Andrew could hardly miss feeling the striking contrast between himself and the elite. Unlike the children of the rich, he never had a day's schooling in his life; his mother was too poor to afford it, and there were no public schools in Raleigh. And the aristocrats' contempt was scarcely hidden.
Andrew Johnson, having assumed the executive chair in the spring of 1865 upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, had in the summer and fall of that year put into effect a policy for the political reconstruction of the defeated Southern states, the outlines of which for the most part had been laid down by Lincoln himself. Despite some indications in the beginning that Johnson's attitude toward the South might be harsh one, his policy turned out to be quite otherwise.
As the only southern senator who had remained loyal to the Union in 1861, Johnson was appointed military governor of Tennessee by Lincoln, then encouraged the Union-Republican party to make his its candidate for vice-president. When Lincoln died, Andrew Johnson, self-educated poor boy from North Carolina and tailor from Tennessee, became president of the United States.
He was drunk when he was sworn in as vice president---drunk and loquacious. What was to have been an address of perhaps seven minutes stretched into an often-incoherent harangue more than twice that long. Abraham Lincoln, whom Johnson would replace six weeks later at one of the darkest moments in American history, forgave him for the lapse. Mary Todd Lincoln never did.
But the intellect that was in him was aroused through the instrumentality of a Raleigh gentleman, whose practice it was to read aloud to the tailor's employees from books of published speeches. The speeches of some of the British statesmen particularly attracted his attention, and he set about learning to read with the same determination which characterized his later life. By resolute application after work hours and in moments taken from sleep, he soon succeeded and was able to read the speeches and other books for himself.
Determined to vindicate his reputation, Johnson left Washington in March 1869. The best way to restore his standing, so Johnson thought, was to win election to some high political office. Accordingly, he sought election to the U.S. Senate in late 1869, but failed; three years later he unsuccessfully attempted to be elected as U.S. Representative. Finally in 1875, the Tennessee legislature chose him to be U.S. Senator, the first and only former president to be elected to that body.
He repeatedly gave pardons to ex-Rebels. He hampered military commanders' efforts to block the rise of Southern leaders to power. In frequent speeches and interviews, Johnson publicly expressed his defiance of the Radical Republicans. They knew that their program for reconstruction of the South could not succeed with Andrew Johnson in office.
Johnson lost the support of the Republican party when he refused to sign a bill protecting the rights of freed Southern slaves. When he persisted in following Lincoln's plans for reconstruction of the South, Johnson was put on trial by the Senate. In 1868 Johnson became the first president to be impeached; he was spared removal from office by one vote.
By 1834, the young tailor had served as town alderman and mayor of Greeneville and was fast making a name for himself as an aspiring politician. Johnson considered himself a Jacksonian Democrat, and he gained the support of local mechanics, artisans, and rural folk with his common-man tell-it-like-it-is style. He quickly moved up to serve in his state's legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives, and as governor of Tennessee.
On the other hand, he had no tolerance for any talk of breaking up the Union. Furthermore, he criticized President James Buchanan for not dealing sternly and swiftly with the Southern rebels during the last months of his administration. He believed that the secessionist movement was a conspiracy of the planter elite and had to be stopped by force if necessary.