Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Andrew Johnson

The life-career of the seventeenth president of the United States well illustrates the spirit and genius of our free institutions. Four of the incumbents of the national executive chair were born in North Carolina. Of these, the subject of this sketch was one, being born in the above-named State, December 29th, 1808.

His father, who died in 1812, was sexton of a church and porter in the State bank. Extreme poverty prevented Andrew from receiving any schooling, and at the age of ten he was apprenticed to a tailor. A gentleman was in the habit of visiting the shop and reading to the workmen, generally from the ‘American Speaker.’ Andrew became intensely interested, especially in the extracts from the speeches of Pitt and Fox. He determined to learn to read, and having done this he devoted all his leisure hours to the perusal of such books as he could obtain. In the summer of 1824, a few months before his apprenticeship expired, he got into trouble by throwing stones at an old woman’s house, and ran away to escape the consequences. He went to Lauren’s Court House, South Carolina, and obtained work as a journeyman tailor.

In May, 1826, he returned to Raleigh. Mr. Selby, his former employer, had moved into the country, and Johnson walked twenty miles to see him, apologized for his misdemeanor and promised to pay him for his unfulfilled time. Selby required security, which Johnson could not furnish, and he went away disappointed. In September he went to Tennessee, taking with him his mother, who was dependent upon him for support. He worked a year at Greenville when he married, and finally settled, deciding to make that town his home.

Thus far his education had been confined to reading; but now, under the tuition of his wife, he learned to ‘write and cipher.’ During this time he became prominent in a local debating society, formed of resident young men and students of Greenville College. One student says; “On approaching the village there stood on the hill by the highway a solitary little house, perhaps ten feet square,—we invariably entered when passing. It contained a bed, two or three stools, and a tailor’s platform. We delighted to stop because one lived here whom we knew well outside of school and made us welcome; one who would amuse us by his social good nature, taking more than ordinary interest in us, and catering to our pleasure.”

Mr. Johnson, taking an interest in local politics, organized a workingman’s party in 1828, to oppose the ‘aristocrat element,’ which had always ruled the town. Considerable excitement ensued, and Johnson was elected an alderman by a large majority. He rose to be mayor, member of the State legislature, and a representative in Congress, holding the last office for ten years.

In 1853 he was elected governor, and re-elected in 1855. The contest was exciting, and violence and threats of murder were frequent. At one meeting Johnson appeared with pistol in his hand, laid it on the desk, and said: “Fellow-citizens, I have been informed that part of the business to be transacted on the present occasion is the assassination of the individual who now has the honor of addressing you. I beg respectfully to propose that this be the first business in order: therefore if any man has come here to-night for the purpose indicated, I do not say to him let him speak, but let him shoot.” After pausing for a moment, with his hand on his pistol, he said, “Gentlemen, it appears that I have been misinformed. I will now proceed to address you upon the subject that has brought us together.”

Mr. Johnson’s next office was as a member of the national Senate, where he ably urged the passage of a bill granting to every settler 160 acres of public land. When Tennessee passed the ordinance of secession he remained steadfast for the Union. Although a Democrat, he had opposed many of their measures in the interest of slavery, and now gravitated toward the Republican party. In nearly every city of his native State he was burned in effigy; at one time a mob entered a railroad train on which he was known to be and attempted to take him, but he met them with a pistol in each hand, and drove them steadily before him off the train. His loyal sentiments, his efforts to aid Union refugees, and the persecution he received at home commended him to the North. In 1862 he was appointed military governor of Tennessee, in which position he upheld the Federal cause with great ability and zeal. In the winter of 1861-2 large numbers of Unionists were driven from their homes in East Tennessee, who sought refuge in Kentucky. Mr. Johnson met them there, relieved the immediate wants of many from his own purse and used his influence with the national government for the establishment of a camp where these refugees found shelter, food and clothing, and were to a large extent organized into companies and mustered into the national service. His own wife and child were turned out of their home and his property confiscated. All through his duties as military governor of Tennessee Johnson displayed great ability and discharged the duties of his office fearlessly, amid eminent personal peril.

On June 7th, 1864, the Republican convention held at Baltimore, having re-nominated Mr. Lincoln, chose Mr. Johnson for the second place on their ticket. They were inaugurated March 4th, and April 14th the President was assassinated, and within three hours after Lincoln expired Andrew Johnson was president of the United States.

Soon after his inauguration as President of the United States, in the course of a speech on the condition of the country he declared, “the people must understand that treason is the blackest of crimes, and will surely be punished.” Now follows the strangest scenes imaginable, coming from such a man as he had always, until now, proved himself to be. As this part of ex-President Johnson’s life has been given great prominence, we forbear to speak further in relation to it. We are constrained, however, to say that it was sad to see a man, thus late in life, destroying in a few months a good character, as a citizen, and reputation as an able statesman, which he had been so many years building, and in which he had so eminently succeeded. In 1866 the University of North Carolina conferred upon him the degree of LL.D.

On the 31st of July, 1875, this wonderful man, who had risen from the tailor’s bench, to the highest place within the gift of a great nation, then to be disgraced and vanquished at his own bidding, died a disappointed man.