An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States-Andrew Johnson

Feb 15, 2013 by


President Andrew Johnson

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Today we will look at Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events ?)

Andrew Johnson was born on December 29, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Like his predecessor, he was born in a log cabin. His father died when he was three, and his mother apprenticed Johnson to a tailor when he was ten. The term of apprenticeship was to last until he was 21, but Johnson ran away when he was 15. To avoid recapture, Johnson moved frequently for the next few years. He finally decided to settle in Greeneville, Tennessee, where he went into business as a tailor at the age of 18. He also got married that same year, and his marriage proved to be fortuitous in that his wife taught him how to read and write. Johnson prospered as a tailor, and used his new-found literacy to familiarize himself with the issues of the day. He decided to enter the political realm in 1829, when he was elected as a town alderman.

In 1834, he was elected as the mayor of Greeneville. After only a year in office, he ran for a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives. He was elected, but when he ran for reelection in 1837 he was defeated.


In 1839, he ran again for his old seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives, and won. In 1840, he served as a presidential elector for the state of Tennessee, and in 1841 he won election to the Tennessee Senate. After serving one term in that body, he ran for a seat in the US House of Representatives. Gaining election, Johnson served in the House until 1852. Recognizing that changes to his district that went into effect that year had deprived him of his most reliable political base, Johnson chose not to run for reelection. He decided instead to run for governor, and in 1853 he was elected to that office. In 1857 he chose not to seek reelection, hoping that the Tennessee legislature would choose him to represent the state in the US Senate. His hopes were rewarded when he was chosen that year to fill that post. Johnson was serving in that capacity when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Tennessee seceded from the Union, but Johnson (unlike every other US Senator from a state that joined the Confederacy) chose not to give up his seat.

Johnson did so because he remained loyal to the Union, a sentiment held by many of his fellow Tennesseans. Because of his stance, Lincoln appointed him as the military governor of Tennessee. Johnson provided valuable service in that capacity, and he was rewarded for this with an opportunity in 1864. Although Lincoln never publicly said so, privately he sought to enhance his chances of being reelected by getting rid of his original vice-president and putting a person with broader appeal on the ticket. Lincoln had maintained that his effort to preserve the Union was supported by all loyal Americans, regardless of their political allegiances. Johnson, who was both a Southerner and a Democrat, seemed perfectly suited to represent that idea. For that reason, the Republican national convention chose him to be Lincoln’s running mate in 1864.

Thus, when Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865, Johnson became the president.

2)     What was he MOST known for?

Soon after he became president, Johnson began to have serious disagreements with Congress over how the seceded states should be brought back into the Union. This conflict only escalated when those who wanted a significant reorganization of Southern society to take place gained a two-thirds majority in both the US House of Representatives and the Senate. Aware of their strength, the members of Congress who wanted change to take place (primarily a recognition on the part of the seceded states that African-Americans deserved civil rights hitherto unavailable to them) set a trap for Johnson. In 1867, they passed the Tenure of Office Act, a piece of legislation that made it illegal for Johnson to fire anyone that the Senate had confirmed. Johnson, feeling this act was unconstitutional, soon violated it by firing his Secretary of War. When he did, the House of Representatives brought articles of impeachment against him. This is what Johnson is most known for: he was the first president to ever be impeached.

3) What would you say were his strengths?

Johnson represents, probably to an even greater degree than Abraham Lincoln, the American ideal that anyone can become president of the United States. His ambition and natural talents allowed him to rise to the highest office in the land. He had an amazing resolve, and was a hard worker his whole life.


4)   What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Unfortunately, Johnson also had some serious character flaws. He was stubborn, refusing to compromise on even trivial matters. He was also overtly racist. This made him quite unwilling to try to help African-Americans in their struggle to achieve even a small portion of the civil rights that were rightfully their due.

5)   What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

The answer to this question depends to a great deal on the point of view of the observer. To some, Johnson had the correct attitude about reconstructing the Union in his belief that white Southerners should be allowed to handle their own internal affairs as long as they swore loyalty to the Union. In this view, Johnson could have spared the South the indignity of military reconstruction. Many historians, however—myself included—feel that Johnson’s attitude emboldened defeated Confederates, giving them the belief that the Civil War did not mean that they would have to change the relations between whites and blacks. Had the Union demanded with a consistent voice that Southerners recognize that race relations would have to change, the whole unhappy history of affairs in the former Confederacy from the 1860s to the 1960s could have been vastly different.

6)   In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Ironically, we went from our greatest president to our worst president. In virtually every poll ever conducted among historians, Johnson is rated lowest among American presidents. If he wasn’t the worst, he was certainly in the bottom five.

7)  What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

Johnson did one great service for the nation. Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated, and the nation was understandably thrown into chaos by this. In addition, there were also Confederate armies still in the field when Lincoln died. Johnson gave the nation a sense of stability during his first few months in office and oversaw the transition from war to peace. These are significant accomplishments that unfortunately are far outweighed by his transgressions regarding Reconstruction.

8)  Could you provide a summary statement about our seventeenth President?

Anyone following the great Abraham Lincoln into office would undoubtedly have suffered by comparison, but the contempt that historians hold for Johnson was largely of his own doing.

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