Governor Andrew Johnson easily overcame the powerful opposition of the Whig Party in Tennessee, as well as the more conservative elements in his own Democratic Party to win election to the United States Senate in 1857. Nor was Andrew Johnson satisfied to merely remain in the Senate. At the 1860 Democratic presidential convention, Johnson’s sons and friends worked to win him the nomination. The Democratic Party, like the nation, was too divided. Northern Democrats managed to nominate Stephen Douglas, while Southern Democrats supported the candidacy of Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky. A fourth party, the Constitutional Union Party, held a convention in Baltimore, which nominated former Tennessee U. S. senator John Bell as its candidate. Bell actually carried Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky in the fall election. The winner of the presidential election was former Illinois congressman Abraham Lincoln. Unlike Andrew Johnson, John Bell eventually drifted to a point of view that aligned him with Confederate forces.
Andrew Johnson was a stubborn man, if not downright obstinate. Johnson gave a speech from the Senate floor that was much better received in the Northern states than his own Tennessee. Bellowing, “I will not give up this government”, Johnson pledged he “intended to stand by it”, a promise he kept. Johnson urged his fellow citizens to “rally around the altar of our common country” and “swear by our God, and all that is sacred and holy, that the Constitution shall be saved, and the Union preserved.” When Southern Democrats in the Senate promised to resign their seats in the event their states were to secede from the Union, Andrew Johnson was puzzled. Ever the politician, Johnson reminded Jefferson Davis, then a senator from Mississippi, that if Southern Democrats were to remain in their seats, the Democratic Party would have control of the Senate. Johnson reminded his colleagues, the Senate could easily remain a check and balance against any action taken by President Lincoln. Johnson returned home to Tennessee where the people were considering a referendum on secession in a special election. Johnson stumped against secession, speaking numerous times. Cognizant of the passionate beliefs held on both sides, Andrew Johnson realized his speechmaking might cause an attempt on his life. Undaunted, Johnson frequently spoke, but not before laying a pistol on the lectern. Tennesseans voted not to leave the Union in the February referendum, but by June of 1861, opinions had changed and Tennessee seceded. The threat to Andrew Johnson’s life became greater still and the senator fled, along with his family. Johnson was the only U. S. senator to remain in the Senate after his state had seceded from the Union. Johnson’s term expired in 1862 and President Lincoln made him military governor of Tennessee. The Senate rapidly confirmed Johnson’s appointment and he held the rank of brigadier general. Confederates, made livid by Johnson’s refusal to side with the Confederacy, seized the governor’s personal property and his home, which was used as a hospital. The Confederates did show the Johnson family courtesy inasmuch as they allowed the Johnsons to pass through their military lines to join the governor in Nashville.
Andrew Johnson did his best as military governor of Tennessee to mitigate the influence of the Confederates. Johnson ordered newspapers openly or aiding the Confederate cause to be closed. Governor Johnson insisted all public officials in Tennessee take a loyalty oath to the Union. There was also reason to believe President Lincoln gave Governor Johnson’s views great consideration. Although little remembered today, when Abraham Lincoln first issued his Emancipation Proclamation, Tennessee was exempted, at the particular behest of Governor Andrew Johnson. Although a slaveholder himself, Andrew Johnson finally came to the conclusion the institution of slavery must end. “If the institution of slavery seeks to overthrow it (the government), the Government has a clear right to destroy it,” Johnson concluded. While Johnson was reluctant to see former slaves fight alongside Union troops, he supported the idea of drafting former slaves into the Army. Over time, Andrew Johnson recruited almost 20,000 former slaves or free blacks into the Union army.
Andrew Johnson did not long remain military governor of Tennessee. Abraham Lincoln was a candidate for reelection in 1864, opposed in the fall election by one of his own generals, George B. McClellan. Lincoln’s vice president, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, expected to run again with the president, but Lincoln had other ideas. Perhaps thinking about the eventual end of the Civil War and bringing the country back together, Lincoln considered running for reelection with a Democrat. Lincoln, originally elected as a Republican, campaigned for reelection on the National Union Party ticket. Simon Cameron, the powerful and corrupt Secretary of War and former U. S. senator from Pennsylvania, tried to nominate by acclamation Hannibal Hamlin for vice president once again, but his resolution was beaten by the assembled delegates. Hamlin was nominated, as well as Andrew Johnson. Johnson led on the first ballot and won the vice presidential nomination on the second ballot.
At the time in our history when Andrew Johnson was the vice presidential nominee of the new National Union Party, it was quite unusual for a candidate to actually campaign for the office; in fact, many considered it unseemly for a presidential or vice presidential nominee to campaign for votes. It never bothered Andrew Johnson to appear unseemly and he made a campaign swing through Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. Johnson imposed his will on Tennessee, tightening the loyalty oath around the necks of his opponents in the Volunteer State to the point where many were disenfranchised. Not surprisingly, the Lincoln – Johnson ticket prevailed in Tennessee by 25,000 votes. Johnson’s heavy-handed tactics were so obvious Congress refused to count Tennessee’s electoral votes. Fortunately, the Lincoln – Johnson ticket had won the election without Tennessee’s electoral votes.
Never taking his eye off Tennessee, Andrew Johnson was delighted when Union troops once more occupied East Tennessee. Voters had ratified a new state constitution and one of Johnson’s last acts as military governor of Tennessee was to certify the election results. Johnson’s swearing-in as vice president should have been a glorious personal occasion for the Tennessean, but he had attended a social function the night before and had imbibed a little too freely. Upon arriving at the Capitol, Johnson approached his predecessor, Hannibal Hamlin, wondering if the vice president had any whisky. Hamlin proffered a bottle of whisky and Johnson took some liquid courage to steel his nerves. If Johnson was attempting to appease his hang over by taking a couple of drinks, it did not have the desired result. Johnson gave a rambling speech, which was an embarrassment. Many in the press flatly accused the vice president of being drunk. Johnson was mortified by the accusations of the press and kept a very low profile, largely refusing to come to the Capitol. Abraham Lincoln defended Johnson, saying, “I have known Andy Johnson for many years; he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared; Andy ain’t a drunkard.”
Andrew Johnson remained vice president for little more than a month. Johnson met with the President on April 14, 1865 and later that night Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth. What Andrew Johnson did not know was Lincoln’s assassination was part of a larger conspiracy, the intent of which was to murder the vice president and Secretary of State William Seward as well. The attempt on Seward’s life was quite nearly successful; Johnson’s intended assassin, George Atzerodt, decided to get drunk instead of killing the vice president. Not unlike many members of Congress at the time, Andrew Johnson lived at a boarding house while in Washington. Vice President Johnson was asleep when a fellow boarder woke him to tell him Lincoln had been shot. Johnson hurried to the stricken president’s bedside where the Tennessean snarled, “They shall suffer for this.” Abraham Lincoln slipped away the next morning and Andrew Johnson was sworn in as President of the United States sometime between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. Contrary to what some expected of the mercurial Tennessean, the occasion of his swearing-in saw Andrew Johnson conduct himself with the dignity of a president. Johnson, clearly understanding the gravity of the situation, was quite solemn throughout the ceremony.
Andrew Johnson’s presidency was a turbulent time and the obstinate Tennessean found himself surrounded by enemies. Johnson followed his own policies and as a Democrat, the Republicans in Congress, especially the radical Republicans, sought to impeach him. Johnson survived impeachment by a single vote in the Senate.
Johnson sought to be the presidential nominee of his party in 1868, although there was little doubt he would lose to the expected GOP nominee, General Ulysses S. Grant. The Democrats rejected Johnson’s bid to seek election in his own right and Andrew Johnson returned to Tennessee after leaving the White House. Relations between Grant and Johnson were glacial. Grant refused to ride in the same carriage as Johnson to his inauguration; that hardly mattered at all to Andrew Johnson, who refused to attend General Grant’s inauguration, period.
While it appeared politics was through with Andrew Johnson, it soon became clear Andrew Johnson was not through with politics. Some in Tennessee worried Johnson would run for governor or the U. S. Senate. The Republicans no longer politically controlled Tennessee and Democrats had won the state legislature in 1869. It soon became readily apparent Andrew Johnson would be a candidate for the U. S. Senate. Johnson, sadden by the death of his son Robert from suicide and bitter from his years in the White House, was driven to seek what he believed would be vindication. Johnson came within one vote of winning election to the Senate. Thoroughly hated by many Republicans and not a few Democrats, a coalition of Democrats and Republicans thwarted Johnson’s senatorial ambitions by backing Henry Cooper, who was elected. The final vote in the Tennessee legislature was 54 for Cooper and 51 for Andrew Johnson.
Johnson attempted another political comeback in 1872 when Tennessee was electing a Congressman-At-Large. Johnson intended to be the Democratic nominee, but was rebuffed by the party bosses, who favored Benjamin F. Cheatham, a former Confederate general. Stubborn, Johnson ran for the congressional seat as an Independent. While the former president finished third in the balloting, he had the pleasure of seeing General Cheatham lose to the GOP nominee, Horace Maynard.
Nor had Andrew Johnson given up his drive to win vindication from his people and his political ambitions. Anticipating the Tennessee legislature electing a senator in 1875, Johnson began a campaign swing through Tennessee. It was to be Andrew Johnson’s last campaign. Johnson quickly won the support of Tennessee’s farmers and campaigned on behalf of candidates for the legislature who would be friendly to his senatorial candidacy. The elections were a sweeping success for Democrats, who won ninety-two seats in the General Assembly to only eight for the Republicans. Johnson traveled to Nashville to personally lobby legislators on his own behalf. There was a host of opposition to the former president’s candidacy, which included a former congressman, three Confederate generals, and a former governor. Johnson led on the first ballot and his opponents realized the only way to stop the former president from winning a seat in the U. S. Senate was to coalesce around the candidacy of a single man. Ballot followed ballot and on the fifty-fourth ballot, Andrew Johnson was elected to the United States Senate by a single vote.
Johnson had received the personal vindication he had so doggedly and relentlessly pursued. His election was hailed nationally and he was greeted in Washington by many of his former colleagues warmly. Senator Johnson attended a special session of the Senate where his made his last political speech. That summer, Johnson suffered a stroke. A second stroke two days later claimed the life of one of Tennessee’s most colorful political figures. Andrew Johnson’s last words spoken on the floor of the Senate were, “…may God bless this people and God save the Constitution.”
Andrew Johnson remains the only former president of the United States to win election to the U. S. Senate after leaving the White House.