By Dorothy Copus Brush
Andrew Johnson was Tennessee’s third and last president. He was sworn in as Abraham Lincoln’s vice president on March 4, 1865. Because of the fatal shot at Ford’s Theater he became president on April 15 of that year.
Johnson was born in NC but when he was very young the family started anew in Greeneville, TN and it was always his beloved home. It was there he met and married Eliza McCardle. She was only 17 but had formal education and she taught 19-year-old Andrew to read and write.
As a tailor’s apprentice he eventually set up his own tailor shop and worked there until age 35 when he became interested in politics. Because of this early work one New York writer called him “knight of the scissors.”
Johnson served locally, then as state representative, and finally state senator. At the beginning of the Civil War he was an unpopular Tennessee senator because of his speech to the Senate. He said, “My blood, my existence I would give to save the Union.”
Many years later following the war a speaker of the House said of Johnson’s words, “The people of the North have never realized, and probably never will realize, the courage that was required for a man to stand up for the Union in Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia or Maryland.” He went on to clarify. “In the ‘border states’ it was not only neighborhood against neighborhood but family against family, father against son, husband against wife, slave against master. That Johnson or any other man had the moral or physical courage to stand up against an overwhelming sentiment in his own state in that critical era is one of the marvels of history.”
For eight years Johnson did not live in his beloved Greeneville because as he said “he was a fugitive from tyranny.” His close family supported him. His oldest son, a Union surgeon, was killed in battle. The second son served as a Union colonel and the youngest son developed tuberculosis because of malnutrition. His two daughters were married to Union supporters and suffered. Worst of all his Eliza became a lifelong invalid because she too developed tuberculosis.
Johnson and his son Robert did not move to the White House until May 25. In August of 1865 two carriages brought the rest of the family. One daughter Mary was widowed and had three children. The other daughter Martha was married to a senator and they had two children. That made twelve extras under one roof and yet those families lived together for four years without friction or disputes. Both Mary and Martha served as official hostesses for the president.
Eliza was very tired from the journey and they settled her first. She chose a corner room which looked out on elms, the mall and the Potomac. She seldom appeared at White House parties but was very aware of all the controversy surrounding her husband. During his impeachment trial she would allow no change in regular activities or cancellation of receptions. Only one vote saved Johnson from impeachment.
Of their love an aide said, “They seemed as two souls and minds merged as one. Their marriage was the nearest to ideal I’ve ever seen or known and yet they were as unlike temperamentally as was possible for two human beings to be.”
Eliza was described as having sweet, gentle ways with an abundance of patience, common sense and a never failing sympathy for the less fortunate. Those who knew her well related that when Andrew’s temper flared Eliza had only to say “Andrew, Andrew” and he was calmed.
Johnson served his four years and in 1875 he returned to Washington as a senator. That summer he died and as he asked he was wrapped in a new 37 star flag and his head rested on the 1835 constitution he had used. Eliza died the next summer and rests beside him.