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Andrew Johnson: Life and Achievements

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    Andrew Johnson succeeded President Abraham Lincoln after his assassination to become the 17th president of the United States. He was the vice president then and consequently the first vice president ever to become the president after the death of an incumbent.  He was the president of the United States during one of its trying moments when it was still reeling from the effects of the civil war and embroiled into the intense activities and emotions of the Reconstruction. With Abraham Lincoln gone, it was up to Andrew Johnson to supervise the process of reconstruction.

    Andrew Johnson was born on December 29, 1808 in North Carolina. He did not formally attend any school and he learnt on his own how to read and write. His early childhood was humble as he was an indentured servant. He plunged into politics in the late 1920s, serving as a mayor in 1833, later proceeding to the Tennessee House of Representatives. He was quite vocal against the big plantations and aristocrats, pursuing the interests of the small scale farmers. This vocal advocacy witnessed his election into the Tennessee senate and later into the Tennessee House of Representatives. This is a position that he held for five consecutive terms and would later be governor of Tennessee in 1853 (James Ford, 1920).

    Though his presidency was embroiled into numerous mishaps Andrew Johnson emerged a fighter from the start. Despite the fact that his state, Tennessee seceded, Johnson continued to serve in the congress vowing to fight the aristocrats from within. Due to his stand, he was appointed by Lincoln to be the military governor of Tennessee and was a significant force in rooting out elements from the state that supported the confederation. He freed slaves reiterating the need the end slavery and grant the black population voting rights. He crossed over to the National Union Party, was appointed the vice president and upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln sworn into the presidency on April 15, 1865 (W. A. Dunning, 1898).

    It was expected that upon becoming the president, he would take a harsh stance against the southern states. Contrary to these expectations, he minced the words he had spoken earlier on treason. He took up a soft stance and offered amnesty to these states. This hence meant that blacks and the southern plantations would be left in the hands of the southerners uncontrolled. It is this leniency that would lead to Johnson and the northern radical Republicans parting ways. They sought for tough measures on the rebellious states. Eric L McKitrick (1988)notes that “despite some indications in the beginning that Johnson’s attitude toward the south might be a harsh one, his policy turned out to be quite otherwise”

    Johnson oversaw the passage of the black codes that sought to grant ex-slaves who had been freed a second class citizenship status. It was in response to this that the republicans from the north intensified their bid to curb the admission of the seceding states back into the union. The bruising battle that Andrew Johnson had with the republicans especially over the rights of the black American slaves painted a perception that he was against the emancipation of the slaves. He vetoed the pushing of the civil rights bill in 1865. This was a bill that hoped to confer equal racial status for the blacks and whites especially for the freedmen. Andrew Johnson objected to this claiming that the federal authority was usurping the role of the individual states. He claimed that this was against the provisions in the constitution. This major scuffle in his presidency and his stand on the civil rights endeared him to the democrats who mostly comprised of the southerners. They voted to sustain his veto but the republicans with their superior numbers in the house overrode the veto. The Civil Bights bill went ahead and became law (Eric L. McKitrick 1988).

    To understand the stand that the southern states took compared to the northern states, it is important to look at the regions political and economic orientation. The northern states were largely industrialized and had refuted the claims that slavery was a viable investment. Calls for abolishment of slavery had intensified in the north. The southern states on the other hand relied on large plantations. Slavery was the backbone against which the southern economy thrived. The decades of slavery had led southerners to be on the virtual dependence on slavery and creating a sort of a permanent attachment that would take long to severe. The insistence by the republicans in the, north led by Abraham Lincoln, that slavery would be contained, led to angry responses that led to the American civil war. The support of the southern Democratic Party supporters was guaranteed to Andrew Johnson the moment it emerged that his policies were not as harsh and retributive as they had earlier feared (Hatfield, Mark O.1997).

    The bruising battle that would follow after the attempts to veto the bill would leave Johnson cornered and powerless. The passage of the fourteenth amendment seeking to entrench the Civil Rights Act into the United States constitution was a resounding defeat to Johnson. The amendment granted citizenship to all the people born in the United States. The amendment also spelt out the penalties that would be imposed to states that failed to grant citizenship to freedmen. The battle between the republicans and the democrats allied to the president would lead to a loss in the house support with the republicans emerging victorious and taking over the authority of implementing the Reconstruction. Johnson became a lame duck. This would place him on a collision path with the congress especially as he was unwilling to compromise. It would lead to the failure of his key agendas and mission as James Ford Rhodes notes (1920, 27) that the “quarrel with Congress prevented the readmission into the Union on generous terms of the members of the late Confederacy; and for the quarrel and its unhappy results Johnson’s lack of imagination and his inordinate sensitiveness to political gadflies were largely responsible.”

    Andrew Johnson faced numerous tribulations while in office that would put a test to his popularity and grasp of power in the house. There were two concerted efforts to end his presidency through impeachment. The first impeachment was based on a furor of complaints lodged against the president. The second impeachment facing the president was as a result of removing the then secretary of war Edwin Stanton. Such a replacement, it was argued, was in gross violation of the Tenure of Office Act, an act that Johnson had tried unsuccessfully to veto. This act had curtailed the powers of the president of sacking his cabinet members. The Supreme Court had made a grand ruling that the president’s actions violated the constitution. The voting in the senate saw the president sail through slightly with those for the impeachment being unable to muster the mandatory two-thirds majority required for an impeachment.

    The attempts by the senate to impeach president Andrew Johnson has been put on the spotlight by various scholars and historians. Some claim that had it been successful, the impeachment would have been tantamount to setting a bad precedence that a sitting president can be impeached solely over minor political differences. The analysis of the subsequent events confirm that indeed the president was right in his replacement as twenty years later, the tenure of office act was done way with by the congress. The United States Supreme Court half a century later in 1925 was to affirm the president had residual powers with which to sack a postmaster, without the approval of the legislature. This hence meant that the tenure act had been invalidated (Foster, G. Allen, 1964).

    The achievements of Andrew Johnson as the seventeenth president of the United States have sparked a rare debate amongst historians and other scholars. There are those who claim that his record in office was vilified by radical republicans who wanted to have the leadership in the south undermined. Others claim that he was a weak politician who was not apt enough to build standing coalitions. The civil rights movements that characterized the 1960s brought focus to his presidency with these activists claiming that Johnson was the impediment to civil rights and that the radical republican’s played a vital role in giving suffrage rights to the black Americans.


    Rhodes; James Ford, 1920. History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896. Volume: 6.. Pulitzer prize

    W. A. Dunning,1898. Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction .New York.

    Schouler, James. 1917. History of the United States of America: Under the Constitution vol. 7. 1865–1877. The Reconstruction Period

    Hatfield, Mark O.1997., with the Senate Historical Office, Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993..Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office,.

    Eric L. McKitrick 1988. Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. Oxford University


    Foster, G. Allen, 1964. Impeached: The President who almost lost his job New York.


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