Term: April 15, 1865 – March 4, 1869
Vice President: None
Home State: Tennessee
Wife: Eliza McCardle
Children: Martha, Charles, Mary, Robert, & Andrew, Jr.
Andrew Johnson originally of Tennessee, serving as Vice President of the United States at the end of the Civil War, was thrust into the presidency upon the assassination of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. There is no information concerning how the Johnson family celebrated the Christmas holiday while he served in the nation’s highest office or whether they exchanged White House Christmas cards during his term as president.
Aside from having been born four days after Christmas on December 29, 1808, the only other Christmas-related occurrence associated directly with Andrew Johnson was one of his last – and yet a most significant of acts – when on Christmas Day in 1868, he granted unconditional and full amnesty to any and all former Confederates charged with treason, specifically the former President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and former Confederate Vice President, Andrew Stephens. The proclamation read, in part:
…the President of the United States…do hereby proclaim and declare unconditionally and without reservation, to all and every person who, directly or indirectly, participated in the late insurrection or rebellion a full pardon and amnesty for the offense of treason against the United States…with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution…
A wonderful Christmas gift indeed!
The Christmas Day proclamation, given after the election of President-elect Ulysses S. Grant and a little more than two months before the end of Johnson’s administration, was actually the fourth of a series of amnesties. Earlier ones, which had required former Confederates to sign an oath of allegiance to the Union and had excluded certain classes of people, had been issued by both Johnson and President Lincoln. One of those former Confederates who had been excluded and needed to apply for a return to citizenship was West Point graduate and former leader of the southern army, Robert E. Lee. Although Lee signed an amnesty oath, President Johnson never pardoned him nor was his citizenship ever restored until 1975 when it was granted by President Gerald R. Ford.
President Johnson is perhaps best known for two “firsts” – he was the first president to have been impeached, and in 1874, he was elected to the U.S. Senate by the Tennessee legislature, thereby achieving the distinction of being the first and only ex-president to become a senator. He had previously served in the U.S. Senate prior to the Civil War.
Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina to Jacob and Mary “Polly” McDonough. After the death of his father when Andrew was three, his mother was forced to raise him and his brother, William, in relative poverty. Christmas must not have been a very joyous season of year given the family’s financial situation.
At age 14, young Andrew and his brother were apprenticed as indentured servants to a local tailor. After a few years, working conditions became so unbearable that both he and his brother broke their contract with the tailor and ran away. After hiding out in South Carolina, avoiding the warrant that had been put out for his arrest (and missing a few Christmases with his mother), young Johnson returned home when he was 18, straightened out his legal issues, and finally, moved to Greeneville in Tennessee where he established his own tailoring business.
Only a short time later, Andrew Johnson met and married 16-year-old Elizabeth “Eliza” McCardle. Lacking any formal education of any sort, Johnson was taught how to read and write by his wife during the days as he toiled in his shop. The fact that Johnson never spent a single day in school was not an accurate barometer of his intellect; having become interested in politics during his youth, he was elected alderman of Greeneville in 1828 and mayor two years later. He also served as a state legislator and in 1843 was elected to Congress, a post he held until 1853. Had Johnson sent out White House Christmas cards during his years as president, undoubtedly many politicos he knew and befriended during these years would have been on his list.
Having worked his way up from impoverishment to wealth, Johnson still identified strongly with the “common man,” and as a Jacksonian Democrat, he held the same populist ideals as the former president and was solidly backed by small farmers and those of the middle class. Giving up his seat in Congress to run for governor, Johnson was elected and led his state in the issues of supporting public schools as well as helping the smaller farmers and their families.
After serving as governor, Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1857. As a Democrat who believed in state rights and was a proponent of slavery (he was a slave-owner himself), he did feel, however, that the Union should remain intact despite the disagreements. Once his beloved Tennessee seceded after Lincoln’s election, Johnson refused to resign his senate seat, the only senator from a southern state to not do so. Considered a traitor, he had his land seized and his family driven from his state. He became an agent of the Union and was appointed military governor of Tennessee.
With the presidential election of 1864 approaching, the Republican Lincoln needed someone to run with him as the vice presidential candidate who could balance the ticket. Johnson’s selection, to appease the Democrats in the border states and in the North provided Lincoln with what he needed, gaining a landslide victory over his opponent, George McClellan. Whether the Lincolns sent the Johnsons White House Christmas cards at the end of 1864 as a way of thanking them is not known. Alas, it was only a little more than five months later that Andrew Johnson was thrust into the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. Johnson was also to have been assassinated that night along with Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Although Seward was severely injured that night, Johnson was spared death or injury when the conspirator lost heart and never followed through with the planned deed.
As President, Johnson and his family practiced no particular routine when it came to daily life or celebrations of Christmas in the White House. A workaholic, President Johnson’s main interest was politics, although he was known to enjoy a game of checkers now and then as well as minstrel shows and the circus. He also enjoyed an occasional bourbon, which unfortunately gave him somewhat of a false reputation as a drunkard since he appeared in public from time to time in a state of what his enemies contended was inebriation. It was at Lincoln’s inauguration that these charges first surfaced. While suffering from a bad cold and fever, Johnson had taken some whiskey just before his speech. The liquor affected his appearance and speech, to the embarrassment of Johnson’s family and Lincoln.
Johnson was not a very likable person and was known as being quite stubborn, domineering, and overbearing. He was not a particularly religious man, although he at times attended services at a Methodist church with the First Lady. He did believe, however, in the democratic structure of the Baptists but had a high regard for Catholic services since the religion did not discriminate against church attendees based on financial concerns. It is not known whether the President and First Lady attended Christmas services at the Methodist church.
During his presidency, Johnson often took his family on carriage rides. A special Christmas ornament with a 24kt. gold finish in several colors was commissioned in 2001 and features a reproduction of the type of carriage used by the family during Christmas of 1867. Although there is no written descriptions concerning Christmas celebrations in the White House, President Johnson is credited with being the first to have an Easter Egg Roll at the White House. Also, he declared a Thanksgiving holiday for December 7th in 1865 and was the first President to give government employees that day off, making Thanksgiving a legal holiday.
It was ironic that Johnson, a racist Southerner, would have the responsibility of trying to bring the Union back together after the Civil War ended. His vetoes against bills that would have helped the former slaves were overridden by a hostile Republican Congress, with whom he constantly bickered. Johnson also decided to challenge the Tenure of Office Act by firing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Since the act stated that a president could not fire any officeholder who had received Senate approval before being hired until the Senate approved a successor, the hostile Senate initiated impeachment proceedings against Johnson for “High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” He was also accused of having discredited Congress and with using vile and abusive language during a series of campaign speeches the previous year. Because the evidence brought forth showed more hostility and hatred rather than concrete proof of crimes, Johnson was acquitted of all changes against him. Left powerless, and failing to receive his party’s nomination for President in 1868, Johnson returned to Tennessee.
Many historians consider Andrew Johnson as having been one of the worst presidents in our country’s history. Because of his racist views, he failed to make a lasting peace between the Union and the vanquished South. After leaving the presidency, he ran twice for elective office before his election again to the Senate in 1874. Unfortunately, Johnson held his seat for just one session. He died on July 31, 1875 after having suffered a stroke. His body was taken to Greeneville and laid to rest.
Although it has been substantiated that the first “official” White House Christmas tree was displayed in 1853 during the reign of President Franklin Pierce, having a tree during the Christmas season did not become a yearly staple for presidents until the Kennedy administration. Although many different ornaments most certainly have been displayed on those indoor trees over the many years, it was not until 2007 that two artists from Greeneville designed and painted a special Christmas ornament featuring Johnson’s likeness, which was to be displayed on the White House Christmas tree. The artists, who were commissioned by the Andrew Johnson Historic Site, were sent the large, ostrich-sized white egg by the White House. For the front, they found a clear photograph of Johnson and superimposed a sepia-toned print of the picture over a mountain scene they had drawn, while the back showed President Johnson’s monument from the national cemetery where he and his family are buried. The ornament graced the White House tree at the end of that year to honor the beginning of the bicentennial of Andrew Johnson’s birthday.