civil War. In the spring of 1862, after federal forces captured portions of Tennessee, President Lincoln appointed him military governor of the state, an office he held despite constant danger to his life.

Johnson's Home
Andrew Johnson Residence, Greeneville, Tennessee
Samuel H Gottscho, photographer, September 20, 1961.
Architecture and Interior Design for 20th Century America: Photographs by Samuel Gottscho and William Schleisner, 1935-1955

Two years later, influential moderates such as William Seward worked to secure Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, as Lincoln's running mate on the Republican Party ticket. According to a May 20, 1865, editorial (external link) in Harper's Weekly, Seward had seen in Johnson "that his fellow-Senator, a land-reformer, a stern Union man, a trusted representative of the people of the South as distinguished from the planting aristocracy, was the very kind of leader by whom the political power of the aristocracy was ultimately to be overthrown in its own section."

After Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, little more than a month after their inauguration, Johnson assumed the presidency. His administration ran more smoothly in the foreign than the domestic arena: in 1867, Secretary of State Seward purchased Alaska and helped negotiate France's withdrawal of troops from Mexico.

Andrew Johnson taking the oath of office
Andrew Johnson taking the oath of office, April 15, 1865
"I Do Solemnly Swear . . .": Presidential Inaugurations

Domestically, Johnson faced a crisis with radical congressional Republicans who deemed his post-war Reconstruction policies far too lenient toward white Southerners and insufficiently supportive of former slaves. Regarding secession as a legal impossibility that ought to require little legislation to cancel, and bearing a white Southerner’s racial prejudices, Johnson sought to minimize the conditions under which those who had seceded could resume full citizenship and wished to do little beyond the Thirteenth Amendment to ensure rights and protections for the freedmen. (He had no interest, for example, in guaranteeing newly emancipated men the right to vote.) Ill will and deep political disagreements culminated in Congress voting articles of impeachment against Johnson in February 1868. On May 16, 1868, the U.S. Senate acquitted Johnson of the charges by a single vote and he served the remainder of his presidential term.

After his presidency, Johnson sought to vindicate himself by gaining reelection to the Senate. His first two bids were unsuccessful, but in 1875, he again became a U.S. senator from Tennessee. He died just months into his term.

The Library of Congress has a variety of sites with information on Andrew Johnson.

Outside the Library, see Finding Precedent: The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson (external link), which provides excerpts from more than 200 articles from Harper's Weekly (external link) during the period 1865-69; or explore the full history (external link) of the impeachment itself in the book presented online by the Avalon Project at Yale Law School.