White Publishing Company

Presidents: Andrew Johnson

Mordecai Historic Park, Raleigh, North Carolina

Visited in 2007.

2007 was a special year in my life, as it included the Chris White Tour of the Birthplaces of Presidents Who Were Former Apprentices. We're still waiting on the t-shirts but the printer tells us they'll be ready any day now. Stop one was in Summerhill, N.Y., to visit the birthplace of Millard Fillmore. Stop two was in Raleigh, NC, to visit the birthplace of Andrew Johnson. Our tour motto: TASTE THE SQUALOR!

You can get the life story of Andrew Johnson by visiting his historic sites in Tennessee -- the state where he flourished into the awesome leader all schoolchildren adore. But it's nice to actually see the alleged place where it all began, in North Carolina. It's an "alleged place" because they don't keep great records for the dirt poor, so they had to lean on oral histories to figure out in which structure the magic happened. It was the kitchen of an inn in downtown Raleigh. The Johnson family worked downstairs -- his mom was a weaver and his dad took care of the horses at the inn. they lived in a tiny loft upstairs. The loft is where Johnson came into the world on December 29, 1808.

The demand for inns with stables dropped off somewhat over the decades, so the (alleged) birthplace has been moved around a bit. The building is now sitting at Mordecai Historic Park in Raleigh. That park is like a zoo, but instead of animals they have historic North Carolina buildings. The buildings are fed on a regular basis, and while attempts to breed the buildings have been largely unsuccessful, they do seem comfortable.

The building itself is underwhelming, but isn't that what America is all about? People of humble origins rising up to lead their fellow man? Assuming those people are white males, of course? As for the original site of the building, it's now an alleyway two blocks from the State Capitol. There's a rock with a plaque in it. Dogs probably pee on the rock. Good stuff.

Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, Greeneville, Tennessee

Visited most recently in 2011.

Andrew Jackson was a teenaged prisoner of war, Bill Clinton had an abusive stepdad, and JFK was allowed only two hookers on the yacht at a time. But no president had a more Dickensian arc to his life than Andrew Johnson.

When he was a toddler, his dirt-poor father fell ill and died after rescuing two people from drowning in icy waters. His stepfather was a scumbag, and his illiterate mom signed him and a brother up for an apprenticeship with a tailor. He got in trouble for throwing rocks at a woman's house -- to get the attention of a love interest, according to family legend -- and went on the lam for a few years. With a $10 bounty on his head, he moved around and tried to scrape by, but on hearing reports of his mother's desperate condition he risked going back to his hometown of Raleigh, N.C.

He put his mother on a horse cart and took the family west, to Tennessee. There he set up a tailor shop of his own and found a bride. It was supposedly love at first sight. So at age 18 he was married and taking care of his family. His wife helped him improve his reading skills, and he hired men to read to him while he worked. Put in some musical numbers and you've got the first act of a Broadway smash. Cue the dancing newsies!

At the Johnson historical site in Greeneville, you pick up the story right around Act II. The first thing to see is Johnson's tailor shop, which is preserved inside the visitor center. Tailoring was key to Johnson's political career. If you own the shop where the elite meet for fashion treats, and you stitch coats that make their butts look good, then you're going to make some well-to-do friends. And if you're discreet about which Freemasons like frilly underthings, then you're going to make some really powerful friends. So Johnson climbed the ladder. He was chosen for town government, then state government, then national government, championing the little guy at every stop. His family grew, and in the 1850s he got them a nice house on Main Street.

It's a modest dwelling. There were rooms for Andrew and his wife Eliza, plus many of their semi-deadbeat adult children. A nice wraparound porch let everyone enjoy the breezes. But Johnson's wife had picked up a nice case of consumption somewhere along the way, so the house was never a social place. Instead, the Johnsons mostly kept to themselves and coughed up blood.

And before too long, they had to cough blood in a different town. Johnson's personal beliefs on slavery were ambiguous at best -- he had acquired some house slaves along the way. But he always insisted on staying true to the Constitution and firmly believed that secession was illegal. He was the only Southern senator to come out against secession.

Remembering Johnson's loyalty to the Union, Lincoln appointed him military governor of Tennessee, when Johnson's home state became conquered territory during the Civil War. Johnson ruled with an iron fist, and was rewarded with the vice presidential nomination in 1864. He was a lifelong Democrat, but the Republicans contrived the "National Union Party" as a gimmick to pick up more votes. As part of that ticket, Johnson won the vice presidency, and the undying hatred of Confederate sympathizers. It wasn't safe for his family to live in Greeneville anymore, so they pulled up stakes and moved to Washington.

And so the house was gutted. As various factions rolled through Greeneville, they stripped all the woodwork for fires and scribbled on the walls. (They found some of that graffiti while restoring the house in the 20th century: "Andrew Johnson the old traitor" scrawled on a bedroom wall.) It wasn't exactly peachy in Washington either. Johnson showed up drunk for the ceremony where he would be sworn in as vice president -- he had some shots to control his nerves and went way overboard. That pretty much skunked his reputation.

The rest of Johnson's time in Washington was a nightmare. He ascended to the presidency in the worst way possible, becoming the first many elevated to the job by an assassin. The radical Republicans in control of the House had no illusions about National Union. They hated Johnson and saw him as an obstacle to their post-war reconstruction plans; to be fair, they were right, because Johnson was known as a world-class hater. He had no intention of cooperating with or rolling over for the GOP. He was a one-man resistance movement.

Johnson's impeachment was a bit of a farce: The Republican Congress started passing dubious laws to limit the authority of the president, with the hope that Johnson would break those laws. He did, but there were just enough senators who were deeply uncomfortable with the overreach of the Radical Republicans. Johnson was acquitted by one vote -- but then had to ride out his term under constant personal and political assault. Plus half the rest of his family got consumption, which had to suck.

But at least he could retire to a town where half the people wanted him dead! It actually wasn't as bad as all that. Even without Secret Service protection, the family wasn't harassed; they mostly were left to live in their modest home and cough up blood in private. A daughter restored the shell of a home to its former glory, and visitors today see it as it existed at the end of Johnson's life. It's nothing fancy. It's not even the biggest house in town. But it seems completely appropriate -- for as writer David O. Stewart puts it, there are no "fun" Andrew Johnson stories. His life was a slog. He had the hard-earned dignity of self-made man and did not take kindly to insults. He wasn't cheery, or witty, or eloquent. He just did the job however he saw fit. He didn't really have the temperament or skill to be president, but then again, he only signed up to be vice president, a job a potted plant could do.

Johnson lost two more political campaigns after leaving the White House, but actually ended up in the Senate once again at the time of his death. He's buried on the highest hill in town, wrapped in a flag with his head resting on the Constitution.

He's still considered one of the absolute worst presidents, but it's a nice grave.

The Basics

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Suggested Reading

Headliner of State

Fun Johnson Facts!