Andrew Johnson was born on December 29, 1808, in Raleigh, North
Carolina, the youngest of two sons. His father, Jacob Johnson, was a porter
who died in 1811 after saving a man from drowning. His mother, Mary
McDonough Johnson supported the family by spinning and weaving cloth in
their Raleigh cottage. At the age of 14, Johnson was apprenticed to a tailor.
In 1843 Johnson was elected to the U.S. House of Representitives and
one for following elections to retain his seat until 1853. While in the U.S.
House, Johnson supported President Polk and his handling of the Texas and
Oregon settlements and the Mexican War. Although hailing from a
Southern state, Johnson was a staunch supporter of the Constitution over
State’s Rights, a position which conflicted with many Southern legislators.
Turning his sights back to state politics, Johnson won the 1853 Tennessee
election and re election in 1855. Johnson’s star continued to rise, and his
term as governor of Tennessee provided such benefits to the state as a public
school system and a state library. On the eve of the Civil War in 1857,
Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate.
The final act leading to the Civil War occurred during Johnson’s
service in the Senate. Johnson was a Southerner and supported the Fugitive
Slave Law and defended slavery. He also supported Abraham Lincoln’s chief
opponent in the 1860 presidential election, Stephen Douglas. However, he
also spoke sternly against both secessionists and abolitionists as dangerous
to the existence of the Union and the Constitution. By the 1860 presidential
election, several Southern states had already formed a confederacy.
Abraham Lincoln won the November election winning forty percent of the
votes cast, and in the following April South Carolina batteries bombarded
Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor beginning the Civil War. Andrew Johnson
warned that the dissolution of the Union would produce many minor
countries ruled by various forms of government. In spite of Johnson’s strong
support of the Constitution and the Union, Tennessee seceded from the
United States. Johnson rejected the Confederacy and was the only Southern
senator to remain in the U.S. Senate after secession. Johnson’s support of the
Union won acclaim in the North and infamy in the South. Eastern Tennessee
possessed strong pro-Union factions, but pro-Confederacy forces from the
central and western parts of the state secured the state for the South. When
war erupted Tennessee was an early battlefield. Union victories in the state
placed large parts of the state in federal control, and occupied areas were
administered by appointed military governors. In 1862 President Lincoln
appointed Andrew Johnson as military governor of Tennessee. Johnson ruled
with a firm hand silencing sources of anti-Union sentiment. Johnson held the
military governorship of Tennessee until 1864. Preparing for the presidential
election, foreseeing an imminent end to the war, and preparing for a
re-unification of the nation, President Lincoln urged the Republican Party’s
leadership to drop his previous vice-president, Hannibal Hamlin, an ardent
abolitionist from Maine, in favor of Johnson, a Southerner and a Democrat.
President Lincoln defeated General George McClellan in the 1864 election,
and Johnson became vice-president of the United States of America.
Johnson took the oath of office in March 1865. The following month
President Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater in Washington for an evening of
entertainment and was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Booth was part
of a larger conspiracy to assassinate key members of the government.
Andrew Johnson was a target of the conspiring assassins, but the assassin
charged with killing the vice-president lost heart and did not attempt the
assassination. Johnson became president on April 15, 1865. Johnson
mirrored Lincoln’s views on a benevolent period of reconciliation with the
South after the Civil War. However, there was a strong faction within
Johnson’s inherited cabinet and within the Northern states that favored a
policy of harsh retribution for the rebellious states. This radical faction
within the Republican Party overrode Johnson’s plan for reconstruction and
sought to destroy the political elements within the South which had been
very influential before the war. These actions caused resentment in the South
and local opposition to federal legislation. Johnson vetoed many of the harsh
measures passed by Congress, but half of these vetoes were overturned by
On July 31, 1875, in Carter’s Station, Tennessee Johnson died.