Martha Johnson Patterson served for nearly four years as de facto First Lady to an unpopular president.
The Johnson Family of Greeneville
Andrew Johnson (1808-75) was seventeen years old when he pushed a cart across the North Carolina border into Greeneville, TN. It is said that the day he came to town, sixteen-year-old Eliza McCardle (1810-76) saw him and remarked to a friend, “that is the boy I am going to marry.” Whether or not Eliza actually said it is immaterial; within months they did get married. At 18 and 16 respectively, Andrew and Eliza Johnson were the youngest-married First Couple.
Eliza, a shoemaker’s daughter whose father had recently died, needed a provider. Andy, a dirt-poor uneducated tailor-apprentice needed someone to manage a household. They moved into a tiny two-room cabin. One room was their bedroom, the other their living room-dining room and Johnson’s tailoring shop.
Soon enough, babies came along – four born within the first seven years. Martha, Charles, Mary and Robert. A fifth, Andrew Jr. (always called Frank in the family) was a surprise – born when Eliza was past forty.
Eliza could read and write and do basic sums. In the evening, while Andy sewed, she read to him and rocked a cradle. Johnson had no formal education. He could write his name, and knew some of his letters, but not much more. It was Eliza who taught him to read and write more fluently. It is also said that she helped him develop oratory skills.
The Family Prospers
The tailor shop prospered. Andrew Johnson was considered a valuable asset to the town. He began to attend town meetings, and by twenty-five, was active in local Democratic politics, becoming alderman and then mayor.
When their first child (Martha) was still a toddler, the Johnson purchased a six-room house in town, with whatever niceties were considered essential for an up-and-coming family. Johnson was soon elected to the Tennessee legislature, and finally, in 1843, to the House of Representatives. Considered a quiet, serious girl, it was Martha who helped tend to the younger children and the house.
Moving to Washington, at least part time, Martha Johnson and her siblings received a fine education in Georgetown. One brother became a doctor, the other, a lawyer.
When Martha Johnson was twenty-seven, she married attorney David Patterson, and had two children. Her sister Mary, four years her junior, married Daniel Stover when she was twenty, and had three children.
The 1850s was a notoriously turbulent decade, and Tennessee was in the middle of the ruckus. Many of the Tennesseans were slave owners, and had been for decades. Many of them were strongly opposed to slavery, and had been for decades. The Johnsons, however, were ambivalent about slavery per se, but they were strongly in favor of the UNION. Now-Senator Andrew Johnson was making a name for himself in the Democratic Party (and not necessarily a good name). His manner and demeanor had always been, and always would be, pugnacious.
Meanwhile, Eliza Johnson, a grandmother, now had a change-of-life baby herself and began having her own pile of troubles. She developed tuberculosis that drained her energy for a quarter century. Having Martha Patterson and Mary Stover nearby, raising babies of their own, was a godsend.
Johnson, His Women and the War
Next to Virginia, Tennessee suffered the most, with towns and cities ravaged, a populace violently divided, and dozens of battles and skirmishes fought.
Andrew Johnson was the only southern Senator who did not resign when his state seceded in June, 1861. Lincoln assigned him substantive duties to restore and/or maintain law and order in his troubled state. The Johnson women, wife and daughters and in-laws remained steadfast.
Nothing was kind to the Johnson daughters. In addition to a severe decline in their mother’s health, they lost their property, were shuttled from place to place, exchanging rudimentary shelter for the Governor’s Mansion, and back again.
Andrew Johnson was a cautionary tale and an odd choice as a running mate with Lincoln. Lincoln was not universally popular with his co-Republicans; Andy Johnson was a lifelong Democrat. A similar problem in 1840 between Whig William Henry Harrison and Democrat John Tyler might have raised a flag, but in 1860, other factors were in play. The Lincoln-Johnson ticket was a “Union” party ticket: neither Republican nor Democrat. As in 1840, it proved politically disastrous.
Within the space of six weeks, new-VP Andrew Johnson managed to embarrass himself badly at the inauguration, Lincoln was assassinated and died, and Andrew Johnson became president.
Mrs. Patterson, First Daughter-Lady
Now confined to her chair, the invalid Eliza Johnson was unable to participate in active First Lady duties. Placing the widowed Mary Stover in charge of the six small children who were now White House residents, Martha Patterson assumed the housekeeping and hostess management, along with being the wife of now-Senator David Patterson, elected to Johnson’s old seat.
The House itself was in poor condition. During the six weeks following the assassination, thousands of people marched through with little security. Rugs and furniture were trampled, curtains and draperies shredded by souvenir hunters, and the mansion that the Johnsons inherited was in sore need of repair and refurbishing. Both Martha and her sister (it is said) donned aprons and kerchiefs and worked along side the hired staff to clean and polish. “They were plain folks,” according to Martha, accustomed to hard work, which included milking the cows. Her clothing was always simple and classic, and she wore little or no jewelry.
During the next four years, more than $100,000 would be periodically appropriated and spent to repaint, repaper, recarpet, repair and replace damaged walls, floors and furnishings. Mrs. Patterson spent wisely, and focused on the public rooms, keeping within her budget. That included collecting and hanging portraits of previous Presidents.
Despite the bitter animosity between the President and Congress, including impeachment proceedings, entertaining at the White House was done tastefully and appropriately. The last Johnson reception in 1869 is said to have attracted more than 5000 attendees.
In “retirement,” Martha Patterson returned to Tennessee and cared for her aging parents during their last years. Generally reclusive, she died in 1901, at the age of 73.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995