Born in poverty in 1808 in Raleigh, N.C., as a young man Andrew Johnson apprenticed as a tailor. Eventually settling in Greeneville, Tenn., he became involved in politics, serving as mayor for two terms. Election to the Tennessee House of Representatives followed in 1835, then election as a U.S. Representative in 1843. After 10 years in the U.S. House as a Democrat, Johnson served for two terms as the governor of Tennessee, afterward elected to the U.S. Senate in 1857.
Upon the formation of the Confederate States of America in 1861, Johnson became the only sitting U.S. senator from a Confederate state who did not resign his federal position. With most of Tennessee in Union hands in 1862, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln rewarded Johnson’s loyalty to the Union by appointing him as military governor of Tennessee.
A vocal white supremacist, Johnson belatedly embraced Emancipation, freeing his slaves in the summer of 1863.
In a goodwill gesture to the South of his desire for national reunion, Lincoln in 1864 selected Johnson as his vice-presidential running mate under the banner of the National Union Party, rather than the Republican Party.
The Lincoln-Johnson ticket won the 1864 election. Unfortunately, on the day of Lincoln’s second inauguration, March 4, 1865, a drunken Johnson delivered a rambling speech for which he was widely ridiculed. For weeks afterward he shunned public appearances.
On April 15, 1865, days after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln died from an assassin’s bullet, elevating Andrew Johnson to the presidency.
Lincoln’s untimely death hardened northern and Republican determination to prevent former Confederates from returning to power in the South. The radical wing of the Republican Party demanded punishment for Confederate leaders and suffrage and civil rights for African Americans.
Former slaves pressed for the permanence and expansion of wartime federal acts providing land, education and equal rights as a path to autonomy. An excerpt from an Oct. 28, 1865 letter from “Edisto Island Freedmen” of Edisto, S.C., to Andrew Johnson summarized the sentiments and hopes expressed in hundreds of letters from former slaves sent to the president in the months and early years following the war:
…We the freedmen of this island and the state of South Carolina … Do therefore petition to you as the President of these United States, that some provisions be made by which every colored man can purchase land, and hold it as his own. We wish to have A home if it be but A few acres. Without some provision is made our future is sad to look upon. Yes our situation is dangerous. We therefore look to you for protection and Equal Rights, with the privilege of purchasing A Homestead — A Homestead right here in the heart of South Carolina.
We pray that God will direct your heart in making such provision for us as freedmen which will tend to unite these states together stronger than ever before. May God bless you in the administration of your duties as the President of these United States is the humble prayer of us all.
Unfortunately for freedmen, Johnson opposed federal suffrage and rights and had little interest in God.
Primary sources are lacking from his early years, but Johnson’s parents may have been Baptist, and perhaps he expressed affinity for the Baptist faith. An early biographer, Robert Winston, seemingly straining to interpret his subject as religious, claimed that Johnson “was a Baptist, holding with Thomas Jefferson that the United States Government was organized on the same general plan as Baptist churches; that each state, like each church, was a separate entity.”
Winston also wrote of how the “Catholic church interested him because in it he found a saving virtue: No class distinctions in its worship.” Johnson rarely attended religious services, however, and there is no evidence he ever joined a church of any kind.
To the contrary, many Americans considered Johnson an infidel. As a congressman he sought to dispel such talk by declaring, “so far as the doctrines of the Bible are concerned, or the great scheme of salvation, as Christ himself taught, and practised by Jesus Christ Himself, I never did entertain a solitary doubt.”
Perhaps also in response to his irreligious public persona, Congressman Johnson in 1849 offered a resolution stating:
Resolved, That the ministers of the gospel belonging to the different denominations be, and they are hereby, invited to attend and open the proceedings of this House, while in an unorganized state, with sincere prayer to the Giver of all good for a speedy and satisfactory organization and a despatch of the public business.
The resolution was never acted upon.
A few pro-religious public statements aside, even Johnson’s Methodist wife, Eliza McCardle, failed to persuade him to embrace organized religion. If “he could have found an organization based on the personality of Christ,” biographer Winston intoned, “without creed or dogmas, without class distinctions or the exaltation and deification of money, he was willing to join it ‘with all his soul.’ But so far as he could make out, there was no such Church.”
Yet class, racial and wealth dynamics played key roles in Johnson’s administration as the president expressed affinity with white common folk, ignored freedmen’s pleas for justice in the name of God, and forged alliances with elite white southerners.
With southern votes critical to his hopes for election in 1868, Johnson in the months following his succession to the presidency voiced reconciliatory language toward former Confederates.
Encouraged, the rebels quickly set about resuming political power. Many southern states passed Black Codes, binding former slaves into a form of servitude similar to slavery. Johnson even allowed Georgian and former Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens to return to the U.S. House of Representatives, while vetoing an expansion of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency established to assist former slaves.
Outraged, northerners fought back. Over Johnson’s objections, a Republican Congress extended the Freedmen’s Bureau; passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, protecting black citizens; and shepherded the adoption of the 14th Amendment, enshrining citizenship rights and equal protection for African Americans.
In response, Johnson blocked Reconstruction Acts designed to provide suffrage to freed slaves and prevent former Confederate leaders from taking political offices. He also pardoned many ex-rebels and systematically sought to purge from high levels of government persons supportive of Southern Reconstruction.
As a result, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives impeached Johnson on Feb. 24, 1868. In his subsequent Senate trial the president promised to uphold Reconstruction Acts and work with Congress, thereby avoiding senatorial impeachment by one vote. Undeterred, Johnson returned to the vetoing of reconstruction bills, leading to congressional vetoes of his presidential vetoes.
Unpopular in the North and warring with Congress thereafter, Johnson lost the presidential election of 1868 to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Returning to Tennessee and nursing grudges, the former president won re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1875, only to die from a stroke mere months later.
Two years prior to his death, while suffering from cholera and fearing the end was near, Johnson, yet defiant of organized religion, had declared:
I have performed my duty to my God, my country and my family. I have nothing to fear in approaching death. To me it is the mere shadow of God’s protecting wing. Beneath it I almost feel sacred. Here I know no evil can come; there I will rest in quiet and peace beyond the reach of calumny’s poisoned shaft, the influence of envy and jealous enemies, where treason and traitors in State, backsliders and hypocrites in Church, can have no place, where the great fact will be realized that God is truth, and gratitude is the highest attribute of man.
Freedmen, abandoned by Andrew Johnson, knew only too well that the president had not performed his duties to God and country. A white supremacist and incompetent administrator who spectacularly failed to bring about justice and instead inflamed the wounds of post-Civil War America, Johnson is considered by many historians as the nation’s worst president. NFJ
By Bruce Gourley
These are the 17th and 18th in a series of articles by historian Bruce Gourley on the religious faith of U.S. presidents. Gourley is online editor and contributing writer for Nurturing Faith Journal and executive director of the Baptist History & Heritage Society.