Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

ANDREW JOHNSON
(December 29, 1808–August 1, 1875)

Jon L. Wakelyn

Few of this country’s presidents’ brief moments upon the political stage have been so picked over by historians than those of Andrew Johnson, the only chief executive the Congress has impeached. Schools of historians of those fatal years of Reconstruction have analyzed that man’s life in order to make their judgments of that crucial period’s success or failure. Many of them have decided that to understand the Civil War’s meaning they must grasp its outcome. This means that the failed presidency of Andrew Johnson has dominated the study of his life. Yet during the Civil War he served as a U.S. senator from Tennessee, the early Reconstruction occupation governor of Tennessee, and the vice president of the United States. His actions in political life and in Abraham Lincoln’s (q.v.) administration were most crucial to the Union war effort, but historians have usually given those years short shrift. If Johnson’s contributions to the war itself are to be understood and evaluated, even if most historians merely want to relate the war experience to that of Reconstruction, what prepared him to take the actions he did requires some comment. His career is perplexing enough, and it is made more troublesome by ignoring so much of what he did in his life before he became president.

Although Johnson’s name would be inextricably linked to the fate of Tennessee, like a number of other future political leaders’, his story begins in North Carolina. Remember, Andrew Jackson, William Blount, and James K. Polk, among others, all came from the poor soil and status-conscious Old North state. Though none of them, including the Johnsons, descended from poor families, all thought that better opportunity for their ambitions lay elsewhere than the South Atlantic. Johnson’s life, then, follows an interesting migratory pattern of other emigrants to the new Southwest. How he got to Tennessee requires some study of his early life in North Carolina.

On December 29, 1808, Johnson was born in the town of Raleigh, North Carolina, the state’s capital and its center of commerce. His roots thus were in

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