Andrew Johnson and the Constitution

By Folsom, Burton, Jr. | Ideas on Liberty, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Andrew Johnson and the Constitution


Folsom, Burton, Jr., Ideas on Liberty


Before 1998 "Andrew Johnson" used to be the answer to the question "Who was the only U.S. president to be impeached?" But Andrew Johnson, the self-educated tailor, deserves to be remembered more for his ideas, especially his defense of the Constitution in a troubled time.

Johnson was born in poverty in North Carolina in 1808 and moved to Greenville, Tennessee, as a teenager when he heard the town needed a tailor. He established a strong business there and at age 26 won election to the state legislature, where he spent several terms. He strongly supported fellow Tcnnessean Andrew Jackson (president 1829-1837), and eventually won election to the U.S. House and Senate. In Congress, Johnson became a constitutional watchdog on federal spending and special subsidies to favored groups. The protective tariff he called "a system of humbug," and he wanted entrepreneurs, not the federal government, to build the nation's canals and railroads. He often tried to get a law passed for across-the-board pay cuts for federal employees, whom he resented because they lived comfortably in Washington from the tax dollars of hard-working artisans, farmers, and laborers.

Charity, Johnson argued, begins with people, not government. This issue came up when he ran for governor of Tennessee in 1853. Gustavus Henry, the Whig candidate, attacked Johnson vigorously in a public debate for voting against a bill to give federal aid to Ireland. The severe potato famine, Henry insisted, called for American help. Johnson responded that people, not government, had the responsibility of helping their fellow men in need. Any politician could be generous with other people's money, which was forcibly collected in taxes. He then took from his pocket a receipt for the $50 he had sent to the hungry Irish. "How much did you give, sir?" he challenged Henry, who had given nothing. The audience, according to the Memphis Appeal, gave Johnson "prolonged and deafening applause." Such adherence to the Constitution, Johnson believed, helped him narrowly win the governor's chair that year.

When the Civil War began, Governor Johnson left Tennessee rather than break with the union. That loyalty endeared him to President Lincoln, who asked the Democrat Johnson to be his vice-presidential candidate in the 1864 election. The Lincoln-Johnson campaign won, and when Lincoln was assassinated Johnson became president for four turbulent years.

As president, Johnson was not a consistent devotee of liberty. He believed that blacks were not as capable as whites, and he was reluctant to give blacks full voting rights. But when the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery) became law, Johnson, as a strict constitutionalist, "fully recognized the obligation to protect and defend that class of our people whenever and wherever it shall become necessary, and to the full extent compatible with the Constitution of the United States."

Johnson found himself caught in the middle. On one hand were southern racists, who passed Black Codes that denied basic civil liberties to former slaves. On the other were Radical Republicans who not only wanted full voting rights for blacks, but sometimes special privileges as well. For example, Republicans had set up the Freedmen's Bureau during the war to help freed blacks get food, clothing, and other necessities of life. After the war, the Freedmen's Bureau expanded its efforts to help blacks get land and education as well. …

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