He was a Southern Democrat, a self-made man, a former governor who raised himself from the direst poverty to the highest office in the land. As President of the United States, he was impeached by a Congress controlled by Republicans who accused him of abusing his power and, in many cases, personally detested him. One legislator called him “a despicable, besotted, traitorous man.”
But in the end, President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee escaped—by a single ballot—the ignominy of becoming the first chief executive ousted from the White House. On May 16, 1868, after a three-month Senate trial, Kansas Republican Edmund G. Ross of Kansas concluded that Johnson’s alleged “high crimes and misdemeanors” did not meet the standards for expulsion set by the Constitution. As he expected it would, his historic vote cost him a national political career, although in later life he became governor of the territory of New Mexico.
More than a century later, another Southern Democrat, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, hopes for an outcome similar to Johnson’s. Formally impeached by Congress last month, Clinton could go on trial before the Senate as early as Jan. 6, charged with perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from his admitted “inappropriate” relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But the parallels go only so far. While Clinton could be tried for allegedly attempting to conceal aspects of his personal life, Johnson clashed with his Republican foes over a matter of eminent national concern, namely how to deal with the vanquished Confederate states in the wake of a catastrophic Civil War. What’s more, the stern and stubborn Johnson bore little resemblance to a modern-day politician, least of all a saxophone-jamming baby boomer. “The two men are entirely different personalities,” says Johnson scholar Eric Foner, a professor of history at New York City’s Columbia University.
Critics called Johnson the accidental president, since he inherited the nation’s highest office upon Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. “He’s not very high up on the pecking order of past presidents,” admits Jim Small, chief of operations at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville, Tenn., “but events today are changing that somewhat.”
The first workingman to attain the Presidency, Johnson was born in Raleigh, N.C., in 1808 and apprenticed to a local tailor at the age of 14. His father, a handyman at a tavern, had died when Andrew was 5, and his mother, Mary, worked as a maid in the same tavern. Andrew learned to read and write from a foreman at the tailor’s shop but ran away four years before his apprenticeship was scheduled to end. He settled in Greeneville, Tenn., opened his own shop in 1826 and sent for his impoverished mother and stepfather in North Carolina. The following year he married schoolteacher Eliza McCardle, who improved his education and business. Together they raised five children.
Johnson the politician had two solid assets: his striking appearance—he had riveting black eyes and a powerful upper body and always dressed well—and a forceful, unpretentious style of speaking. “He had a sort of raucous appeal that went over very well in his home state,” says Hans Louis Trefousse, a retired professor of history at Brooklyn College. Tennesseeans elected Johnson to a string of offices, from city alderman to governor.
His career reached a crossroads in 1861, when Tennessee joined the Confederacy. Although a slaveowner, Johnson, by then a U.S. Senator, regarded states that left the Union as having violated the Constitution. He was hailed as a hero in the North—and barely escaped a lynch mob in, appropriately enough, Lynchburg, Va. Impressed by his moral courage, Lincoln, the first Republican presidential candidate, asked Johnson, a Democrat, to join his 1864 re-election bid as Vice President; the pair handily won the election.
Johnson’s troubles began almost immediately. He was visibly drunk at Lincoln’s second inauguration—Johnson claimed he was recovering from an illness and had sipped some whiskey to fortify his system. Three months later his political patron was killed by an assassin’s bullet just weeks after leading the Union to victory. Johnson’s plans for swiftly reuniting the country angered Northern lawmakers who wanted to guarantee the rights of freed slaves and to punish their former owners. Johnson vetoed nearly 30 Republican-sponsored laws, including one that gave freed African-Americans the right to vote. Finally he fired his Secretary of War in defiance of a law (since repealed) that forbade such actions without the consent of the Senate. “Impeach and be damned,” Johnson told the lawmakers—and within 48 hours the House had risen to his challenge.
Even during his Senate trial, Johnson continued to entertain at the White House, where his eldest daughter, Martha, often acted as hostess on nights when Eliza, an invalid, felt too weak to leave her bedroom. After acquittal, Johnson quietly served out his term and returned to Tennessee. In one of American politics’ greatest second acts, he was elected a Senator again in 1874 and made just one speech on the floor before dying after a stroke on July 31, 1875. The monument above his Greeneville grave reads, “His faith in the people never wavered.”
Margery Sellinger In Washington, D.C., Liza Hamm in New York City and Beverly Keel in Nashville