The Homestead

Andrew Johnson National Historic Site

Perhaps no incoming U.S. President had bigger shoes to fill than Andrew Johnson did upon stepping into office following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. As the first President to be impeached, Johnson is commonly considered one of the worst American Presidents. This judgement may be a bit harsh, though, considering the unenviable and herculean task of reconstruction following a horrific civil war which was passed to his hands upon taking the Oath of Office. His attempt to follow Lincoln's policy of lenient amnesty to the succeeded states did not sit well with a Congress determined that the South should pay a harsh penalty for the calamity that they had precipitated in the years prior.

Born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1808 Johnson spent the early years of his life as a tailor until settling in Greeneville, Tennessee. In the 1830's he began his career in politics, moving up the political food chain from mayor to state representative to congressional representative to Tennessee Governor and finally to U.S. Senator. Despite his deep southern roots, Johnson stayed firmly loyal to the Union when his home state of Tennessee succeeded. By 1862, with much of Tennessee back in Union hands, President Lincoln bestowed upon Andrew Johnson the rank of Brigadier General and appointed him military governor of his home state. To present an aura of national unity President Lincoln chose Johnson as his running mate in the re-election year of 1864. Barely a month into his term as Vice-President, on April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated (Johnson was also slated to be killed but his would-be assassin decided to get drunk instead) and Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the 17th President of the United States. Johnson's approach to Reconstruction closely followed Lincoln's proposed plan. Considering succession to be illegal, Johnson argued that the southern states then never actually left the Union and thus should be allowed to reconvene their governments after a certain percentage of their citizens signed oaths of loyalty to the federal government. With the sacrifice of over a half million men in the preceding four years, Republicans in Congress were less inclined to let the South off so easy. This set the stage for 4-years of political in-fighting which pitted the uncompromising Johnson against a equally unyielding Congress. Perhaps his most unforgivable act was his vetoing of the 1866 Civil Rights Act which would have given recently freed African Americans equal rights including the right to hold office and vote. This set the stage for his impeachment, the first imposed on a U.S. President. Through a trial motivated more by political interests than actual fact Johnson narrowly avoided conviction in May of 1868 but the damage to his reputation had been done and he served out the remainder of his term a disgraced man. Following his Presidency, Johnson did recover a measure of dignity through a return to the U.S. Senate in 1875 but unfortunately, less than five months after his swearing in, Johnson suffered a series of strokes and died on July 31st.

History has not been kind to the 17th President. Perhaps Johnson's rather unyielding approach to dealing with Congress can be counted against him, and certainly his veto of the 1866 Civil Rights Act is a deep stain on his reputation but, in my amateur opinion, the task confronting the Presidency at this time in history was likely beyond the abilities of any one man, let alone Andrew Johnson. I would have to agree with the historian Annette Gordon-Reed when she stated that, "there have never been more difficult times in the life of this nation. The problems these men had to confront were enormous. It would have taken a succession of Lincolns to do them justice."