Like Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson was self-educated. He was the only senator from a state that left the Union (Tennessee) to stay in Washington. Because of his loyalty he was chosen as Lincoln’s vice-president in 1864. It was soon obvious that the choice was a mistake. Johnson showed up drunk to the inauguration and harangued Lincoln’s cabinet in his acceptance speech.
The main reason the Democrat Johnson stayed a Unionist was because he hated plantation owners whose wealth and resources hurt opportunities for small farmers. Unfortunately for the newly freed slaves, Johnson hated them just as much. After Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson took over, he stated, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”
Yet Johnson proved that he couldn’t get along with many white men either, at least not if they happened to be Republicans. His policy towards the former Confederate states was so liberal that these states elected Confederate leaders to Congress. Furious Republicans refused to seat the delegates.
Johnson especially fought with Radical Republicans who favored equality for blacks. He vetoed the 1866 Civil Rights Act, which stated that everyone in the U.S. should have “full and equal benefit of all laws.” Congress overturned this veto and several others during Johnson’s presidency. During his fights with congressional leaders Johnson was nicknamed “The Grim Presence.”
Johnson is best known for being the first president to have an impeachment trial. Fortunately for him, a few Republicans thought that his disagreements with Congress did not add up to the “high crimes” required by the Constitution to oust a president. He escaped impeachment by one vote.
Though his presidency was a failure, Johnson later became the only former president elected to the U.S. Senate. After hearing the news, Johnson said, “Thank God for the vindication.”