Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the United States, was an Ulster-Scot whose grandfather left Larne and settled in America around 1750.
Andrew was born on December 29, 1808 into dire poverty in Raleigh, North Carolina. He did not attend school and started working for at tailor at the age of 13.
In 1826 he moved to Tennessee and settled in Greenville where he started his own tailor’s shop, which proved to be a great success.
The following year, he married Elizabeth McCardle who was 16.
The success of Johnson’s tailoring business enabled him to employ assistants and gave him the resources to invest profitably in real estate.
It also gave him status and standing in his local community and the opportunity to hold a variety of public offices.
In 1830, when he was still only 22, he became Mayor of Greenville. He served two terms in the Tennessee State Legislature and two years in the Tennessee State Senate, before his election as governor of Tennessee in 1853 and US Senator in 1857.
In the mid-nineteenth century East Tennessee was a region of subsistence farming where slave owners were few and slaves almost non-existent.
Politically, the region opposed secession and represented the largest bloc of pro-Union sentiment in the South. Around 30,000 Tennesseans served in the Union Army.
Johnson represented this pro-Union sentiment and was the only Southern senator not to quit the Senate upon secession. He supported the military policies of President Lincoln during Civil War.
In 1862 Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of occupied Tennessee where he proved to be energetic and effective in fighting the rebellion and beginning transition to Reconstruction.
Johnson was Lincoln’s running mate in the Presidential election of 1864.
On Inauguration Day he drank rather more whisky than he ought – to counter the effects of a recent illness. His demeanour embarrassed his colleagues, dismayed onlookers and appalled Northern opinion. His critics unfairly claimed that he was a habitual drunkard.
Less than five weeks later he was president.
Johnson was the first vice-president to succeed to the presidency upon the assassination of his predecessor but as is often said in American politics, the qualities that look good in an election campaign do not always make for a great president.
Johnson is usually ranked by historians as being among the worst US presidents.
This is not altogether fair.
Filling the shoes of America’s greatest President was always going to be difficult and Johnson lacked Lincoln’s great political skills.
According to Richard Taylor, a leading Southern Democrat, Johnson although honest and industrious, ‘was of an obstinate, suspicious temper. Like a badger, one had to dig him out of his hole; and he was ever in one except when on the hustings, addressing a crowd.’
Furthermore, Lincoln’s assassination poisoned politics.
Johnson sought to continue Lincoln’s conciliatory policy towards the South. For example, he proclaimed an amnesty on 29 May 1865, three days after the surrender of the last Southern army in field. However revulsion at Lincoln’s assassination in the North rendered conciliation well-nigh impossible.
Radical Republicans – men of the stamp of Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Benjamin Wade of Ohio – were determined to punish the South for secession, whereas Johnson wanted to bring the South back into the Union as quickly as possible.
In March 1867 radical Republicans passed – over Johnson’s veto – a Reconstruction Act which enfranchised Negroes (the terminology of the day) and disenfranchised former Confederates.
In the same month they passed a Tenure of Office Act which prohibited presidents from dismissing high executive officials without senatorial approval.
Johnson viewed this as an attack on the presidential prerogative and, as a test case, dismissed Edwin M Stanton, the Secretary of War.
Stanton functioned as a White House mole for his radical Republican allies. He even used the War Department’s telegraph line to censor messages intended for or sent by the President.
The US Constitution makes provision for the impeachment of the President, the Vice-President and ‘all civil officers of the United States’ for ‘treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours’.
Impeachments are brought by the House of Representatives (the lower house of Congress) and are tried by the Senate (the upper house). Conviction requires a two-thirds vote, with punishment confined to removal from office.
In 1868 the House of Representatives impeached Andrew Johnson for dismissing Stanton in violation of the 1867 Tenure of Offices Act and thereby seeking to obstruct Congress’s programme of Reconstruction.
In June 1789 James Madison had contended that the power to remove a Cabinet member resided exclusively with the President and Johnson believed that remained the position.
Johnson was confident that he would be vindicated by the Supreme Court. Later in 1926 the Supreme Court validated Johnson’s position in Myers v United States.
In 1868, the Senate voted 35 for conviction and 19 for acquittal. Significantly, despite the overwhelming Republican majority in the Senate, this fell one vote short of the necessary two-thirds majority, so the impeachment failed.
Thereafter Johnson dropped his obstruction to the congressional Reconstruction programme and served out his term without further incident.
He did not seek a second term.
During Johnson’s Presidency the United States purchased Alaska from Russia for just over $ 7 million.
Andrew Johnson made history in 1875 by becoming the only former President to be elected to the US Senate.
Johnson died on 31 July 1875.
A tailor by trade – as previously already noted –, when he was president, Johnson remarked that he still knew how to sew a coat.
Never having attended school, he educated himself through hiring a man to read to him while he worked with needle and thread.
He studied the US Constitution very closely, learning much of it by heart.
Harry Truman claimed that Johnson knew the Constitution better than any other president.
His copy of the Constitution was buried with him.