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Presidential Biography: Andrew Johnson

Presidential Biography: Andrew Johnson provides a comprehensive look into the life, accomplishments, and values of the 17th President of the United States. Serving from 1865 to 1869, Andrew Johnson’s journey from humble beginnings to the highest office in the land is both inspiring and captivating. This article offers a fascinating glimpse into his life history, significant achievements, and the philosophies that guided his success.

Early Life and Career

Birth and Childhood

Andrew Johnson was born on December 29, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was the fifth of the family’s children, and his parents were poor. They struggled to make ends meet, and this challenging upbringing helped shape Johnson’s character and political beliefs later in life. As a child, Johnson did not receive much formal education, but he had a thirst for knowledge and would often borrow books to satisfy his intellectual curiosity.

Apprenticeship

At the age of ten, Johnson was sent to work as an apprentice for a local tailor. This apprenticeship provided him with valuable skills and taught him the importance of hard work. Johnson quickly excelled in the trade, and by the age of 17, he had moved to Tennessee to start his own tailor shop. This move marked the beginning of Johnson’s journey into politics, as he became involved in local affairs and developed a reputation as an advocate for the common man.

Entry into Politics

Johnson’s political career began in 1829 when he was elected as an alderman for the town of Greeneville, Tennessee. His commitment to serving the interests of his constituents and his ability to connect with ordinary people propelled him forward in politics. In 1834, Johnson was elected as mayor of Greeneville, where he gained invaluable experience in leadership and governance. His success as mayor led to his election as a member of the Tennessee State Legislature in 1835.

Political Career

Aldermen and Mayor of Greeneville

As an alderman and later as mayor of Greeneville, Andrew Johnson focused on improving the lives of his constituents. He championed projects that would benefit the community, such as the construction of new roads and the establishment of a public school system. His dedication to the common good earned him a reputation as a sincere and hardworking public servant.

Tennessee State Legislature

Johnson’s experience as a member of the Tennessee State Legislature allowed him to further his political career. He quickly gained recognition for his oratory skills and his ability to energize his fellow legislators. During his time in the legislature, Johnson advocated for social and economic reforms, including the expansion of public education and the establishment of a state bank.

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U.S. House of Representatives

In 1843, Johnson achieved a significant milestone in his political career by securing a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. As a staunch Democrat, Johnson initially faced opposition from Whig members of Congress. However, his tenacity and persuasive arguments helped him gain respect across party lines. During his time in the House, Johnson focused on issues such as land reform, slavery, and the rights of working-class Americans.

Governor of Tennessee

After serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, Johnson returned to Tennessee to take on the role of governor. As governor, his policies aimed to benefit the working class, including investments in infrastructure and the promotion of education. Johnson’s pragmatic approach and commitment to the interests of the people earned him a loyal following and set the stage for his later political successes.

U.S. Senate

In 1857, Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate, representing Tennessee. As a senator, Johnson continued to advocate for the rights of working-class Americans and supported the Union cause. His commitment to the Union became a defining characteristic of his political career, and his opposition to secession made him a target for Southern Democrats who supported the Confederacy.

Presidential Election and Inauguration

Vice Presidency

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln chose Johnson as his running mate to bridge the divide between the Republican Party and the War Democrats. Johnson’s selection as vice president showcased Lincoln’s desire to promote unity and restore the Union. The Union victory in the election solidified Johnson’s role as a key figure in the upcoming process of post-war reconstruction.

Assumption of Presidency

Tragically, Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency following President Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865. The country was still reeling from the devastating effects of the Civil War, and Johnson faced the daunting task of unifying a fractured nation while implementing policies to rebuild the South and protect the civil rights of freed slaves.

Reconstruction Policies

Restoration of Southern States

During Johnson’s presidency, the focus shifted to the Reconstruction era, a period of rebuilding and reuniting the divided nation. Johnson’s vision for Reconstruction relied on a lenient approach towards the Southern states, with the aim of swiftly restoring them to full participation in the Union. He granted amnesty to former Confederates and allowed them to establish new state governments, as long as they swore allegiance to the Union and abolished slavery.

Opposition to Radical Republicans

Johnson’s approach to Reconstruction put him at odds with the Radical Republicans in Congress. These Republicans sought more extensive protections for the rights of African Americans and a more punitive approach towards the South. The clash between Johnson and the Radical Republicans would define much of his presidency and lead to significant political and legal battles.

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Black Codes

Despite his initially conciliatory stance, Johnson’s leniency towards the Southern states allowed for the establishment of “Black Codes.” These laws effectively re-enslaved African Americans and undermined the progress made during the Civil War. The Black Codes limited the rights and freedoms of African Americans, perpetuating a system of racial inequality and oppression.

Veto of Reconstruction Acts

In response to the Black Codes and the lack of progress in protecting the rights of African Americans, the Radical Republicans passed a series of Reconstruction Acts aimed at imposing stricter measures on the Southern states. Johnson vehemently opposed these acts and vetoed them, leading to a contentious relationship with Congress and further deepening the divide between the executive and legislative branches of government.

Impeachment

The bitter rivalry between Johnson and the Radical Republicans eventually culminated in his impeachment by the House of Representatives in 1868. The articles of impeachment accused Johnson of violating the Tenure of Office Act by removing the Secretary of War without Senate approval. The impeachment trial took place in the Senate, where Johnson narrowly escaped removal from office by a single vote. His impeachment trial highlighted the deep divisions and political upheaval that characterized this tumultuous period in American history.

Foreign Affairs

Alaska Purchase

During Johnson’s presidency, the United States made a significant territorial acquisition with the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. This acquisition, known as the Alaska Purchase, added vast territories to the United States and opened up new economic opportunities, particularly in the fishing and mining industries.

Treaty of Washington

In 1871, Johnson’s administration negotiated the Treaty of Washington, which resolved several long-standing disputes with Great Britain. The treaty settled border disputes between the United States and Canada and also established arbitration commissions to address other unresolved issues between the two nations. This diplomatic accomplishment helped improve relations between the United States and Great Britain.

Withdrawal of Troops from Mexico

Johnson’s administration made the decision to withdraw military forces from Mexico in 1867, ending a period of occupation that had begun during the Mexican-American War. The withdrawal represented a shift in American foreign policy and a desire to focus on healing domestic divisions rather than engaging in international conflicts.

Domestic Policies

Homestead Act of 1866

One of Johnson’s significant domestic policy achievements was the signing of the Homestead Act of 1866. This legislation provided land to settlers who were willing to develop and improve it. The Homestead Act aimed to encourage westward expansion, promote economic development, and provide opportunities for ordinary Americans to build a better life for themselves and their families.

National Bank Act

Johnson’s administration also played a key role in enacting the National Bank Act of 1863. This legislation established a national banking system and created a standardized national currency. The National Bank Act helped stabilize the nation’s financial system and facilitated economic growth in the post-war period.

Expansion of Railroads

During Johnson’s presidency, the United States experienced a significant expansion of its railroad network. The government provided subsidies and land grants to private companies, encouraging the construction of new rail lines. This expansion of railroads revolutionized transportation and accelerated economic growth, connecting previously isolated regions and facilitating trade and commerce.

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Civil Rights and Racial Issues

Emancipation Proclamation

While Andrew Johnson was not initially responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation, the proclamation declared by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 profoundly shaped Johnson’s presidency. The proclamation declared that all slaves in Confederate-held territory were to be freed, marking a significant turning point in the fight against slavery and laying the groundwork for the eventual passage of the 13th Amendment.

Black Suffrage

Johnson’s stance on suffrage for African Americans was ambiguous and evolving throughout his presidency. Initially, he supported the idea of limited suffrage for freed slaves as a means of restoring and maintaining the Union. However, as the political landscape shifted and Johnson’s disagreements with Congress intensified, he became more opposed to granting full political rights to African Americans.

Veto of Civil Rights Act

In another clash with Congress, Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which aimed to protect the civil rights of African Americans and grant them equal protection under the law. Johnson’s veto sparked outrage among the Radical Republicans and further strained relations between the executive and legislative branches.

Formation of Ku Klux Klan

The Reconstruction period was also marked by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist group. While Johnson did not explicitly support the Klan, his lenient policies towards the South created an environment that allowed for the Klan’s formation and subsequent reign of terror. The Klan targeted African Americans and their allies, seeking to intimidate and suppress their political and social rights.

Assassination Attempt

Plot by John Wilkes Booth

In April 1865, shortly after Andrew Johnson’s assumption of the presidency, he became the target of an assassination plot by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer. Booth aimed to revive the Confederacy by assassinating key government officials, including Johnson. However, Booth’s plan to kill Johnson ultimately failed when the other conspirators failed to carry out their parts of the plot.

Survival of Andrew Johnson

Thanks to the incompetence of Booth’s co-conspirators and the swift actions of law enforcement, Andrew Johnson survived the assassination attempt unharmed. The failed plot served as a reminder of the immense challenges and dangers Johnson faced as president, further fueling his determination to navigate the difficult path of Reconstruction and reunify the country.

Later Life and Legacy

Return to Tennessee

After leaving the presidency in 1869, Andrew Johnson returned to his home state of Tennessee. Despite facing criticism and leaving office with a tarnished reputation, Johnson remained active in local politics and continued to advocate for his political beliefs.

Unsuccessful Senate Run

In 1874, Johnson ran for the U.S. Senate but was unsuccessful in his bid. This defeat marked the end of his political career, but he remained interested in political affairs and continued to engage in public debates.

Presidential Library

Andrew Johnson’s legacy is commemorated at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville, Tennessee, where his preserved tailor shop and family home can be visited. The site provides insights into his life and presidency, allowing visitors to gain a deeper understanding of this controversial figure in American history.

Historical Assessments

Andrew Johnson’s presidency continues to be a subject of debate and historical reassessment. While his lenient approach to the Southern states and his opposition to Radical Republican efforts have drawn criticism, Johnson’s commitment to preserving the Union and his role in advancing important legislation cannot be overlooked. Johnson’s presidency serves as a reminder of the complex challenges faced by leaders during times of political and social upheaval.