Andrew Johnson was the only tailor ever to make it to the White House. Proud of his trade, he made his own clothes and would never pass a tailor shop without stopping in for a little chat.
Born in poverty on December 29, 1808, Johnson never went to school. As a young man he could barely write his own name. In 1827, he married Eliza McCardle, who was the daughter of a shoemaker. An educated woman, Eliza taught her husband arithmetic and how to read and write properly.
Johnson, ambitious to rise from his humble beginnings, entered the field of politics. A natural leader, he became champion of the small farmers and foe of the big slaveholding cotton planters. Soon he was a leader in the Tennessee Democratic Party and served as alderman, mayor, state representative, Congressman, governor, and U. S. Senator.
Remaining loyal to the Union at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Johnson was the only Southern senator not to resign his seat. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln
chose him to be his running mate. Thus in 1865, the ex-tailor became Vice President.
On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was killed and Johnson became America’s 17th president. The Civil War – which had caused the deaths of 600,000 Americans – was nearly over. Johnson tried to carry on Lincoln’s policy of being gentle with the defeated South. He backed the ending of slavery and pardoned Southerners, who had fought in the war.
Johnson ran into trouble with Republicans who wanted to punish the South for starting the war. In 1868, things reached the boiling point when Congress passed the Tenure in Office Act. This law said that the President had to get the permission of Congress to fire a cabinet member. Johnson said this was unconstitutional and fired his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton.
The House of Representatives then impeached the President for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The Senate then tried Johnson, but failed, by just one vote, to remove him from office.
When his term ended in 1869, Johnson returned to Tennessee and rebuilt that state’s Democratic party. In 1875, Johnson became the first President to be re-elected to the U. S. Senate, representing Tennessee. He died shortly afterwards on July 31, 1875.
Today he is remembered as a President of integrity and courage, who was also effective in carrying out a gentle reconstruction of the South.