President Andrew Johnson: The Irish American with extraordinary foresight

President Andrew Johnson. Photo: Library of Congress.

By John Powell

Andrew Johnson was a southerner born in Ralegh, North Carolina in 1808. His grandfather, a small farmer, hailed from Ballyeaston in County Antrim. Coming from a humble background Johnson had little formal education and was largely self-taught and decided to become a tailor.

He settled in Tennessee and set up his own tailoring business in the small town of Greenville. When he decided to enter politics, it was a champion of the small man. The future Republican President was elected to Congress in 1843 by the Democrats and to the United State Senate in 1857.

When the American Civil War broke out Johnson took a strong stand against secession. His loyalty to the cause of the Union was rewarded by President Lincoln who appointed him as the military governor of Tennessee. On Lincoln’s second election to the Presidency by the Republicans Johnson was elected Vice-President.

On the 14th of April, 1965, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth and Johnson became President of post Civil War America. The position which Johnson found himself in was peculiarly hard and trying; as Lincoln’s successor he was faced with the difficult and delicate task of reconstructing a devastated and resentful South.

A promising start was made when the Union army of a million men was disbanded. President Johnson issued a proclamation of pardon on the 29th of May, 1965, to the greater part of the people of the seceded states on condition that they would swear allegiance to the Union. Most did so. They also accepted the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution which banned slavery.

Johnson’s hopes for an easy readmission of the rebel states back into the Union resulted in clashes between the President and Congress. Congress established a Freedmen’s Bureau to measures unduly interfered with the rights of states. Northern politicians, known as “carpetbaggers”, descended on the South and allied themselves with Negro representatives to take political control of several states.

A northern army of occupation remained in the South for several years. As a backlash the Ku Klux Klan was organised in Pulaski, Tennessee by General Nathan Bedford Forest to intimidate Negro voters and harass the Union authorities. They had some success in re-establishing white supremacist regimes. Despite these problems, during President Johnson’s administration six of the former Confederate states were readmitted to the United States.

However, Congress, enraged by the President’s stand on the reconstruction programme and other issues, passed over his veto on a bill forbidding him from dismissing members of his cabinet or private council without the consent of the Senate. The President defied the Tenure of Office Act by removing his Secretary of State, Edwin M. Stanton.

In 1868, Congress commenced impeachment proceedings against Johnson. Under the American Constitution the House of Representatives makes the charges and the Senate tries the case. At his trial 35 senators voted “guilty” and 19 “not guilty”. As this was one less than the two-thirds vote required to convict him, President Johnson was acquitted. A single vote more against him would have removed him from office.

Johnson’s term of office has often been denounced as a failure but in the case of Alaska he showed extraordinary foresight. In 1867, Secretary of State Seward persuaded Congress to purchase Alaska from Russia. Denounced at the time as “Seward’s Folly” or the “refrigerator of the United States” the Russians were paid $7,000,000 for 590,000 square miles of territory. This raised the total area of the United States to roughly 3,600,000 square miles. The territory yielded furs, lumber, fisheries and mineral deposits plus gold. In the twentieth century the State of Alaska became a major oil producer.

Besides enlarging the United States, the Johnson Presidency begun to pay of the Civil War debt, amounting to nearly $3,000,000, 000. In 1866, the Atlantic Telegraph Cable was laid between the Old World and the New.

Johnson was succeeded as President by Ulysses Simpson Grant. He was the only ex-President to serve as US Senator after being President. He died on the 31st of July, 1875, at Carters Station, Tennessee of paralysis, at the age of 66 and was buried in Greenville, Tennessee.