America’s Worst U.S. President: Andrew Johnson
By Tom Morrow
Of all the U.S. Presidents in our history none would be more controversial and disrespected than Andrew Johnson.
Johnson was born Dec. 29, 1808, in Raleigh, N.C., into abject poverty. He never attended school, was apprenticed as a tailor, then ran away working in several frontier towns before settling in Greeneville, Tennessee.
Johnson was the epitome of the “self-made” man. In Greenville he went in business as a tailor, then in politics by serving as city alderman and then mayor before being elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1835. In 1843, Johnson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served five two-year terms. He became Governor of Tennessee and in 1857, was elected to the U.S. Senate.
As Southern states, including Tennessee, seceded to form the Confederacy, Johnson remained loyal to the Union, the only senator from the South who did not resign his seat.
When the Civil War broke out President Abraham Lincoln appointed Johnson as military governor of Tennessee after most of the state had been retaken. In the election of 1864, as a War Democrat and Southern Unionist, Johnson was a logical choice as Lincoln’s running mate. In his re-election campaign Lincoln wanted to send a message for national unity. The Lincoln-Johnson ticket won easily, but when Johnson was sworn in as vice president in March 1865, he gave such a rambling, nonsensical speech that was so bad, afterward he secluded himself to avoid public ridicule.
Less than two months later, he became the 17th U.S. president when Lincoln was assassinated.
With the war over, Johnson favored a quick restoration of the seceded states, but his plans did not give protection to the former African-American slaves. As a result, Johnson came into conflict with the Republican-dominated Congress. Johnson and the “radical” Republicans in the Congress clashed at almost every turn. Similar to today’s political atmosphere, the impeachment process was a way of getting rid of the president.
By late January 1866, Johnson was convinced that winning a showdown with the GOP radicals was necessary to his political future – both for the South’s “Reconstruction” and for his re-election in 1868. Johnson would have preferred a showdown with Congress over legislative efforts to give citizenship to African-Americans living in the District of Columbia, but to the president’s disappointment, that measure stalled in the Senate before he could veto it.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was known to be an able and hard-working cabinet member, but difficult to deal with. Johnson both admired but at the same time was exasperated by Stanton’s decisions regarding Reconstruction. In combination with Gen. Ulysses Grant, he worked to undermine Johnson’s Southern policy.
Congress passed the “Tenure of Office Act” restricting Johnson’s ability to fire his Cabinet members. When he tried to fire Stanton, Johnson was impeached by the House. He narrowly avoided conviction and removal from office when the Senate acquitted him by just one vote. Thirty-five senators voted “guilty” and 19 “not guilty,” falling short by a single vote of the two-thirds majority required for conviction.
When Southern states returned many of their old Congressional leaders to Washington, they worked for so-called “Black Codes” depriving former slaves of many civil liberties that Reconstruction called for. As a result, Congressional Republicans, in the majority, refused to seat legislators from those Southern states and advanced legislation to overrule their actions. Those GOP legislative efforts halting many of Southern legislators’ proposed bills were vetoed by Johnson, but the Republican controlled Congress merely overrode him, setting a pattern of conflict for the remainder of his presidency.
Johnson’s most controversial stand as president was his opposition to the 14th amendment, which gave citizenship to all former slaves. His strong opposition to federally guaranteed rights for African-Americans continues to be widely criticized by historians. While in office, Johnson’s main accomplishment was presiding over the purchase of Alaska from Russia.
After failing to win the 1868 Democratic presidential nomination, Johnson left somewhat in disgrace. He is regarded as one of the worst presidents in American history.
Upon returning to Tennessee, the former president sought political vindication by winning another U.S. Senate seat. He returned to Washington in 1875, making him the only former president to serve in the Senate, although his tenure was short-lived. Johnson suffered a massive stroke and died July 31, 1875 — five months into his new U.S. Senate term.
This is a thumbnail sketch of a dynamic, fast-moving period in U.S. history. Johnson’s story reads like an explosive novel. A Hollywood film, “Man From Tennessee” starring Van Heflin, told part of this fascinating story.
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