The Private Sorrow of Eliza McCardle Johnson

  First Lady Eliza McCardle Johnson.

Quick Bio on Eliza

Said to be a rare early photograph of Eliza Johnson.

Eliza McCardle (1810-1876) was Tennessee-born and an only child. While most of the American First Ladies were middle-class gentry, if not out-and-out well-to-do, Eliza was likely the poorest of the lot. Her father was a shoemaker. The family struggled. Nevertheless, a shoemaker was a skilled trade, and John McCardle was considered a respected member of his small community in Greeneville, TN. Poor was not a problem; everyone was poor. And Eliza went to the local school where she received a fair education.

McCardle died when Eliza was in her early teens, and she and her mother sewed slippers and other items to make ends meet. Legend has it, that she first laid eyes on seventeen-year-old Andrew Johnson when she was about fifteen or sixteen, and he came to town pushing a cart with all his worldly goods. Legend continues, that Eliza saw him, and told her companion “he was the boy she was going to marry.” Maybe she said that. But within a year, she did marry him.

They were the youngest First Couple. She was sixteen, he was eighteen.

The Tailor’s Wife

Andrew Johnson (1808-75) was one of the poorest fellows in Raleigh, NC. His father died when he was two, and his mother remarried shortly afterwards. They barely got by. When Andrew was ten, partly to spare themselves the extra mouths to feed, and partly as a “favor” to the boys, Andrew and his older brother were apprenticed to a local tailor. The “favor” part, was providing the boys with a trade so they could make their own ways.

There is some indication that the master-tailor was a strict taskmaster (perhaps); there is some indication that Andrew was a truculent boy who hated discipline (more than likely). He tried to run away a few times. At 17, he ran over the border to Tennessee, where NC apprentice laws did not apply. 

Andrew obviously was a pretty fair learner, since he became a good tailor. When he married Eliza, he set up shop in his small two-room cabin. When he sewed at night, Eliza read to him. Some say she taught him to read and write. Indications are that he already “knew his letters” and could sign his name, but most historians believe she undoubtedly advanced his ability to read, write and do arithmetic. 

Andrew Johnson as a younger man.

Their four children came along within eight years. So did Andrew’s interest in local politics. He went to town meetings, was elected alderman, then Mayor, and then State legislator. He was doing well enough to build a better house and make a good life for Eliza and the children: Martha, Charles, Mary and Robert. He politicked and she took care of the house and family.

The National Stage

Martha Johnson Patterson

Mary Johnson Stover

By the time Andrew Johnson was in his thirties, he was elected to Congress. Eliza stayed home, their children received the benefit of a fine education in Washington. Both Johnsons felt strongly about providing some of the necessities – and luxuries – that had been denied to them as youngsters.

Both their daughters received a solid female-education. Charles went to Georgetown University and became a doctor. Robert also went to Georgetown and became an attorney. The Johnsons were justifiably proud parents of sons who had achieved high professions.

The Surprise

When Eliza was past forty, her daughters were already grown and married. Eliza was a grandmother. Then she became pregnant again.

Having a baby some twenty years after her last child was born, was a serious medical condition in the 1850s. The child (Andrew Jr., nicknamed Frank) was somewhat on the frail side, but managed to survive his boyhood. Eliza, however, perhaps in her weakened condition, developed tuberculosis.

There are basically two kinds of tuberculosis: fast and slow. Either way you died. Eliza had the slow kind. It sapped at her for years. Walking across the room was an ordeal. For the next 25 years, she was chair-bound, living the life of a semi-invalid.

The Price of the Civil War

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson, the only Southern Senator who did not resign his seat when other Southern states seceded in 1861, did yeoman service for the Union. But there was an enormous price to be paid.

One can never really know what triggers someone to turn to drink, especially long-ago people from a family where documented personal life is scarce. There may be dozens of reasons, but one can safely assume the Civil War did not help. Tennessee was hard hit.

Dr. Charles Johnson He drank.

Charles-the-Doctor served in the Middle Tennessee Union Infantry, but perhaps was not cut out for the gore and suffering he witnessed. He likely would have succeeded setting broken bones and delivering babies in Greeneville. It was rumored that the whiskey they used for anesthesia found its way into his tent. He died after being thrown from his horse in 1863. He was only 32.

Attorney Robert Johnson. He drank even more.

Robert had become an attorney, but the suspected alcoholism of his brother was confirmed in his own life. His well-known drunken escapades resulted in his being “retired” from the Tennessee Cavalry.

When Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination, he brought Robert along as his secretary, hoping to a) keep an eye on him, and b) hoping that the responsibilities would spur him to reform. Neither hope prevailed, and Robert took his own life a couple of years later. He was only 35.

If Eliza was devastated by the plummeting of her high hopes for her well-educated sons, it was compounded by the misery of the war itself in Tennessee. Her years as First Lady were equally depressed by her husband’s political misfortunes and her own poor health. She held her head high, however, but participated only minimally. Her daughters “did the honors.” 


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

Kendall, Joshua – First Dads – Grand Central Publishing, 2016

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