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Andrew Johnson


There are many things which have had to do with making men Presidents of the United States, but it was not until April, 1865, that murder was one of those things. In that fair month, just after the Civil War came to its end, and peace and happiness seemed ready again to settle clown upon the land, the foul hand of an assassin took from us one of the best Presidents we had ever known, the revered Abraham Lincoln. Then according to law, Andrew Johnson, the Vice-President, became President.

He and Abraham Lincoln, who were elected together to these two great offices, both began life as very poor boys. Johnson began, in one way, lower than Lincoln, for he did not even know how to read and write until after he was sixteen years old, and by that age Lincoln had read many books and was getting to be what the people called learned.

Andrew Johnson was born in the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, on the 29th of September, 18o8. Like Lincoln, he was born in a small log-cabin. His parents belonged to that class known as "poor white trash," whom even the slaves of the South looked down on and despised. But his father must have been a good and brave man, for he was drowned in trying to save a friend who had fallen overboard. 

Little Andrew was then only four years old. His mother had to work hard to keep both of them alive, and he had to help all he could, so he had no chance to go to school. He was only ten years old when he was made a tailor's apprentice, and he worked hard for five years before he ever heard a man read. In those days there was not much education for the poor, and hardly any at all in the South.

When the ignorant prentice boy heard a man read to the tailors he thought it was wonderful. It seemed to him almost like magic. A strong wish came to him to do this wonderful thing himself, and he got some of the men in the shop to teach him his letters. He was quick to learn them, for he had a very good mind.

But Andrew Johnson did not get what we may call an education until he was eighteen years old, and then he owed it to a good woman whom he made his wife. His mother and he had moved to Greenville, a small town in the mountain part of Tennessee, and here he did the best thing in his life, for he met and married a bright young girl who was well educated and bad read a great many books.

The young couple were poor enough, but they both wanted to get on in life, and the young wife, who was a very attractive and ambitious girl, set herself to teaching her husband. She read to him while he worked at his trade, and in the evenings she became an earnest teacher and he became an eager pupil. In that way he soon got something of an education. He had a very good memory and held on to all that was read to him or that he read himself, and few boys ever got along more rapidly than the poor young tailor under the careful teaching of his wife.

Young Johnson soon began to take part in affairs in his town. From the first he was on the side of the poor. He was one of them, and knew all they had to bear. And he soon showed that he was a born orator. He could speak in a sharp and fiery manner that took with all who heard it, and the people who lived near gathered in numbers to hear him. When he was only twenty they elected him for one of their aldermen, and when he was twenty-two he was made Mayor of Greenville. That was getting along very fast for the boy who had first begun to read six years before.

And now we come to the story of the rapid way the tailor's apprentice climbed upward. When he was twenty-seven his friends, the common people, sent him to the Tennessee Legislature, first to the House and afterward to the Senate. That was not honor enough for their favorite, and he was sent to Congress in 1843 and kept there for ten years. In 1853 came another great lift, for he was elected Governor of Tennessee. When his term was up he was elected again. The tailor of Greenville was getting along famously, was he not?

In fact, there was then no more popular man in the State of Tennessee than Andrew Johnson. He kept doing things that amazed and interested the people. He was not ashamed of his early business, and here is one of the odd things he did when he was Governor of Tennessee. He made with his own hands a very handsome suit of clothes and sent it as a present to the Governor of Kentucky, one of his old friends. But the Kentucky Governor had been a blacksmith in his young days, and was not ashamed of it either, so he forged on the anvil a shovel and tongs and sent them to Governor Johnson, saying that he "hoped they would keep alive the flame of their old friendship,"

When Johnson's second term as Governor had ended he was as great a favorite as ever, and was elected to a still higher office, that of Senator of the United States. This was in 1857, when politics in Congress were red-hot. He was a Democrat and a Southerner and might be expected to be a strong advocate for the cause of the slave-holders, but he was not. While the other States of the South were leaving the Union, he worked with all his strength to save Tennessee.

President Lincoln made Andrew Johnson Military Governor of Tennessee. He went South determined to hold, by the hand of authority, what had been gained by the hand of war. He did not mince words with his enemies, but threatened to send them to prison or to hang them. When the Mayor and Council of Nashville refused to take the oath of allegiance he locked them up in the city jail.

Some time after that the Confederate armies marched back into the State. Their coming filled many people with alarm, but it did not frighten the bold Governor This is what he said: "I am no military man, but any one who talks of surrendering I will shoot." You may be sure that all this made Governor Johnson very popular in the North, and that, in 1864, it brought him the nomination for the Vice-Presidency.

The greatest day and most famous speech of Andrew Johnson came in October, 1864. Then, in the streets of Nashville, a great assembly of colored men gathered to hear him speak. Never did he show more fire and spirit. The vast audience went wild with enthusiasm. When he reached the climax of his speech, and said that he would be the Moses to lead them from bondage into liberty and peace, his hearers broke into sobs of feeling and shouts of joy. That speech went like wildfire through the North. It won him a host of votes. In a week or two after he was elected Vice-President of the United States. Inauguration day came on the 4th of March, 1865, and six weeks later the murder of Abraham Lincoln lifted Andrew Johnson to the highest place in his country, that of President of the United States. Never had the country known anything like the progress of these two men—that of Lincoln from the lowly position of woodchopper, that of Johnson from the bench of the tailor's apprentice, to preside over one of the greatest nations of the earth and make the White House at Washington their palatial home.

The war was at an end. The South, which had fought with all its strength, lay conquered and prostrate before the Government at Washington. To the astonishment of everybody the new President did not treat the South with severity. Instead of seeking to punish the rebels severely, he wished to let them off without any punishment at all. He did not wait for Congress to act, but at once invited them back into the Union, without asking of them any security against future troubles.

The whole country stood amazed. The members of Congress were incensed by his hasty and unwise action. When they came together in December they hastened to undo all that the President had done, and made it plain that the South would not be brought back into the Union until the powers of secession were tied hand and feet.

Then there came a war of a different kind from that in the field. It was between the President and Congress. He went so far at length that they declared he had broken, the Constitution and must be impeached---that is, he was put on trial for what were called " high crimes and misdemeanors."

Never had such a charge been brought against a President of the United States. It is to be hoped it never will be again. The Senate of the United States was formed into a great court, before which the President was tried as a breaker of the law and a traitor to his oath. He was not convicted; it took a two-thirds vote to do that; but he escaped by only a single vote. Soon after that his term of office came to an end and he was succeeded by a very different man, Ulysses S. Grant, the great war general. But President Johnson had many friends in the South, for his course as President had pleased the Southern people highly, and six years after his term as President had ended he was sent back to the Senate by Tennessee. But his term was very short, for in July, 1875, soon after he had returned to Tennessee from his first session in Congress, he suddenly died.

No other President ever had so stormy a career as Andrew Johnson. Yet he was a man of kindly nature and had qualities which endeared him to his friends. He always had women of fine character about him. His wife, who had done so much to start him in his career, was too feeble in health to take on herself the duties of mistress of the White House, but her daughter, Mrs. Martha Patterson, took her place, and performed the social duties of the position with suitable grace and dignity. He was surrounded to the last by those who loved and believed in him, and died in the full assurance that he had done his best for the country's welfare, and had been very badly treated by Congress.


Source:  "The Lives of the Presidents and How They Reached the White House"   by Charles Morris, LL.D., 1903.

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