Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) was the seventeenth president of the US, who took the office in 1865 after the death of Abraham Lincoln. He was an unusual president in many ways, because of his background, lack of education, and also for his stance as a Southern senator as pro-Union. Yet he has been criticized for not reaching far enough to support the equality of African Americans after the Civil War ended. His personal choices as an elected official are symbolic of the many people of the time who were opposed to slavery yet still not ready to see African Americans as citizens or equals.
Like Lincoln, Andrew Johnson was no stranger to poverty. He was an apprenticed tailor in Tennessee as a young boy prior to considering a career in politics. He soon found he had a talent for debate and public speaking, and his wife, Eliza McCardle, whom he married in 1827, taught Johnson how to read and write. She fostered Johnson’s political ambitions, but as First Lady was too ill to serve in her position effectively.
Prior to becoming president, Andrew Johnson was clearly a man of the people, that is, poor white people, and generally not the slave population. He had some anti-slavery leanings, but never kept to a consistent opinion regarding the worth of African Americans. In politics prior to his serving in the Vice Presidency, his opinions were popular. He served as Mayor of Greenville, in the Tennessee House of Representatives, and then as Governor. In 1857 he was elected as a US senator, and he remained the sole Southern Senator to keep his position when the Southern states seceded.
His support of the Union, his pro-war stance, and his willingness to free his own slaves made Andrew Johnson a fascinating character to Abraham Lincoln, a staunch Republican. He offset Lincoln because of his background and was appointed as Lincoln’s running mate, probably with the hope that his different political influences would be a draw to some Southerners.
As Vice President, Andrew Johnson served a mere month before the death of Lincoln. To the Republican Party, his Democratic stance, though he was an Independent by this point, was viewed as a liability. His decision regarding the best approach to Southern reconstruction put him at great odds with the Republican Party, as well as his veto of a Republican civil rights bill. They ultimately voted in the House of Representatives to impeach him in 1868, making Johnson the first President ever to be impeached. The Senate saved him with a single vote cast by Senator Edmund G. Ross.
One main difference between Johnson’s approach to reconstructing the South and the Republican Approach was that Johnson wanted quick reunion and peace to be established. Unfortunately, Republicans were more interested in suppressing the South and were not so forgiving, especially to former landowners. The second goad to Republicans was Johnson’s vetoing of several civil rights bills meant to protect the emancipated slaves. Though he had at times expressed that slaves could be honorable men, he was not about to afford them equality with white men.
Though his presidency is marked by his involvement in reconstruction, Andrew Johnson made one decision that is still hailed today as brilliant. He purchased Alaska from Russia, thus supplying the US with first gold and later oil. He also did carry some of his resolve in seeing better times for Southern citizens, by declaring Amnesty, without swearing of oaths to the Union, for all who participated in the Confederate Army in 1868. It was one of his last acts as President, but proved helpful in smoother restoration of the Southern states.
After his presidency, Andrew Johnson ran for both the US House and Senate. These first campaigns were unsuccessful. He met greater success with a third campaign for a US Senate seat, and was re-elected as a senator for Tennessee in 1874. His service was brief, and he died less than a year later of a stroke.