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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Andrew Johnson Becomes President, April 15, 2006

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Today in 1865, Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the 17th President of the United States. His ascendency occurred upon the death of Abraham Lincoln, who passed away earlier that morning as the result of an assassination attempt. His Presidency was marked by bitter disputes with Congress that were so partisan that he escaped a guilty verdict in the nation’s first Presidential impeachment by only one vote.

Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1808. He was apprenticed to a tailor at the age of 10 but ran away and started his own business in Tennessee. He never attended a formal school of any kind and it is believed that his wife, Eliza, taught him to read and write. By the time he was 49, Johnson had risen through the political ranks from a city alderman in Greeneville, Tennessee to a United States Senator representing the state. In between, he had been a mayor, a member of the state house of representatives and the senate, a US congressman and a governor.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Johnson found himself in a tough situation. He was a pro-Union Southerner and a Democrat, a position that placed him almost alone among the other southern Senators. He remained loyal to his nation over his state and became the only Senator from a seceded state to remain active in Congress after the outbreak of hostilities. When it appeared that Tennessee was firmly under Union military control, President Lincoln appointed him Military Governor of the state.

The elections of 1864 were held in the midst of the Civil War and President Lincoln, eager to keep the North united for the tough months to come, chose Johnson as his running mate, this despite the fact that Lincoln was a Republican. For this election, the Republicans changed the name of their party to the National Union party since their Presidential ticket now contained a member of both major parties. When Lincoln was re-elected in November, 1864, Johnson found himself a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. On Inauguration Day in 1865 Johnson, obviously drunk, stumbled through his speed so badly that he had to be led away from the podium.

Lincoln’s second term was just six weeks old when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth. Johnson was sworn into office and immediately set to work on a project that, in many ways, resembled a war: Reconstruction. Congress was split over how and when the Southern states would be welcomed back into the Union. Johnson threw his weight behind the more conciliatory members who wanted a quick restoration of rights. The majority in Congress, however, were more inclined to make the South wait for reinstatement and require civil rights laws as the price of admission. This standoff made for a very combative relationship.

One example of the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill in those days is the Tenure of Office Act. This Act was passed by Congress for only one reason: to keep Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, from being fired by the President. Basically, the Act stated that the President could not remove a member of his cabinet until that member’s replacement had been approved by the Senate. Stanton had held the post during most of President Lincoln’s tenure in the White House, but he and Johnson did not get along. Johnson had vetoed the Tenure of Office Act, but Congress had overwritten his veto. In February, 1868, Johnson announced that he had fired Stanton and replaced him with Lorenzo Thomas. Stanton remained physically in his office and when Thomas tried to move in, Stanton had him arrested. Three days later, the House of Representatives impeached Johnson for violation of the Tenure of Office Act.

The impeachment trial was held in the Senate and essentially came down to three separate votes, each vote representing a different article violation. Each time, 35 Senators voted “guilty” and 19 voted “not guilty”. There were 54 Senators at that time and the Constitution demanded a 2/3 majority to find a President guilty in an impeachment trial. Thus, Johnson was found not guilty on all charges by one vote.

Johnson unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for President in 1868 and failing that, ran instead for the Senate. He lost that race and a race for election to the House of Representatives in 1872. He was finally elected to the Senate again in 1875, but only served four months before he died in July of that year. Johnson is the only President to have served in the Senate after his Presidency.

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