After the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion, Tennessee adopted a new state constitution with a provision to disenfranchise free blacks. In 1835, Johnson won a seat in the Tennessee state legislature. He identified himself with the Democratic policies of Andrew Jackson, advocating for the poor and being opposed to nonessential government spending. He was also a strong antiabolitionist and a promoter of states’ rights. In 1843, Johnson became the first Democrat from Tennessee to be elected to the United States Congress.
He joined a new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, declaring that slavery was essential to the preservation of the Union. This was a slight departure from his fellow Southerners, who were beginning to speak of separation if slavery was abolished. During his fifth and final term in Congress, the Whig party was gaining ground in Tennessee, and Johnson saw that his chances for a sixth term were slim. In 1853, Johnson was elected governor of Tennessee.
During his two terms, he tried to promote his fiscally conservative, populist views, but found the experience frustrating, as the governor’s constitutional powers were limited to giving suggestions to the legislature, with no veto power. He made the most of his position by giving important appointments to political allies. As the 1856 election neared, Andrew Johnson briefly considered a run for the presidency, but felt he didn’t have quite the national exposure he needed.
He decided to instead run for a seat in the U. S. Senate. Even though his party controlled the legislature, the campaign was difficult. Many Democratic leaders disapproved of his populist views. As senator, Johnson introduced the Homestead Act, a bill he had promoted while a congressman. The bill met with stiff opposition by many Southern Democrats, who feared the land would be settled by poor whites and immigrants who couldn’t afford, or didn’t want, slavery in the area. A heavily amended bill was passed, but was vetoed by President Buchanan.
For the remainder of his Senate term, Johnson kept an independent course, opposing abolition while making clear his devotion to the Union. After Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, Tennessee seceded from the Union. Andrew Johnson broke with his home state and became the only Southern senator to retain his seat in the U. S. Senate. He was vilified in the South. His property was confiscated, and his wife and two daughters were driven out of Tennessee. However, his pro-Union passion did not go unnoticed by the Lincoln Administration.
Once Union troops occupied Tennessee in 1862, Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor. He walked a difficult line, offering an olive branch to his fellow Tennesseans while exercising the full force of the federal government to rebels. He was never able to gain complete control of the state as insurgents, led by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, raided cities and towns at will. Johnson originally opposed the Emancipation Proclamation, but after gaining an exemption for Tennessee and realizing that it was an important tool for ending the war, he accepted it.
Southern papers caught his flip-flopping and accused him of seeking a higher office. This notion played out when Lincoln, concerned about his chances for reelection, tapped Johnson as his vice president to help balance the ticket in 1864. After several high-profile Union victories in the summer and fall of 1864, Lincoln was re-elected in a sweeping victory. On the night of April 14, 1865, while spending an evening at Ford’s Theater, in Washington, D. C. , President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, and he died the next morning.
Johnson was also a target on that fateful night, but his would be assassin failed to show up. Three hours after Lincoln died, Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the 17th president of the United States. The racist Southerner Johnson was charged with the reconstruction of the South and the extension of civil rights and suffrage to former black slaves. It quickly became apparent that Johnson would not force Southern states to grant full equality to blacks, thus setting up a confrontation with congressional Republicans who sought black suffrage as essential to furthering their political influence in the South.
When Congress reconvened, members expressed outrage at the president’s clemency orders and his lack of protecting black civil rights. In 1866, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, providing essentials for former slaves and protection of their rights in court. They then passed the Civil Rights Act, defining “all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed,” as citizens. Johnson vetoed these two measures. Both vetoes were overridden by Congress. Johnson felt his position as president crumbling beneath him.
He had lost the support of Congress and the public, and felt that his only alternative was to challenge the Tenure of Office Act as a direct violation of his constitutional authority. In August 1867, he fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, with whom he’d had several confrontations. He was tried in the Senate and acquitted by one vote. He remained president, but both his credibility and effectiveness were destroyed. Johnson finished his term maintaining his opposition to Reconstruction and continuing his self-imposed role as protector of the white race.
In 1874, he won election to the U. S. Senate for a second time. In his first speech after returning to the Senate, he spoke out in opposition to President Ulysses S. Grant’s military intervention in Louisiana. During the Congressional recess the following summer, Johnson died from a stroke near Elizabethton, Tennessee, on July 31, 1875. According to his wishes, he was buried just outside Greeneville, his body wrapped in an American flag and a copy of the Constitution placed under his head