Andrew Johnson

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Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson

In office
April 15, 1865 –  March 4, 1869
Vice President(s)   none
Preceded by Abraham Lincoln
Succeeded by Ulysses S. Grant

16th Vice President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1865 –  April 15, 1865
President Abraham Lincoln
Preceded by Hannibal Hamlin
Succeeded by Schuyler Colfax

Born December 29, 1808
Raleigh, North Carolina
Died July 31, 1875
Greeneville, Tennessee
Political party Democratic until 1864 and after 1869; elected Vice President in 1864 on a National Union ticket; no party affiliation 1865-1869
Spouse Eliza McCardle Johnson
Religion Christian (no denomination)

Andrew Johnson ( December 29, 1808 – July 31, 1875) was the seventeenth President of the United States (1865–1869), succeeding to the presidency upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Johnson was a US Senator from Tennessee at the time of the secession of the southern states. He was the only Southern Senator not to quit his post upon secession. He was representative of the slaveowning War Democrats from the border states who supported the Union. In 1862 Johnson was appointed military governor of Tennessee, and fought the rebellion there. Lincoln selected Johnson for the Vice President slot in 1864 on the "Union Party." As president he took charge of Presidential Reconstruction—that is, the first phase of Reconstruction—which lasted until the Radical Republicans gained control of Congress in the 1866 elections. His conciliatory policies towards the South, his hurry to reincorporate the former Confederates back into the union, and his vetoes of civil rights bills embroiled him in a bitter dispute with the Radical Republicans. The Radicals in the House of Representatives impeached him in 1868; he was the first President to be impeached, but he was acquitted by a single vote in the Senate.

Presidency 1865-1869

Taking Office

As a leading War Democrat and pro-Union southerner, Johnson was an ideal candidate for the Republicans in 1864 as they tried to enlarge their base to include War Democrats and temporarily changed the party name to the "National Union" party. He was elected Vice President of the United States and was inaugurated March 4, 1865. At the ceremony Johnson, who had been drinking to deal with a cold, gave a rambling speech and appeared intoxicated to many. In early 1865, Johnson talked harshly of hanging traitors like Jefferson Davis, which endeared him to the Radicals. He became President of the United States on April 15, 1865, upon the death of Lincoln. He was the first Vice President to succeed to the U.S. Presidency upon the assassination of a President and the third to succeed upon the death of a President.

Johnson had an ambiguous party status. The National Union party vanished after the 1864 election, but he did not identify with either party while President—though he did try for the Democratic nomination in 1868. Asked in 1868 why he did not become a Democrat, he said "It is true I am asked why don't I join the Democratic party. Why don't they join me?"

Foreign Policy

Johnson forced the French out of Mexico by sending a combat army to the border and issuing an ultimatum. The French withdrew in 1867, and their puppet government quickly collapsed. Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia on April 9, 1867 for $7.2 Million. Critics sneered at "Seward's Folly" and "Seward's Icebox." Seward also negotiated to purchase the Danish West Indies, but the Senate refused to approve the purchase in 1867. The Senate likewise rejected Seward's arrangement with Great Britain to arbitrate the Alabama claims. The U.S. experienced tense relations with Britain and its colonial government in Canada in the aftermath of the war. Lingering resentment over a perception of British sympathy towards the Confederacy resulted in Johnson initially turning a blind eye towards a series of armed incursions by Irish-American civil war veterans into British territory in Canada, named the Fenian Raids. Eventually Johnson ordered the Fenians disarmed and barred from crossing the border, but his initially hesitant reaction to the crisis created outrage throughout Canada and helped motivate the Confederation movement.


At first Johnson talked harshly, telling an Indiana delegation in late April, 1865, "Treason must be made odious... traitors must be punished and impoverished... their social power must be destroyed." But then he struck another note: "I say, as to the leaders, punishment. I also say leniency, reconciliation and amnesty to the thousands whom they have misled and deceived." . His class-based resentment of the rich appeared in a May, 1865 statement to W.H. Holden, the man he appointed governor of North Carolina, "I intend to confiscate the lands of these rich men whom I have excluded from pardon by my proclamation, and divide the proceeds thereof among the families of the wool hat boys, the Confederate soldiers, whom these men forced into battle to protect their property in slaves."Johnson in practice was not at all harsh toward the Confederate leaders. He allowed the Southern states to hold elections in 1865 in which prominent ex-Confederates were elected to the U.S. Congress. Congress did not seat them. Congress and Johnson argued in an increasingly public way about Reconstruction and the manner in which the Southern secessionist states would be readmitted to the Union. Johnson favored a very quick restoration of all rights and privileges of other states -- and in many ways followed the similar plan of leniency that Lincoln advocated before his death.

Break with the Republicans: 1866

The Johnson-appointed governments all passed Black Codes that gave the Freedmen second class status. In response to the Black codes and worrisome signs of Southern recalcitrance, the Radical Republicans blocked the readmission of the ex-rebellious states to the Congress in fall 1865. Congress also renewed the Freedman's Bureau, but Johnson vetoed it. Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, leader of the moderate Republicans, took affront at the black codes. He proposed the first Civil Rights Law.

Although strongly urged by moderates in Congress to sign the Civil Rights bill, Johnson broke decisively with them by vetoing it on March 27. His veto message objected to the measure because it conferred citizenship on the Freedmen at a time when eleven out of thirty-six States were unrepresented and attempted to fix by Federal law "a perfect equality of the white and black races in every State of the Union." Johnson said it was an invasion by Federal authority of the rights of the States; it had no warrant in the Constitution and was contrary to all precedents. It was a "stride toward centralization and the concentration of all legislative power in the national government."

The Democratic party, proclaiming itself the party of white men, north and south, supported Johnson. However the Republicans in Congress overrode his veto (the Senate by the vote of 33:15, the House by 122:41) and the Civil Rights bill became law.

The last moderate proposal was the Fourteenth Amendment, also authored by moderate Trumbull. It was designed to put the key provisions of the Civil Rights Act into the Constitution, but it went much further. It extended citizenship to everyone born in the United States (except visitors and Indians on reservations), penalized states that did not give the vote to Freedmen, and most importantly, created new federal civil rights that could be protected by federal courts. It guaranteed the Federal war debt (and promised the Confederate debt would never be paid). Johnson used his influence to block the amendment in the states, as three-fourths of the states were required for ratification. (The Amendment was later ratified.) The moderate effort to compromise with Johnson had failed and an all-out political war broke out between the Republicans (both Radical and moderate) on one side, and on the other Johnson and his allies in the Democratic party in the North, and the conservative groupings in the South. The decisive battle was the election of 1866. Johnson campaigned vigorously but was widely ridiculed. The Republicans won by a landslide (the Southern states were not allowed to vote), and took full control of Reconstruction. Johnson was almost powerless.

Historian James Ford Rhodes has explained Johnson's inability to engage in serious negotiations:

As Senator Charles Sumner shrewdly said, "the President himself is his own worst counsellor, as he is his own worst defender." Johnson acted in accordance with his nature. He had intellectual force but it worked in a groove. Obstinate rather than firm it undoubtedly seemed to him that following counsel and making concessions were a display of weakness. At all events from his December message to the veto of the Civil Rights Bill he yielded not a jot to Congress. The moderate senators and representatives (who constituted a majority of the Union party) asked him for only a slight compromise; their action was really an entreaty that he would unite with them to preserve Congress and the country from the policy of the radicals. The two projects which Johnson had most at heart were the speedy admission of the Southern senators and representatives to Congress and the relegation of the question of negro suffrage to the States themselves. Himself shrinking from the imposition on these communities of the franchise for the coloured people, his unyielding disposition in regard to matters involving no vital principle did much to bring it about. His quarrel with Congress prevented the readmission into the Union on generous terms of the members of the late Confederacy; and for the quarrel and its unhappy results Johnson's lack of imagination and his inordinate sensitiveness to political gadflies were largely responsible: it was not a contest in which fundamentals were involved. He sacrificed two important objects to petty considerations. His pride of opinion, his desire to beat, blinded him to the real welfare of the South and of the whole country.

Impeachment:The First attempt

There were two attempts to remove President Johnson from office. The first occurred in the fall of 1867. On November 21st of that year, the House Judiciary committee produced a bill of impeachment that was basically a hodgepodge of complaints against him. After a furious debate, there was a formal vote in the House of Representatives on December 5th, which failed 108-57.

Impeachment: the Second attempt

Harper's Weekly illustration of Johnson's impeachment trial in the United States Senate.
Harper's Weekly illustration of Johnson's impeachment trial in the United States Senate.

In February 1868, Johnson notified Congress that he had removed Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War and was replacing him in the interim with Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas. Johnson had wanted to replace Stanton with former General Ulysses S. Grant, who refused to accept the position. This violated the Tenure of Office Act, a law enacted by Congress on March 2, 1867 over Johnson's veto, specifically designed to protect Stanton. Johnson had vetoed the act, claiming it was unconstitutional. The act said, "...every person holding any civil office, to which he has been appointed by and with the advice and consent of the Senate ... shall be entitled to hold such office until a successor shall have been in like manner appointed and duly qualified," thus removing the President's previous unlimited power to remove any of his Cabinet members at will. Years later in the case Myers v. United States in 1926, the Supreme Court ruled that such laws were indeed unconstitutional.

The 1868 Impeachment Resolution
The 1868 Impeachment Resolution

The Senate and House entered into debate. Thomas attempted to move into the war office, for which Stanton had Thomas arrested. Three days after Stanton's removal, the House impeached Johnson for intentionally violating the Tenure of Office Act.

On March 5, 1868, a court of impeachment was constituted in the Senate to hear charges against the President. William M. Evarts served as his counsel. Eleven articles were set out in the resolution, and the trial before the Senate lasted almost three months. Johnson's defense was based on a clause in the Tenure of Office Act stating that the then-current secretaries would hold their posts throughout the term of the President who appointed them. Since Lincoln had appointed Stanton, it was claimed, the applicability of the act had already run its course.

There were three votes in the Senate: one on May 16 for the 11th article of impeachment, which included many of the charges contained in the other articles, and two on May 26 for the second and third articles, after which the trial adjourned. On all three occasions, thirty-five Senators voted "Guilty" and nineteen "Not Guilty". As the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority for conviction in impeachment trials, Johnson was acquitted.

A single changed vote would have sufficed to return a "Guilty" verdict. The decisive vote had been that of a young Radical Republican named Edmund G. Ross. Despite monumental pressure from fellow Radicals prior to the first vote, and dire warnings that a vote for acquittal would end his political career, Ross stood up at the appropriate moment and quietly announced "not guilty," effectively ending the impeachment trial.

The impeachment of Andrew Johnson is widely regarded as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the Federal Government. Had Johnson been successfully removed from office, this would have established a precedent that a President could be removed not for "high crimes and misdemeanors" but for purely political differences.

Administration and Cabinet

President Andrew Johnson 1865–1869
Vice President None  
Secretary of State William H. Seward 1865–1869
Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch 1865–1869
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton 1865–1868
  John M. Schofield 1868–1869
Attorney General James Speed 1865–1866
  Henry Stanberry 1866–1868
  William M. Evarts 1868–1869
Postmaster General William Dennison 1865–1866
  Alexander Randall 1866–1869
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles 1865–1869
Secretary of the Interior John P. Usher 1865
  James Harlan 1865–1866
  Orville H. Browning 1866–1869

States admitted to the Union

  • Nebraska - March 1, 1867


President Andrew Johnson
President Andrew Johnson

Johnson was an unsuccessful candidate for election to the United States Senate from Tennessee in 1868 and to the House of Representatives in 1872. However, in 1874 the Tennessee legislature did elect him to the US Senate. Johnson served from March 4, 1875, until his death near Elizabethton, Tennessee, on July 31 that same year. In his first speech since returning to the Senate, which was also his last, Johnson denounced the corruptions of the Grant Presidency and his passions aroused a standing ovation from many of his fellow senators who had once voted to remove him from the presidency. He is the only President to serve in the Senate after his presidency.

Interment was in the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, Greeneville, Tennessee, where he was buried with a copy of the Constitution. Andrew Johnson National Cemetery is now part of the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site.


  • In his lifetime Andrew Johnson, the son of a tailor, occupied every major non-judicial elected office in the American political system - city councilman, mayor, state representative, state senator, governor, representative, senator, vice-president, and president. He is the only person to have held all of those positions.
  • Speaking to a crowd of African Americans in Nashville during the 1864 campaign, he referred to himself as "the Moses" of the black people.
  • Johnson was the subject of a sympathetic, but inaccurate, 1942 film titled Tennessee Johnson, starring Van Heflin as Johnson and Lionel Barrymore as his nemesis, Thaddeus Stevens. Among other historical errors, the film's climax depicts Johnson passionately delivering an oration in his own defense on the U.S. Senate floor near the end of his impeachment trial. In fact, Johnson never appeared in person at his trial and was represented by legal counsel only.

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