President Andrew Johnson was barely two when his father died.
Jacob Johnson, Hero
Jacob Johnson (1778-1812) was poor as a church mouse. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, he had no education, training or skills. Although he served in the NC militia and rang the church bell, he found menial work at Casso’s inn, stabling horses, carrying bags and unloading wagons. His wife Mary, just as unskilled, worked at the tavern as a housemaid and laundress. They had two children.
It was a cold winter in 1811 and three men fishing in the nearby creek capsized their small skiff. One made it to shore, but two were drowning. Jacob Johnson heard their cries for help, and without hesitating, plunged into the icy waters and somehow brought the men to safety. Unfortunately the icy water, the exposure and the exertion was too much for the thirty-three year old man, and he died shortly after the attempt.
He was a bona fide hero.
The entire town turned out for his elaborate funeral, replete with a parade and preachers and flowers and fine eulogies. Unfortunately the town provided nothing for Johnson’s widow and small children. Mary Johnson was forced to struggle on. She remarried not long afterwards, but her second husband was even less educated or skilled than the first. Some said he drank and seldom worked. Living and trying to raise two small boys was an ordeal. They barely survived.
Andrew Johnson: Quick Bio
Andrew Johnson (1808-75) was the younger son of Jacob and Mary. He had no memory of his natural father. His earliest memories centered around not enough food or shoes – or education.
When he was ten, his mother and stepfather, as a kindness (and perhaps to reduce the mouths to feed) apprenticed the two boys to a tailor, where they would be housed, fed, given the rudiments of basic education, and most importantly, learn a trade so they could make their own ways.
Stories vary about the “master’s” cruelty and Andy Johnson’s natural truculence, and likely contain pieces of truth midway. But shortly before his 18th birthday, Andy ran away (not the first time) – but this time he made it across the Tennessee border, where NC apprenticeship law had no jurisdiction.
He settled in Greenville, and within a short time married and opened a tailor shop, making men’s suits and coats. With the help of his wife Eliza McCardle, he began a family and learned to read and write proficiently. He prospered.
He attended local political meetings, and by his early twenties, embarked upon a long career of public office: alderman, mayor, state legislator, congressman, senator, Governor of Tennessee, Vice President and President. An impressive resume.
But his natural truculence was never far from the surface, and Johnson had as many (if not more) detractors as admirers. A lifelong Democrat, he was strongly pro-Union, mildly anti-slavery (believing it was better if everyone worked for wages), and violently antagonistic toward the “property” class, who he blamed for most of the country’s deep divisions.
Johnson was first and foremost a “mechanic”, a term used for tradesmen like tailors, carpenters, shoemakers and small merchants, and was staunchly proud of his working class status.
Andrew Johnson: President
Andrew Johnson’ presidency was difficult on all fronts. In 1864, he was a Democrat running with Republican Abraham Lincoln, on a makeshift “Union” ticket. His political accession to the presidency was mired in tragedy and grief.
Some claim he tried to follow Lincoln’s “let ’em up easy” policy (regarding the ex-Confederacy). Some claim with reason, that he was uncaring about the socio-political future of former slaves. All claim he was difficult to work with, far more inclined to fight it out than co-operate. He had no real partisans.
He endured a bitter impeachment trial, acquitted by only one vote. Needless to say, he was not nominated by anyone for a term of his own.
He returned to Tennessee, unbroken, unbowed and determined to engage in public life again. He ran for and lost two state elections, before being (finally) elected once again to the US Senate, where he was given a standing ovation. He died shortly thereafter.
His Father’s Statue
This is an old story retold by historian Paul Boller, and it very well may be apocryphal, but since any story about Andrew Johnson that generates a smile is so rare, it should be treasured. It is too good a story to lose!
The absolute truth of the matter is that in mid-1867, the good people of Raleigh, NC decided to erect a statue at the hitherto long neglected grave of Jacob Johnson, the bona fide (and long dead) hero.
For the dedication ceremony, William D. Haywood, the Mayor of Raleigh, invited the hero’s son, President Andrew Johnson, to participate and say a few appropriate words. It was his one and only trip South during his presidency. Even though Johnson had no recollection of his long-deceased father, nor had he lived in North Carolina since his teens, he accepted the invitation. So did a huge crowd of local residents, some of whom were old-timers, who remembered the drowning incident, and even knew some of those involved.
Johnson duly made a conventionally windy but satisfactory speech, indicating he had returned to the place of his boyhood in the hope of repairing some of the “breaches” made by the Civil War.
One of the attendees was an elderly woman who remembered young Andy as a tailor’s apprentice. She is said to have remarked to a companion, “Bless this dear old man. He has come back to Raleigh to open a tailor shop.”
True? Not true? Not important enough to really care?
Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981
Hilton, George – The Funny Side of Politics – G.W. Dillingham Co., 1899