By Bill Carey
We in Tennessee talk more about Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk than we do Andrew Johnson. Therefore, I’ve come up with a list of things that make this much-maligned president from Greeneville a fascinating person:
1. When he was 9, Johnson’s mother apprenticed him to a Raleigh, North Carolina, tailor named James Selby. This was the closest thing to an education that Johnson ever got; in fact, we now think Selby taught the future president how to read. Johnson might have stayed in Raleigh forever had he and his brother William not run away from their apprenticeship in 1824. About two years later, Johnson started his own tailor shop in Greeneville.
2. Andrew Johnson was an alderman, mayor, state representative, state senator, U.S. representative, U.S. senator, Tennessee governor, U.S. president and then, after he was president, U.S. senator again.
3. After the Civil War broke out, every U.S. senator from a seceding state withdrew from the U.S Congress except one: Andrew Johnson. This act made him a hero in the eyes of loyalists and a villain in the eyes of Confederates, and it was the main reason President Lincoln appointed him military governor of Tennessee after the U.S. Army took over Nashville. Already unpopular in Nashville, Johnson became more so as military governor, ordering every adult free male to take an oath of allegiance to the U.S. government or be sent to prison.
4. During the Civil War, Johnson’s hometown of Greeneville changed hands from Confederate to Union several times. Soldiers and officers from both sides stayed in Johnson’s home. Some of the Confederate soldiers wrote insulting messages to the military governor of Tennessee on the walls of the house. (You can still see some of these messages if you visit his home.)
5. Lincoln’s first vice president was Hannibal Hamlin of Maine. When he ran for his second term, Lincoln dropped Hamlin from the ticket and chose Johnson.
6. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated as part of a conspiracy to kill several other governmental leaders, including Johnson. A Prussian immigrant named George Atzerodt did not follow through on plans to assassinate Johnson, but was later executed for being part of the conspiracy.
7. In February 1868, Johnson became the first president ever impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. The stated reason for this act was his violation of an 1867 law called the Tenure of Office Act, but the real reason he was impeached was because of his repeated clashes with the so-called Radical Republicans over how to deal with the defeated South.
Having been impeached, Johnson’s trial moved to the Senate. However, in May 1868, the Senate fell one vote short of removing Johnson from office. (Seven Republican senators broke ranks and voted against removing Johnson.) Johnson then served out the remainder of his term and left office in March 1869.
8. Johnson said that when he was dead he would need “no softer pillow than the Constitution and no warmer blanket than the American flag.” Because of this, America’s 17th president is buried with his head resting on his copy of the Constitution and his body wrapped in an American flag.
Regardless of how you feel about Andrew Johnson’s legacy, you should visit the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville. The site consists of several things, including a visitors center, Johnson’s tailor shop and the two homes in which he lived for much of his life.
One of the things that makes the site a treasure is the fact that, compared to most presidential homes, the things surrounding the properties haven’t changed much in appearance since Johnson lived here (compared to, say, the Hermitage in Nashville). Greeneville was, and is, a small town — and a very charming one.
Bill Carey founded Tennessee History for Kids in 2004. The non-profit organization helps teachers cover Tennessee history, American history, civics and basic social studies, and uses booklets, posters, inservices and the website www.tnhistoryforkids.org. Carey was a reporter in Nashville through most of the 1990s and has written six books, among them Fortunes Fiddles and Fried Chicken: A Nashville Business History and Runaways, Coffles and Fancy Girls: A History of Slavery in Tennessee.