Most Vice Presidents are forgotten, even some who become President. However the sixteenth VP made history, although probably not for the reasons he hoped.
Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh North Carolina on December 29th 1808. Jacob Johnson had been the town constable but died of a heart attack after rescuing several drowning men. Polly Johnson raised her three children as a washerwoman, although there are rumors that she was also a “woman for hire” and Andrew’s father was unknown. At a time when a humble birth was considered a badge of honor for politicians Johnson could say he was actually born in a log cabin.
When he was 10 Johnson was apprenticed to a tailor for the next 11 years. He found he didn’t like the work so he and his brother ran away. The tailor offered a reward of $10 for the boys but mostly just wanted Andrew back. The brothers moved around but fearing arrest Andrew returned to Raleigh and tried to negotiate a deal to pay off his apprenticeship but was unsuccessful, so he worked his way west and eventually settled in Greenville Tennessee. He set up a tailor shop and married Eliza McCardle, the Justice of the Peace who performed the ceremony was Thomas Lincoln, father of Abraham Lincoln.
Johnson became involved in politics when he was elected as an alderman to the Greenville city council and after working towards the reformation of taxes and the rights of freed slaves he was elected mayor. From there he ran for an open seat in the Tennessee House and thanks to his ability to debate he won by a large margin. It was also during this time that he purchased a slave, Dolly, and rumors persisted that he was the father of her three children. He also joined the Tennessee Militia where he held the rank of Colonel.
Johnson avoided becoming aligned with the political parties of the day but in 1837 he lost reelection to a Whig candidate. In the next election he formerly ran as a Democrat and won in 1839. As a supporter of Andrew Jackson he became heavily involved in the party and helped build their coalition in the state. In 1840 he was sent as the delegate to the Presidential Election and cast his vote for the Democratic candidate Van Buren, even though the Whig candidate Harrison won Tennessee remained a Democratic stronghold. This also led to his election to the Tennessee Senate in 1841. During that time he also built upon his personal fortune including large land holdings and 14 slaves.
In 1843 Johnson decided to expand his political career and ran a successful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. He aligned himself with the Democratic Party supporting the rights of the poor and opposing the abolitionists. He also worked hard for the election of James K. Polk but the two had major policy disagreements and Johnson found himself on the outside of the President’s inner circle. He also supported the Mexican American War, although he hoped it would lead to more slave states and he introduced a bill for the Homestead Act, a reflection of his humble beginnings.
During the Compromise of 1850 Johnson negotiated for the slave states including opposing making Washington D.C. a slave free zone. He attempted to get several Constitutional Amendment passed including the popular election of Senators, who were still appointed by the state legislators, and a term limit on federal judges. His Amendments were rejected and never made it out of Congress. In 1852 the Whigs managed to gain control of the Tennessee congress and redrew the district lines guaranteeing the Johnson wouldn’t win another election.
Since Johnson wasn’t going to run for the House again his friends put his name up for Governor. The Whigs felt that with a divided Democratic party he couldn’t succeed but in the end he managed to win the election. Although the position of Governor was mostly a ceremonial one Johnson used his position to get the state government to pass several of his bills in exchange for appointing Whigs to various offices. In the next election he secured the support of the Know Nothings and won reelection but by a smaller margin. Knowing that he couldn’t win a third term he began campaigning for the U.S. Senate.
Senators were still appointed by the state government so Johnson spent his time working on behalf of Democratic candidates and as a “man of the people” managed to win an appointment in 1857. Johnson found that Congress had changed and now as a slave owner from the South the Northerners suspected him of having pro slavery alternative motives. He also opposed federal spending bills including the building of a Washington D.C. infrastructure and sending federal troops to put down the Mormon Uprising. In 1860 he offered his name as a candidate for the Presidency but a divided Democratic Party split between the Northern candidate Stephen Douglass and the Southerner Breckenridge. In the end the party was unable to come together and Lincoln won the election.
During the tense years before the Civil War Johnson tried to convince the Southern delegates that they needed to remain part of the U.S. and maintain their seats in Congress or they would lose their majority. He soon found himself on unpopular terms in Tennessee and had to carry around a pistol in case he was attacked. When Tennessee voted to secede from the Union Johnson had to flee north. He retuned to Washington where he first tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the pending war and then to convince the Union army to occupy the state.
Once the war broke out Lincoln appointed Johnson as the Wartime Governor of Tennessee but he had to resign his seat in the Senate. After his absence Congress finally passed his homestead act that he had worked on for 10 years, including college funding and the right of way for railroads. Tennessee saw many battles and at times Johnson was in danger of becoming a prisoner of the Confederacy. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation he exempted Tennessee at Johnson’s request in hopes of maintaining control of the state. As the war raged on Johnson changed his position on slavery, he felt that if the supporters of the institution were willing to tear the nation apart that it was a basic evil and therefore had to be eliminated.
In 1864 when Lincoln ran for reelection he felt that he needed the support of the Democrats to pass his legislation before the reunification of the states, including the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. After a fact finding mission Lincoln’s advisor Daniel Sickles recommended Johnson to replace Vice President Hamlin on the ticket. At the nomination convention there was opposition from Northern Republicans but after Kentucky threw their support behind Johnson he won the majority and became the nominee. After the election Johnson hoped to stay in Tennessee and complete his duties reunifying the state but was ordered to return to Washington and the military took control. His final act as governor was to sign a new state amendment abolishing slavery in Tennessee.
When Johnson arrived for the swearing in ceremony his friends threw a party in his honor, and when he showed up in Congress the next day he was rather hung over, he asked outgoing Vice President Hamlin for a drink of whiskey and was said to have given a rather rambling and incoherent speech, which was cut short. His first official act as Vice President was swearing in outgoing Vice President Hamlin as the new Senator from the state of Maine. After the incident Johnson only attended the Senate to do his official duty and spent most of his time hiding out in Maryland. He intended on heading back to Tennessee, his wife refused to come to Washington, but word arrived that Grant had captured Richmond and the war was almost over. He decided to stay until the official surrender.
On April 14th 1865 Lincoln and Johnson held an official meeting to discuss how to handle the reunification of the states and what to do with the official traitors. That night Lincoln went to the theater and was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Johnson didn’t realize at the time but he was also a target of Booth’s plot but the man who was suppose to kill him, George Atzerodt, stayed at a bar getting drunk instead of trying to kill the Vice President. When Lincoln died the next day Johnson was swore in as the 17th President of the United States and vowed revenge. Johnson had been the Vice President for 42 days. His enemies tried to claim that he had conspired with Booth but there was never any proof of that claim. The office of the Vice President remained vacant until the next election.
William Sherman met with Confederate General Joseph Johnston and came to an agreement for the surrender of the South in exchange for the Union upholding their property rights. Johnson felt that this included slaves so he rejected the deal and instead insisted on the unconditional surrender of the southern states. He further issued a reward of $10,000 ($1.5 million adjusted for 2015) for the capture of Jefferson Davis. He also ordered the execution by hanging of Booth’s co conspirators including Mary Surratt in order to fulfill his promise of getting revenge for the death of Lincoln.
As President Johnson quickly worked towards his Reconstruction plan which allowed all the states to return to the Union, however he moved to break up the large plantations and didn’t insist on freed slaves getting voting rights; mostly he felt that former slave owners would convince their former slaves to vote against him when he ran for reelection.
The Northern states wanted the South to admit they were responsible for the war and became angered when former Confederate leaders were elected to Federal offices. They blamed Johnson for his rapid Reconstruction policies instead of following Lincoln’s 10% plan which limited the South to only having a 10% voting rights. Furthermore Johnson vetoed the Freedman’s Bureau bill which would have granted more rights to free slaves including voting rights. Johnson felt that the radical Republicans had put forth the bill and its defeat would lesson their influence however he alienated the moderate Republican too and soon was clashing with Congress. In 1866 he vetoed the Civil Rights bill, protection of freed slaves but his veto was overridden in Congress (the first time Congress had ever done so) and he found himself not only being opposed by Republicans but also Democrats who had lost votes due to his actions. In order to defeat Johnson Congress passed the Tenure In Office Act which forbid the President from firing any members of his cabinet (most of Johnson’s were Republican hold over from the Lincoln administration), they knew the bill would be declared unconstitutional so they quickly convened an impeachment hearing after Johnson appointed a new War Secretary, although he didn’t formerly fire the old one, and they claimed he impeded the prosecution of Jefferson Davis. The committee was unable to come to a formal decision so the impeachment charges were dropped.
After Congress went into recess Johnson then attempted to fire Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, and replace him with Ulysses Grant. Johnson also opposed the new act passed by congress establishing martial law in the former Confederate states and he further offered a general pardon to all former Confederates, except for those who held federal office and had been declared traitors by the U.S. government. When congress came back in session they demanded that Stanton be restored to his office and Grant resigned, which he did. Johnson then formerly fired Stanton and replaced him with Lorenzo Thomas. Congress declared Johnson had violated the Tenure in Office act and filed former charges of impeachment.
While Johnson’s defense council worked to convince the Senate to vote against removing him from office he worked behind the scenes offering deals to members who voted in his favor. There was also the problem of his replacement since there was no Vice President. Some argued that the Senate Pro Tempore should take the office while others felt that the Speaker of the House was the next in line, setting up a potential constitution crisis. Also the Senate Pro Tempore was Benjamin Wade who some considered a radical since he supported Suffragette rights and the full restoration of the rights of the South. Finally the Republicans felt a Wade Presidency would complicate their plans for a Grant Presidency. In the end the Senate fell one vote short of the required two thirds majority to remove Johnson from office. Attempts were made to accuse Johnson of bribery to beat the impeachment charges but no evidence was found to support the claim and it was dropped.
During his term in office the Johnson administration also purchased the Alaskan territory from Russia. Secretary of State Seward had joined into negotiations with Russia even though he had no official permission to do so. When he retuned to Washington with the deal Johnson eventually agreed and ordered Congress to reconvene during their summer break to approve the treaty. Although it was called Seward’s Folly at the time the United States came out on the better end of the deal paying $7.2 million for the territory. Johnson tried to do good for the people by signing the Southern Homestead Act but the program turned out to be full of corruption. He also created the 8 hour work week for federal employees but failed to guarantee wages and many found their pay being cut.
In 1868 Johnson sought the nomination as the Democratic Presidential candidate but after multiple ballots, and even with the support of the Southern states, he lost to Horatio Seymour. As a lame duck President he reluctantly signed the official bill to start the ratification of the 14th Amendment granting full rights to all Americans. He also spent his time granting pardons to former Confederates who hadn’t been pardoned during the early Reconstruction policies, including Jefferson Davis. In the end he refused his final act as President, attending the inauguration of Grant.
After returning to Tennessee he attempted to get elected to the Senate but lost by one vote. He tried a second time running as an independent but all he managed to do was split the vote and the Republican candidate was elected. In 1875 he once again ran for the Senate. After several votes he managed to win and felt vindicated after the impeachment. Upon returning to the Senate he sought to make peace with those who had opposed him as President but worked hard against Grant, who he had clashed with during the trials. After the session went into recess he planned to travel to Ohio to support the Democratic candidate for Governor but suffered a stroke on the trip. He died on July 31st 1875. He was buried in Greenville Tennessee and the cemetery was renamed the Andrew Johnson Memorial Cemetery.
Johnson, like many of his predecessors, had little impact on the Vice Presidency, spending most of his time in Maryland. He did have several firsts, he was the only Vice President in the National Union party (formed by Lincoln to win the support of Northern Democrats during the 1864 election), he was the first Vice President to become President after an assassination, he was the first President to be formally impeached by the House of Representatives, he was the only former President to be elected to the Senate and he oversaw the purchase of the territory of Alaska. He was the least educated Vice President (his wife taught him the basics of reading and math) and the second to not be a lawyer. He was the last Vice President to own a slave and the last Southern born Vice President for the next 68 years. When you take an American history class you will learn about Andrew Johnson but not for the reasons he had hoped.
So, as Vice President I promise to not start any Civil Wars and to do as little as possible to ensure I don’t get kicked out of office. And I don’t own any slaves.