Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), seventeenth president of the United States, was the only president ever to be impeached.
Andrew Johnson was born on Dec. 29, 1808, in Raleigh, N.C. After serving an apprenticeship with a tailor, he moved to Greeneville, Tenn., where he opened a tailor shop in 1826. Johnson laboriously taught himself to read and write with the help of Eliza McCardle, whom he married in 1827. His business prospered, and Johnson entered the rough-and-tumble world of politics, becoming a formidable stump speaker.
A Jacksonian Democrat, Johnson moved up through local elective offices to U.S. senator in 1857. In the Senate he crusaded for a homestead law and was bitter when the South blocked its passage. Yet he supported Jefferson Davis's demand for a congressional guarantee of slave property in the territories and in 1860 backed the proslavery presidential candidate.
When the Southern states began seceding, however, Johnson was the only senator from the Confederate states to remain in Congress. In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln appointed him military governor of partly reconquered Tennessee with instructions to begin restoring the state to the Union. Johnson did a good job under trying circumstances. Converted by the Civil War to an antislavery position, he set in motion the machinery for a constitutional convention that abolished slavery in Tennessee (January 1865).
In 1864 the Republicans, hoping to attract support from Unionist Democrats, nominated Johnson for vice president. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, heavy responsibilities fell upon Johnson. The new president indicated that he would impose severe punishment on "traitors," but his actual policy during 1865 was surprisingly lenient. He extended amnesty to all but the most prominent and wealthy Confederates and provided for the election (by white voters only) of delegates to the conventions to draw up new Southern state constitutions. Subsequently, Johnson granted thousands of pardons to Southerners exempted from the general amnesty.
Under their new constitutions the Southern states elected several prominent Confederates to high office. Some of the states passed "black codes" restricting the rights of freed slaves to a level little better than slavery. Republicans in Congress grew alarmed and feared that the South would regain by Johnson's leniency much of what it had lost in war; they sought a settlement that would provide Federal protection for freedmen and restrict the power of former Confederates. Congress passed a civil rights bill and a Freedmen's Bureau bill in 1866, but Johnson vetoed both. Congress sent the 14th Amendment to the states for ratification, but Johnson influenced Southern states to reject it.
Johnson's belief that "the people" supported his policies should have been shaken by the 1866 congressional elections, which gave the Republicans an overwhelming mandate. Nevertheless, he continued to force Congress to pass every Reconstruction measure over his veto. He tried to weaken enforcement of Reconstruction laws by appointing conservative commanders for some Southern military districts.
An exasperated and vengeful House of Representatives finally impeached Johnson on Feb. 25, 1868. The ostensible grounds were technical transgressions; in reality he was impeached for resisting Congress's will on vital national issues. At Johnson's trial before the Senate, his lawyers proved that he had committed no constitutional crimes or misdemeanors; the verdict for conviction fell one vote short of the necessary two-thirds majority. Johnson served out his term as a powerless president.
Six years later, in 1875, Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate by Tennessee. However, he suffered a paralytic attack and died on July 31.
Further Reading on Andrew Johnson
Pro-Johnson biographies include Robert W. Winston, Andrew Johnson (1928); Lloyd Paul Stryker, Andrew Johnson (1929); George F. Milton, The Age of Hate: Andrew Johnson and the Radicals (1930); and Howard K. Beale, The Critical Year: A Study of Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (1930). Recent scholarship is critical of Johnson; see Eric L. McKitrick, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (1960); LaWanda Cox and John H. Cox, Politics, Principle, and Prejudice, 1865-66 (1963); and William R. Brock, An American Crisis: Congress and Reconstruction, 1865-1867 (1963). A collection of essays that attempts balanced appraisal is Eric L. McKitrick, ed., Andrew Johnson: A Profile (1969).