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Andrew Johnson

May 2024
1min read

A Biography

by Hans L. Trefousse; W. W. Norton & Company; 443 pages.

The story of Andrew Johnson’s life reads like one of the Grimms’ more tragic fairy tales. Born in a log cabin in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1808, Johnson grew up fatherless and without formal education. After drifting into the tailoring business, he embarked in 1829 on a remarkable political career that took him from village alderman to U.S. senator, with terms as U.S. representative and Tennessee governor as intermediate political steppingstones. He was Abraham Lincoln’s running mate in 1864, ascending to the Presidency when Lincoln was assassinated the following year. Then, just as dramatically, Johnson lost it all, becoming the only Chief Executive in history to face impeachment proceedings.

Hans L. Trefousse’s excellent biography shows that the key to Johnson’s startling success—his political cunning—helped lead to his fall. Machiavellian tactics dictated some of the most important political decisions of his career: his alliance with the Democratic party in 1839, his unconditional support of the Union in 1860, and his gutting of Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction beginning in 1865. But effective as they were, these self-serving maneuvers made Johnson many enemies. When outside pressure mounted during the declining years of his Presidency, he was left without a solid base of political support.

Nowhere was Johnson’s duplicitous nature more cruelly evident than on questions of race. The man who in 1844 stated that black suffrage “would place every splay-footed, bandyshanked, hump-backed, thick-lipped, flat-nosed, wooly-headed, ebon-colored negro in the country upon an equality with the poor white man” promised a group of freedmen during the 1864 election campaign, “I will indeed be your Moses, and lead you through the Red Sea of war and bondage to a fairer future of liberty and peace.” As President, Johnson made a mockery of this pledge, writing, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”

Trefousse resists the temptation to moralize. He puts no credence in the rumors of Johnson’s alcoholism (despite his drunken speech before Congress on Inauguration Day, 1865) and dismisses stories about Johnson’s relationships with women other than his wife, Eliza. Instead, Trefousse lets the facts paint their own unflattering portrait of one of history’s least respected Presidents.

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