U.S. President Andrew Johnson: Reconstruction President

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President Andrew Johnson: Reconstruction President

Johnson, Andrew

When President Abraham Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, from an assassin's bullet, just as the Civil War was ending, the man who had to fill his place and take up his unfinished work was Vice President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Without preparation, the new president was suddenly called upon to handle the most complicated problem the federal government had ever faced. This was the problem of how to deal with the defeated South and how to reunite a country that had been torn apart by four years of war.

Johnson made great efforts to carry out this task. But he was unable to reduce the bitterness between North and South and bring the country's affairs back to normal. He was a man of courage and good intentions, but he did not know how to take advice or how to work with people. His disagreements with Congress led to his impeachment--a formal charge of misconduct or crime. He was the first U.S. president to be impeached, and he barely avoided being removed from office.

Early Years

No American president ever began his life in greater poverty than Andrew Johnson. He was born on December 29, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina, the younger of two surviving children of Jacob and Mary McDonough Johnson. Jacob Johnson was employed as a porter and handyman. One winter day in 1811, he rescued two men from drowning in an icy river, but he himself died soon afterward from exhaustion and cold. Andrew was thus left fatherless at the age of 3. The penniless widow supported herself and her two young sons, Andrew and his brother, William, by weaving cloth, but on more than one night, the family went to bed hungry.

At the age of 14, Andrew was apprenticed to a tailor. The boy learned quickly, and before long, he ran away to work for himself. In 1826, when he was 18, the Johnson family moved to Greeneville, Tennessee, where Andrew started his own tailor shop.

Johnson never went to school, but he had learned a little reading at the tailor's house in Raleigh. In Greeneville he married Eliza McCardle, who taught him to write. Five children were born to them, three boys and two girls. His tailoring business did well and he bought property in the town. He became a leader of the young men of the neighborhood, who would often meet at the A. Johnson Tailor Shop to discuss politics and hold debates on public affairs.

Johnson Enters Politics

Johnson was elected to his first political office, town alderman, in 1829. Thereafter, his rise in politics was rapid. He served as mayor of Greeneville and in both houses of the state legislature. In 1843, he was elected to the first of five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was elected governor of Tennessee in 1853 and a U.S. senator in 1857. He was serving in the Senate at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

Johnson thought of himself as a man of the common people, and he was a popular speaker among the simple mountain folk of eastern Tennessee. In a voice that could be heard for great distances, he would address them on the benefits of democracy and honest labor and on the evils of high taxes and government spending. Johnson often spoke of his own humble beginnings. He pointed to himself as an example of how a poor boy might rise to wealth and prominence through ambition and hard work.

Secession and Civil War

The secession crisis of 1860-61 opened a new chapter in Johnson's life. When Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the Southern states, including Johnson's own state of Tennessee, prepared to secede, or break away, from the Union. One of the main disputes between North and South was over slavery. Johnson, like nearly all Southerners, was loyal to the institution of slavery. But unlike most Southerners, he was even more loyal to the United States. He was ready to sacrifice everything to keep it from breaking apart.

During 1861, Johnson traveled all over his home state, trying to persuade the people not to take Tennessee out of the Union. He repeatedly risked his life as he faced crowds of people who had once been his friends but were now his enemies, telling them that secession was treason. In self-defense he carried a loaded pistol, and more than once he was forced to use it. Johnson did not give up until the last hope of saving his state was gone. Tennessee seceded in June 1861.

Although Johnson was now a man without a state, he stayed on in Washington, D.C., as the loyal senator from a disloyal state. Previously a lifelong Democrat, as a Unionist he now allied himself with the Republicans, the party of Lincoln.

Military Governor to Vice President

After the Union Army recaptured parts of Tennessee in early 1862, Lincoln, deeply impressed with Johnson's courage, asked him to return as the state's military governor. Johnson instantly agreed. He remained at his post until nearly the end of the war, although there was hardly a week during that entire period when his life was not in danger. His loyalty had its reward. When Lincoln ran successfully for re-election in 1864, he chose Johnson as his vice president.


At their inauguration in 1865, an incident took place that gave the public an unfavorable first impression of the new vice president. Johnson had been suffering from typhoid fever, and his friends suggested that he take a little whiskey, then considered a remedy for many ailments. He took too much, however, and his inaugural speech was confused. Six weeks later, Lincoln was dead and Andrew Johnson was president.

The Reconstruction Question.

 When the war finally ended in 1865, a majority of Northerners wanted to ensure that the South's loyalty to the Union would never again be in danger. In addition to the preservation of the Union, the victory had resulted in the destruction of slavery. The North now felt that the South should give the newly freed blacks the same protection and the same rights as other citizens. Most Republicans in Congress, however, felt that the Southern states would not take such steps without a certain amount of pressure. They believed that laws would have to be passed to "reconstruct" the South.

Johnson's Stance.

 Johnson's failure to understand Northern feelings on this question of reconstruction led to the failure of his entire presidency. A strong believer in states' rights, he felt that the South should be allowed to deal with blacks in its own way, without interference from the federal government. Johnson believed that he, and not Congress, should decide when the Southern states were ready for readmission to the Union. In his opinion they should be readmitted immediately. He insisted that Congress had no right to pass laws for the South when Southern representatives were not present to vote.

The Dispute with Congress.

But Congress was unwilling to readmit the Southern representatives until a full study could be made of conditions in the South. These differences of opinion led to the bitterest quarrel that has ever occurred between a president and Congress. Matters worsened when several Southern legislatures in late 1865 and early 1866 passed state laws, known as Black Codes, which discriminated against African Americans.

Early in 1866, Congress passed the Freedmen's Bureau bill and the Civil Rights bill, which gave some federal protection to Southern blacks. Johnson vetoed (rejected) them both, although the Civil Rights bill was repassed over his veto. Later in the year another Freedmen's Bureau bill was successfully enacted. In the spring, Congress approved the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which defined citizenship to include African Americans and entitled them to the equal protection of the laws. It also stated that certain leaders of the former Confederate government could not hold public office until further notice. Johnson advised the Southern states not to ratify, or approve, the amendment. (It was ratified in 1868.)

All of this led Congress to pass the Reconstruction Acts in March 1867. They were vetoed by Johnson but were repassed over his veto. The acts put the South under military occupation, set up new state governments, and gave blacks the right to vote and hold public office. Many former Confederate leaders were forbidden either to vote or to hold office.


 The dispute came to a head in 1868. Earlier, in 1867, Congress had enacted the Tenure of Office Act, which forbade the president from removing certain officeholders without the approval of the Senate. Johnson had wanted to get rid of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, because he thought Stanton was too friendly with leaders in Congress. Early in 1868 he dismissed Stanton. The House of Representatives thereupon impeached the president; that is, it officially accused him of breaking the law. In his trial by the Senate, which followed, Johnson was judged not guilty by the bare margin of one vote. It was found that the Tenure of Office Act did not apply to cabinet members who were held over from a previous term, and Stanton had been appointed by Lincoln.

Foreign Affairs.

 The Johnson administration was involved in two important events abroad. In 1866, Secretary of State William H. Seward, who had served in the post under Lincoln, forced France to withdraw its troops from Mexico, where it had earlier attempted to create an empire under Maximilian of Austria. Seward also negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, although the price, $7.2 million, was thought much too high.

Later Years

After his acquittal by the Senate, Johnson served out the rest of his term of office without further disturbance. He sought but failed to win the Democratic nomination for president, and with the end of his term in 1869, he returned to Tennessee. For several years thereafter, he tried, without success, to return to public office. Finally, in 1874, he was once more elected to the Senate from his home state, taking his seat in March 1875. Johnson was able to attend only the one session, however. He suffered a stroke and died on July 31, 1875.

Eric McKitrick
Columbia University
Author, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction

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