Johnson, Andrew (1808–75), 17th president of the United States. Johnson was the only U.S. president to be impeached by the House of Representatives. The difficulties of Reconstruction demanded an outstanding president, but Johnson—an accidental chief executive facing a hostile Congress—was temperamentally unsuited for the office.
Poverty kept Johnson from receiving any formal education. At age 13, he was apprenticed to a tailor, but ran away after 2 years. He later settled in Greeneville, Tenn., and opened a tailor shop. In 1827, he married Eliza McCardle, who taught him writing and arithmetic.
Johnson became involved in local politics as a Democrat and was elected town alderman before he was 21. He became mayor, then served in the Tennessee House of Representatives, the state Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives. After 4 years as Tennessee's governor, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1857.
Johnson sympathized with the poor and uneducated, and championed mountaineers and small farmers against wealthy plantation owners. A slave owner, he opposed abolition and supported the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. But he also supported legislation that would help small farmers by opening the West to settlement—even though it meant more free states would be added to the Union.
Republican Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election, causing most Southern leaders to call for secession. Johnson, however, remained devoted to the Union. In 1864 the Republicans renominated Lincoln and, to win support from “War” Democrats, they made Johnson his running mate. Their ticket won. In April 1865—six weeks after the inauguration—Lincoln was assassinated, thrusting Johnson into the presidency.
The Civil War had just ended, and Johnson faced the difficult task of reconstructing the South—and the Union. He issued a controversial proclamation granting amnesty to most Confederates who would swear loyalty to the Constitution. Most Southern states ratified the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. However, they also passed the first in a series of laws that severely restricted the rights of African Americans.
Johnson maintained that reconstruction was exclusively an executive function; Congress disagreed. It passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 over Johnson's veto and put forth other measures he opposed. In 1867, the Reconstruction Act was passed; thereafter, Congress exercised unprecedented authority over national policy.
Johnson removed an opponent from the Cabinet without consent of Congress, violating its Tenure of Office Act. The House impeached him for this and other reasons and, in March 1868, the Senate held Johnson's trial for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Conviction required a two-thirds majority; Johnson escaped conviction by a single vote. The power of the presidency was saved and balance between the branches of government preserved.
Other than the acquisition of Alaska by Secretary of State William Seward, Johnson's administration had few successes. Johnson was not nominated to the 1868 Democratic ticket, and left the presidency a bitter and disappointed man. He twice ran for Congress, but lost. Finally, in 1874, he won an election. The only former president to become a U.S. Senator, Johnson served only a special brief session in March 1875. He died soon after.