Andrew Johnson served as the 17th U.S. president from 1865 to 1869 after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. He was born in Raleigh on December 29, 1808, and grew up without formal education. Johnson moved to Greensville, Tennessee and opened a tailoring shop. He was a skilled orator who first became an alderman in Greensville and later the town’s mayor before being elected to the Tennessee state legislature. In 1843, Johnson was voted into Congress, where he introduced the Homestead Act that was adopted in 1862 (McGerr et al., 2018). He was an adept believer of the right to slave ownership despite the division it caused between the northern and southern states. Johnson’s efforts to restore the latter to the Union were strongly opposed by the Radical Republicans in Congress, which made his presidency challenging and resulted in his impeachment.
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President Johnson’s political career was marked by the Homestead Act seeking to settle the poor by providing free farms. During the secession period Johnson, a Tennessee senator, remained loyal to the Union despite the state withdrawing. This action portrayed his loyalty to the Union and earned him the favor of the Republicans in the 1864 elections, who chose him as Lincoln’s running mate. In 1862, Johnson became Tennessee’s Military Governor and applied reconstruction policies with mixed success (McGerr et al., 2018). When Congress resumed session in December 1865, slavery was abolished in the South, and most of the former Confederate States were reconstructed. However, they had established Black Codes designed to limit the independence of the freed slaves and ensure they provided cheap labor. Therefore, Congress refused to accept the newly elected southern leaders because of their political sentiments on slavery.
The Republican leaders supported Johnson’s vice presidency because he inspired pro-union efforts in the southern states that had split. His political challenges began when he vetoed the Civil Rights and the Freedmen’s Bureau bills in 1866 introduced by the Republicans to protect the black population. Furthermore, he urged the southerners to reject the 14th Amendment that pronounced former slaves as American citizens. Johnson alienated himself from the party that had chosen him as Lincoln’s running mate (Wineapple, 2019). Further, he failed to garner most congressional seats in the 1866 elections where the Republicans won, establishing their reconstruction ideas that rivaled President Johnson’s policies. In 1868, Congress voted to impeach Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act among other charges but he was acquitted by one vote (Wineapple, 2019). He became the first president to be impeached and did not seek reelection. In that case, Johnson’s altercation with the Republican Radicals and poor reconstruction policies led to his political downfall.
In summary, Johnson’s failed reconstruction policies as well as the hostilities between him and the Republicans made his presidency complicated. Although Johnson continued to implement Lincoln’s reconstruction policies, he failed to gain the support of Congress. Consequently, the Radical Republicans surmounted significant power against Johnson, which resulted in the first impeachment of a President of the United States.
McGerr, M., Lewis, J.E., Oakes, J., Cullather, N., Summers, M., Townsend, C., Dunark, K.M., & Boydston, J. (2018). Of the people: A history of the United States, Volume II: Since 1865. Oxford University Press.
Wineapple, B. (2019). The impeachers: The trial of Andrew Johnson and the dream of a just nation. Random House.