Society

Andrew Johnson - US Presidents in History

In contrast to the positive legacy left by Abraham Lincoln before him, the 17th US President is remembered as being the first to ever be impeached.

5. Early Life

Andrew Johnson was born on December 29th, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina, to a family of English and Scottish descent. His family was very poor, and he was apprenticed to a tailor when he was only ten. Because of this apprenticeship, he did not attend regular school. The only education he received came from listening to people who came to the tailor shop and reading. Unhappy with his situation at the tailor shop, he ran away after five years of work, first to South Carolina, then to Tennessee. He settled in Greenville, Tennessee, established a successful tailoring business for himself, and became rich. He became very interested in politics, and would often partake in political debates with his customers.

4. Rise to Power

Gradually, Johnson's tailor shop became a hotbed for political discussion, and he soon became politically active. He gained the support of local working class people, and became their advocate. In the following years, he was elected to a series of government positions. First, he was elected alderman in 1829 and five years later, as the Mayor of Greenville. The next year, he joined the Tennessee state legislature. In 1843, he was elected as a Tennessee member of the US House of Representatives, and later served as Governor of Tennessee. In 1856, he became a Senator. His fervent pro-Union stance irritated his fellow Southerners, but gained him notice from President-to-be Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln appointed Johnson to be the Military Governor of Tennessee during the Civil War, and then to serve as his own Vice President. After Lincoln was shot in 1865, just as the Union was securing its final victories over the Confederacy, Johnson was sworn in as the 17th President of the United States.

3. Contributions

Johnson pushed through his own post-war Reconstruction agenda in the South starting from the very beginning of his Presidency. He quickly issued amnesty to rebels who would take an oath of allegiance, which allowed many former Confederates and supporters of slavery to be elected to office in Southern states. They instituted "black codes", which in fact maintained systematic oppression of African Americans despite the abolishment of slavery. Under his reign, Johnson facilitated the purchase of Alaska from Russia, which was until then a Russian colony, and expanded US territory. He also pressured France to withdraw its troops from Mexico, in order to maintain US hegemony in the area across its southern borders.

2. Challenges

When Johnson became the US President, the bloody Civil War was just ending, and the South urgently needed reconstruction of its infrastructure and reconciliation with the rest of the nation. He pushed along his own Reconstruction policies, which in fact maintained racial inequality and prevented African Americans in the South from gaining equal rights. These policies enraged members of Congress, and Johnson intensified their rage by vetoing important civil rights bills and laws passed by the Congress, including the Civil Rights Act, the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, and the 14th Amendment, all of which meant to increase the equal rights and protection afforded to African Americans. As a result, Johnson lost the support of Congress, and the public increasingly grew enraged at his stubbornness. In 1868, the House voted to impeach him, making him the first US President to be impeached. Although he was acquitted by one vote in the upper house, his credibility and reputation had already been ruined. He did not run for reelection.

1. Death and Legacy

Johnson died on July 31st, 1875, in his home at Elizabethton, Tennessee, at the age of 66. He had suffered from a series of massive strokes. A state funeral was held for him on August 3rd, 1875 in Greenville, Tennessee. As the first ever US president to be impeached, Johnson is viewed by many historians as one of the worst candidates who could have become President at the time following the Civil War. His policies are at times seen as having pushed the country further apart rather than closer together, and his failure to push for equal rights in the Southern states would contribute to the severe racial injustices that would last for generations. His lack of political skills and his stubbornness alienated him from both Congress and the public, drawing disdain from many in both parties.

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