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Remembering Andrew Johnson: Former President died 140 years ago

Posted on Friday, July 24, 2015 at 7:57 am

Portrait of Johnson from the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection.

Portrait of Johnson from the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection.

Andrew Johnson was a giant among men in his time. Today, he is all but forgotten in many circles of our history. Even the state historical commission confuses him with Andrew Jackson. As he rose in political stature, he was hated by some, loved by some, but respected by all.

The man who would rise from the most humble of circumstances to the nation’s most lofty position is remembered in this, the month of his death. Johnson has been called everything from one of the worst, to one of our greatest presidents. The truth however, lies somewhere in between.  Johnson was a complex man in a difficult time. We cannot pull him into our own time to judge him.  We must look at him through the eyes of the day in which he tread amongst men.

Johnson was a Southerner by birth, but even when his beloved Tennessee left the Union, he remained loyal, the only Southern senator to do so.  A few in his hometown labeled him a “traitor” while many saw him as a hero. Johnson was a slave owner, who had supported the institution where it existed.  He convinced Lincoln to exclude Tennessee from the emancipation proclamation. However, in August 1863, his views changed, and he freed his personal slaves. Two month later, as military governor, he declared all slaves in the state to be free. Johnson was hardheaded and determined, but could be swayed as he believed right. His swing on the slave issue proves this point.

He opposed the vengeance of the radical Republicans toward the South as punishment for leaving the Union. Initially, Johnson did not wish to follow Lincoln’s words to Grant of “letting them up easy.” When he took office following Lincoln’s assassination, he said “Treason must be made infamous, and traitors must be impoverished.” Attorney General James Speed is credited with changing Johnson’s view and softening his hardline approach. Speed told Johnson that he must issue amnesty to “restore order and reorganize Society.” After a series of changes in desired “inclusion, and exclusion” to the pardon process, he issued a broad pardon of the former Confederates on December 28, 1868.

Johnson appointed Grant to serve as his Secretary of War at the expulsion of Edward Stanton. The relationship between the general and his commander in chief slowly deteriorated as their views broadened. When Johnson took Grant along on the “Swing around the Circle” it became apparent that Grant controlled the favor of the people and Johnson did not. If this venture did anything, it proved to Grant that he could be elected president, and to Johnson that his days in the White House were limited. Grant spied on the president for the radical Republicans and the two men would become bitter toward one another. Johnson would not run for reelection in 1868.

He hoped the Democrats would choose him as their presidential nominee, but they opted instead for Horatio Seymour, a former governor of New York. Grant was elected as the 18th president, and Johnson refused to attend the inaugural, instead choosing “to sign last minute legislation.” Johnson’s interest in politics and public office did not end once he left the White House in March 1869 and returned to Tennessee. He would dabble in politics for a time, seeking office unsuccessfully, and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate that same year, and in 1872 he lost a bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He persisted and won election to the Senate in 1875.

Grant, with two years left of his second presidential term, is said to have sent word to Tennessee that if Johnson was reelected to the Senate, he would take it as a personal insult. Those former Confederates who Johnson had pardoned, and given back their rights, rose to the occasion and returned Johnson to the Senate a mere 10 years after his leaving Washington.  Johnson’s comeback garnered national attention, with the St. Louis Republican calling it, “the most magnificent personal triumph which the history of American politics can show.”

Newspapers across the north as well as the South sung the praises of Johnson.  The Washington Chronicle stated “He made great sacrifices for the cause to which his heart appeared to be firmly attached” and “his manifestation of love for the Union never wavered.” The Cincinnati Enquirer reflected on the elections as a “public benefit,” and “he has unquestioned ability.” The Gallatin (Tenn.) Examiner said: “the election of Mr. Johnson will contribute more to the unification of the party of the State and Union than any other event of the last ten years.”

The Shelbyville (Tenn.) Commercial added: “He lived and worked for the people, and the people have risen up in heir might and, disregarding the wishes and entreaties of the hundreds of petty politicians, they have rewarded him for all his sacrifices- they have comforted him for all the abuse he has borne. Great Man! He waited and kept his faith in the honesty of the people, and they have not betrayed him.”

The Lynchburg (Va.) Republican: “He deserves this honor as the champion of the constitution and of civil liberty. All hail! Andy Johnson, the foe of Grant and the friend of the people.” The Savannah (Ga.) News: “We are not a very enthusiastic supporter of the ex-President, but in some respects his election may be regarded as very nearly providential.” Again in the Washington Chronicle: Andrew Johnson stood by the Union bravely when his southern associates were swept from their posts of duty by the insane desire to divide the country, and organize a new republic” The Jackson (Miss.) Clarion: The remarkable recuperative powers of Ex-President Johnson, has been shown in his election to the United States Senate from Tennessee by Democratic votes over a host of talented and younger men with splendid (Confederate) war records.”

The New York World added: We are sincerely glad of the return of so experienced and upright man as Mr. Andrew Johnson to the senate, although we are bound to say that his faculties and his inclinations both fit him better for opposition than for power.”

Not all was rosy with the press as The New York Graphic stated: “It would really be a public misfortune were Andrew Johnson to be elected to the United States senate. He is conceded to be an honest man, and he possesses a certain amount of ability. But there is a total lack of adaptability about the man. He learned his political creed of States Rights half a century ago, and will never forget it.”

Johnson received a hero’s welcome when he returned to the Senate. He spoke only once in the short session, on March 22 lambasting President Grant for his use of federal troops in support of Louisiana’s Reconstruction government. The former president asked, “How far off is military despotism?” and concluded his speech with “May God bless this people and God save the Constitution.”  His honeymoon and triumphant return to Washington would be short lived as Johnson would live only four more months.

While visiting his daughter’s home in Elizabethton Tenn., the ex-president suffered a series of strokes and was suddenly gone from a landscape he had dominated for years. The void left by Johnson’s death was felt across the country. Like many others of his time, Johnson’s luster has faded in time, and historians who are Johnson supporters have become few and far between. From the time of his death through World War II Johnson was held in high regard by the public and historians alike. Johnson was a man of his time and one who still is worthy of study and praise. We finish this article with the obituary from the New York Times, a fitting tribute for the man who once walked the streets of Greeneville, Tenn. It shows the great respect garnered by the grand statesman from the south. It is a detailed accounting of the man in life, and death.

Andrew Johnson’s Obituary from page 1 of The New York Times, August 1, 1875




Andrew Johnson, ex-President of the United States and member of the Senate from Tennessee, died at the house of his daughter, Mrs. W.R. Brown, near Elizabethtown, Carter County, Tenn., at 2 o’clock yesterday morning. The history this man leaves is a rare one. His career was remarkable, even in this country; it would have been quite impossible in any other. It presents the spectacle of a man who never went to school a day in his life rising from a humble beginning as a tailor’s apprentice through a long succession of posts of civil responsibility to the highest office in the land, and evincing his continued hold upon the popular heart by a subsequent election to the Senate in the teeth of a bitter personal and political opposition. Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, N.C., Dec. 29, 1808. His father, Jacob Johnson, who was in the humblest circumstances, was drowned while attempting to save the life of Editor Henderson, of the Raleigh Gazette, in 1812, and six years later young Andrew, at the age of ten, was apprenticed to a tailor named Selby. School was then out of the question, of course, and the outlook was that the young man would grow up to an illiterate life. But the intellect that was in him was aroused through the instrumentality of a Raleigh gentleman, whose practice it was to read aloud to the tailor’s employees from books of published speeches. The speeches of some of the British statesmen particularly attracted his attention, and he set about learning to read with the same determination which characterized his later life. By resolute application after work hours and in moments taken from sleep, he soon succeeded and was able to read the speeches and other books for himself. He left Raleigh in 1824, before his apprenticeship had expired, and went to Laurens Court House, S.C., where he worked two years at his trade, and then, after a return to Raleigh and a brief stay there, he removed with his mother to Greenville, Tenn. He soon married, and was fortunate enough to get a wife who was a help-meet to him in every sense of the word. She set herself at once to supply his greatest lack, became his teacher, giving him such oral instruction as was possible while he was at work, and teaching him writing, arithmetic, and other branches at night. Under her faithful tuition he acquired a fair education. The native forces of his mind supplied the remaining elements of his success.

We find him early in politics. In natural sympathy with the laboring classes, he became their local champion, and organized a Working Man’s party in 1828, and, as its candidate for Alderman of Greenville, defeated the more aristocratic party and broke their rule in the town. In 1830 he was chosen Mayor, and held that office for three years. Four years later he gained a more than local prominence by active exertions to secure the adoption of a new State Constitution, and offering himself the next year as a Democratic candidate for the lower branch of the Legislature, he was elected, winning support mainly by his vigorous speeches. A grand and costly scheme of internal improvement which came before the Legislature incurred his earnest opposition, and though his denunciation of it made him temporarily unpopular and defeated him in the canvass of 1837, yet his course was vindicated by the deplorable working of the enacted bill, and he was returned to the Legislature in 1839. He was one of the Democratic electors in the Presidential year of 1840, and canvassed Tennessee for Martin Van Buren. His powers of oratory were then first publicly revealed, and they proved very effective even against some of the noted public men of the day. He was elected to the State Senate in 1841, and gained much credit for the introduction and advocacy of a judicious plan of internal improvement of the eastern portion of the State. But he was destined to a broader sphere of influence. In 1843 he was elected to Congress in the First Tennessee District, defeating Col. John A. Asken, a Democrat of the United States Bank stamp. By successive re-elections he was continued in Congress for ten years. He was during the time a prominent supporter of the national measures of his party, favoring the annexation of Texas and the Mexican war, and being a conspicuous advocate of the Homestead bill, to give 160 acres of the public lands to any one who would settle upon and till them. It is curious and suggestive to find him in 1848 making a long and powerful speech in favor of the veto power. By a redistricting of his State a Whig majority was created in his district, and in 1853 he was defeated in the Congressional canvass. Compensation came in his election as Governor of the State the same year, over Gustavus A. Henry, the Whig and “Know-Nothing” candidate. The canvass was unusually spirited, even for Tennessee, and on one occasion when he was to address a large gathering, Mr. Johnson appeared on the platform with a pistol in his hand. He was re-elected Governor in 1855, and his administration of the State affairs, both in that and the preceding term of office, was marked by a regard for the public interest, rather than party fealty. A higher honor came to him in his election to the United States Senate by the Legislature of 1857. In his Senatorial career he was generally found upon the side of retrenchment and the interests of the laboring classes. He opposed the increase of the Army and the Pacific Railroad bill, and, as in the House, urged the passage of the Homestead bill — which, however, was lost by President Buchanan’s veto — and took an active part in the discussion concerning retrenchment. Coming from a slave State, and himself owning slaves, he held slavery to be protected by the Constitution and beyond the interference of Congress; nevertheless, he believed in its ultimate overthrow. He denounced the John Brown raid, and in those early mutterings of the coming tempest he urged concessions to the South to calm the rising discontent, and new guarantees for the protection of slavery.

It was in the era of the rebellion that Andrew Johnson achieved his greatest distinction. It was not necessary for him to weigh the chances of the coming struggle, or to nicely estimate its moral elements, like some others of the less radical class of Southern statesmen. He was by principle and training unreservedly for the right, and he declared without hesitation for the Union, and strove with all the strength of his rugged soul against the secession faction. In the Presidential campaign of 1860, he at first supported Breckinridge and Lane, who represented the ultra-Southern Democrats, but at the first unmasking of the secession designs of this wing of his party he quitted their camp and vehemently denounced their unhallowed purpose. He saw no threat of injustice to the South in the election of Abraham Lincoln, and in the memorable Senate debates which preceded the withdrawal of the Southern members his powerful appeal to them to remain and “fight for the constitutional rights on the battlements of the Constitution,” defined most clearly his position, and will be remembered as a noble and patriotic effort. But secession had then too vigorous a growth to be checked by any forensic effort, however moving. One after another the Southern States seceded, and finally Mr. Johnson’s own State, Tennessee, was declared out of the Union by its Legislature, though the people had voted against holding a convention to consider the question of secession. Out of this discord a condition of mob law and anarchy was speedily developed, and when Senator Johnson returned home in April, 1861, at the close of the session of Congress, he found himself exposed to violence, and in the gravest personal peril. He was burned in effigy in nearly every city in the State, and on one occasion a mob entered a railroad car in which he was riding declaring that they were going to lynch him. He met them with a pistol in his hand and cowed them. At the East Tennessee Union Convention of May 3, 1861, he was prominent, and a little later, while on his way to attend a special session of Congress, he was honored by an enthusiastic public reception in Cincinnati. Through his efforts the Unionists of East Tennessee, persecuted and driven from their homes by the rebels, were given shelter, food and protection at Camp Dick Robinson, established by the Government.

President Lincoln nominated Mr. Johnson Military Governor of Tennessee March 4, 1862, and on the 12th he assumed the trying responsibilities of that office at Nashville. The rebel State Government had been driven from that city to Memphis. Mr. Johnson’s wife and child had only a little while before been driven from their home and his property and slaves confiscated, but in a proclamation announcing his appointment, he said that, though it might be necessary to punish conscious treason in high places, no merely vindictive or retaliatory policy would be pursued. It required no common courage to rule with the firmness he displayed in that dark and perilous time. Civil officers who refused to take the oath of allegiance were at once removed and their places filled by Union men. He even imprisoned the disloyal clergymen of Nashville after they had expressed their determination not to take the oath. He levied a tax upon prominent secessionists to maintain the women and children whose husbands and fathers had been “forced into the armies of this unholy and nefarious rebellion.” In the Summer of 1863 the entire State of Tennessee was brought under Federal military control, and a convention was held at Nashville in September to consider the question of restoring the State to the Union. Gov. Johnson then expressed the belief that it had never been out of the Union, holding that there was no constitutional provision permitting secession. In January, 1864, the machinery of the State civil government was set in motion again by an election of State and county officers ordered by him. The National Republican Convention of June 7, 1864, held at Baltimore, renominated Abraham Lincoln for President, with Andrew Johnson as the nominee for Vice President. In September he ordered an election in Tennessee for the choice of Presidential Electors, and made a rigid test oath the condition of suffrage. He was inaugurated with Mr. Lincoln March 4, 1865.

Undoubtedly the greatest misfortune that ever befell Andrew Johnson was the assassination of President Lincoln, April 14, 1865. It promoted him to the eminent position of President of the nation, it is true, but the student of history is forced to conclude that his posthumous fame would have been brighter without this high honor and the consequences it entailed. Up to this time Mr. Johnson’s public life had been such that he incurred, in weightier matters, only the hostility of men whose opposition was, to an upright and honest man, more honorable than their approval; but his Presidential acts were of a kind that speedily alienated from him the party whose votes elected him, and left him only the questionable and lukewarm support of the opposition. In a speech of welcome to a delegation of citizens of Illinois who called on him on the 18th of April, President Johnson said:

“The times we live in are not without instruction. The American people must be taught — if they do not already feel — that treason is a crime and must be punished; that the Government will not always bear with its enemies; that it is strong not only to protect but to punish.”

These words seemed to foreshadow a reconstruction policy which would deal with the leading secessionists severely, as the people were then in a mood to demand. He offered $100,000 for the arrest of Jefferson Davis, and large sums also for other leading Confederates. Early in May rules were issued governing trade with the States lately in rebellion, but on the 24th of June all restrictions were removed. Then rapidly followed orders restoring Virginia to her Federal relations, establishing provisional governments in the Southern States, and (on May 29) granting a general amnesty to all persons engaged in the rebellion, except certain classes who could receive pardon by special application. When Congress assembled the popular opposition to this hasty method of reconstruction took shape in a quarrel between Congress and the President. The Republican majority held that some substantial guarantee of good faith should be required of the rebellious States before they were admitted to their former rights and privileges, and that some provision should be made for protecting the freedmen. The difference of opinion between the Executive and Congress led to his vetoing the first Civil Rights bill and an act extending the Freedmen’s Bureau. The bills were both passed over his veto, and President Johnson, certainly with questionably taste, repeatedly asserted in public that Congress was in an attitude of rebellion. It was not possible for the Cabinet chosen by Mr. Lincoln to be in harmony with his successor’s policy, and in July, Postmaster General Dennison, Attorney General Speed, and Secretary of the Interior Harlan resigned, and the President at once filling their places. In the latter part of August President Johnson with Secretaries Seward and Welles, and Gen. Grant and others, set out for Chicago to attend the ceremonies of laying the corner-stone of the monument to Stephen A. Douglas. It was this trip that gave rise to the well-known expression “swinging around the circle.” The President spoke very freely of his policy in the different places on the route, openly denouncing Congress and saying many things that were decidedly inconsistent with the dignity of his position, and unquestionably injurious to him. The Fall elections showed incontestably that the popular approval was with Congress. On the reassembling of Congress the President vetoed bills denying the admission of States that had not ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, and giving the right of suffrage without distinction of color in Territories and the District of Columbia.

Congress passed the bills over his veto, however. That body having also passed over his veto a bill establishing military districts in ten of the seceding States and making the civil authority therein subordinate to the military commanders, representing the United States Government, there arose a difficulty that widened the breach between the Executive and the Congress.

Attorney General Stanbury decided, on application of the President, that some provisions of the act were unconstitutional, whereby its enforcement by the military commanders was greatly impeded. Congress passed another act in July, 1867, making these commanders responsible only to the General of the Army, and after its passage over his veto President Johnson removed the commanders and substituted others. On the 12th of August, the same year, Edwin M. Stanton was removed from the office of Secretary of War by the President, and Gen. Grant appointed. The Tenure-of-office bill, passed the previous March, made the consent of the Senate necessary to such removals, and provided that its sanction was required, at the next ensuing session, in the case of appointments made in recess.

Accordingly Secretary Stanton vacated his office under protest. The Senate, at its reassembling, refused to sanction his removal, and Gen. Grant at once resigned in his favor, but it was not in the nature of so determined a man as Andrew Johnson to yield the point thus, and he again removed Mr. Stanton, and appointed Gen. Lorenzo Thomas in his stead. The Senate at once declared that the President had exceeded his authority, and the House of Representatives passed a resolution — 126 yeas to 47 nays — that he be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.

The House agreed to the articles of impeachment March 3, 1868, and the Senate received them two days later. They specified his removal of Secretary Stanton, his publicly-expressed contempt for the Thirty-ninth Congress and his hindrances to the execution of its measures as acts calling for his impeachment. The trial began in the Senate, sitting as a high court of impeachment, on March 23. The managers of the trial on the part of the accusation were Thaddeus Stevens, B.F. Butler, John H. Bingham, George S. Boutwell, J.F. Wilson, T. Williams, and John A. Logan, all members of the House; for the President appeared Attorney General Henry Stanbury, Benjamin R. Curtis, Jeremiah S. Black, William M. Evarts, and Thomas A.R. Nelson. The votes on the two articles were taken May 16 and 26, standing, in each case, thirty-five guilty and nineteen not guilty, which acquitted the President, as a two-thirds vote is required to convict. Mr. Stanton at once resigned, and Gen. Schofield was made Secretary of War.

The remainder of his Presidential career is not especially noteworthy. He issued a full pardon to everybody who had taken part in the rebellion, on the 25th of December. On the expiration of his term, in March, 1869, he retired to his home at Greenville, Tenn. In 1870 he was a candidate for the United States Senate, but was defeated by two votes; in 1872 he was defeated on independent nomination for Congress. He came again into public life, however, in the beginning of the present year, being elected to the United States Senate by the Tennessee Legislature after an exciting contest, receiving on the fifty-fifth ballot fifty-two votes, which was only four more than was necessary for a choice. The popular demonstrations and rejoicings in the cities and towns of his vicinity were very flattering to him, and only expressed the genuine satisfaction that was felt all over the country at his return to the councils of the nation, in which, just then, the Louisiana affair and financial questions were in active discussion. It is needless to review this latest public service of Mr. Johnson, as it is recent, and fresh in the memory. Suffice it to say that he was honest and courageous as ever. Whatever else may be said of him, his integrity and courage have been seldom questioned though often proved. He was by nature and temperament squarely disposed toward justice and the right, and was a determined warrior for his convictions. He erred from limitation of grasp and perception, perhaps, or through sore perplexity in trying times, but never weakly or consciously. He was always headstrong and “sure he was right” even in his errors.


Cincinnati, Ohio, July 31. — The Gazette’s Greeneville special says: This morning at about 2 o’clock ex-President Johnson died at the residence of his daughter, Mrs. W.R. Brown, formerly Mrs. Col. Stover, in Carter County, from a paralytic stroke. He had been in rather bad health since the adjournment of the last session of Congress, but nothing serious was anticipated. On Wednesday morning he left the train for Carter’s Station, and from thence he went on horseback to his daughter’s residence, a distance of about seven miles, riding in the hot sun. Arriving there he felt very fatigued, and the same afternoon, about 4 o’clock, his right side was paralyzed, rendering him speechless. His wife was with him at the time, and his son, Frank, and daughter, Mrs. Patterson, were at once sent for and left Greenville on Thursday. On Thursday about noon he became conscious and had a partial use of his side again, but it was evident that the great commoner could not live long, and thus surrounded by his entire family and neighboring friends he passed away about 2 o’clock this morning. Much feeling is manifested here and at Knoxville.

It is expected that a large delegation will arrive from Knoxville to attend the funeral. A public meeting is in session in the Court-house, which will make arrangements to receive visitors from abroad.

The funeral will take place at Greeneville, on Tuesday, Aug. 3. Several Masonic lodges, military companies, and civil associations from adjoining towns will join with the citizens in paying the last tribute to his remains. The body will arrive here to-morrow. A great many distinguished men from all sections of the United States are sending telegrams to this place, stating their desire to be present at the funeral.

The family is greatly overcome with their sad bereavement, in which they have the sympathy of the whole community.


Nashville, Tenn., July 31. — A public meeting of the citizens of this city, held this evening for the purpose of expressing condolence and sympathy for the nation’s loss in the death of ex-President Johnson, passed the following resolutions:

First. — That we have heard with sorrow of the sad bereavement of the people of Tennessee in the loss of a guide, who has for so many years pointed out the right way to political safety, and whose services at this time appeared to us so important to the Republic.

Second. — That we deeply sympathize with his aged and afflicted wife in her bereavement, and with his daughter and son and their families in the loss they are called to mourn.

Third. — That in view of the exalted character, great labors, and the sublime lessons taught by him to this generation of his countrymen, a committee from the various counties of Middle Tennessee be appointed to select some suitable place and day for appropriately celebrating the obsequies of our departed countryman, and that the committee be authorized to select some person who shall prepare an address embodying the lessons which Andrew Johnson has given to his countrymen, and that the following persons be appointed as such committee upon the obsequies of Andrew Johnson.

The committee is composed of over 100 of the most prominent citizens of Middle Tennessee. Every arrangement is made for the funeral to take place at Greeneville, Tenn., on Tuesday, but this may be changed, and the remains brought to this city for interment.

Greeneville lost a giant on the state and national stage in 1875, or did we? He is still with us today in our national park, on street corners, our museum, and even the Andrew Johnson Highway. He is in our hearts and we owe him the debt of never letting his legacy diminish.

-By Tim Massey

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