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Andrew Johnson: The Slave Owning Union Loyalist

When Tennessee seceded, Johnson was the only senator in the state who remained loyal to the Union.

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Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) was the 17th president of the United States and the first to be impeached. He was born on December 29, 1808, in a log cabin in Raleigh, North Carolina to Jacob Johnson, a porter at an inn, and Mary “Polly” McDonough Johnson, a laundress and seamstress.

Johnson’s family was poor and so he never attended school. As a young teen, he apprenticed to a tailor and in 1826, he moved to Greeneville, Tennessee and started his own tailoring business. The next year, he married Eliza McCardle who was the daughter of a shoemaker, but who helped Johnson with reading, writing, and math lessons. After a while, he had established himself well enough in business that he was able to purchase property and several slaves.

Taking a detour from the tailoring business, in 1829 he was elected alderman in Greeneville. Andrew Jackson was elected president that same year, a man who Johnson with whom shared many ideals, such as defending the common man. For the next several years, Johnson continued his political career. He became mayor of Greeneville in 1834, was later elected to the Tennessee state legislature, and then the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843. Johnson was responsible for introducing the Homestead Act, which encouraged settlers by granting them tracts of land. The Act didn’t actually pass until 1862, however.

As the issue of slavery became more heated, Johnson, a slave owner himself, believed individuals had a right to own slaves. However, he was also adamantly in favor of preserving the Union and as some Southern states started advocating for secession, he tried to discourage them.

Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November 1860. Shortly after that, South Carolina – followed by other Southern states – seceded from the Union. On April 12, 1860, the Civil War broke out and Johnson’s home state of Tennessee voted to secede as well. He was the only senator from the South to remain loyal to the Union even after secession. As a result, he resigned from the Senate in 1862 after Lincoln appointed him the military governor for Tennessee.

When Lincoln ran for re-election in 1864, Johnson was his running mate for vice president. The pair were sworn into office on March 4, 1865. The new VP had been recovering from typhoid fever and decided to drink some whiskey before the ceremony, hoping it would make him feel better. Instead, his speech came out slurred and semi-incoherent, which led to the rumors that he was an alcoholic.

The Civil War ended just a month later, on April 9, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Just five days later, on April 14, Lincoln had been attending a play at Ford’s Theatre when he was assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. The assassin’s plan targeted Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward too; Seward was injured, but luckily for Johnson, his attacker backed out. As vice president, it was Johnson’s duty to step in to the role of president after Lincoln’s death.

Johnson’s support of slavery and the Southern states led to his impeachment. His approach to the Reconstruction favored the South, but granting amnesty for former Confederates and allowing the states to elect new governments did not go over well with the North. In 1866, he vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights legislation, which were proposed to protect blacks. Later that year, the 14th Amendment was passed that granted citizenship to blacks Americans, but Johnson encouraged the Southern states not to ratify it. This, and more, led to the House of Representatives vote to impeach him in February 1868. Eleven charges had been brought against him but the Senate acquitted Johnson of all the charges just by one single vote.

Although he didn’t run for re-election, Johnson still kept busy in politics. In 1875, he won an election to the senate – the only ex-president to ever do so. However, just two years later, on July 31, 1875, the former president suffered a stroke while visiting family and passed away. He was buried in Greeneville with the American flag and a copy of the Constitution.

Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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