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Religion In The Lives Of The American Presidents

A series of lectures organized and compiled by the Forum Class, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, Washington DC, in 1976. Full text online

Contents

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson

The lives of people usually begin with these salient facts which shall be listed for this President: Place of birth, near Raleigh, North Carolina; date of birth, December 29, 1808; condition of birth, abject poverty. Many presidents have been born in poverty - a few in log cabins. But all of them seemed to have something if no more than a hunting gun and a Bible. Johnson's father was a poor laborer who died very shortly after his birth. His mother married again, but this man had even less. There is nothing about church or education in the early life of the Johnsons. When he was about sixteen he took his mother and stepfather to Columbia, South Carolina, but there conditions of life were even worse for them if that were possible. Johnson had been apprenticed as a tailor in Raleigh and Columbia and had learned a trade.

In these days there was always the possibility of a new life - the West. For years America solved her economic problems with the vast west just as Russia today is using Siberia to siphon off the surplus labor force that is so rapidly growing. The Johnsons went to Greeneville, Tennessee. Greeneville' nestles close to the Appalachian Range, and at that time was a thriving community. (The town was named for the Revolutionary War hero General Nathaniel Greene.) There Johnson set up shop and there he met and married Eliza McCardle. The McCardles were people of property and had whatever education was available at the time. They were Methodists, and so for the first time we learn of religion in the life of Johnson.

The Johnson home is on Main Street about two blocks from the Methodist Church. Every Sunday morning Eliza and Andrew, and later the little Johnsons (five of them) walked to church. There is no record that Johnson ever joined the church, although all of his family were members. However, today the church claims him. Eliza taught her husband to read and write and to do arithmetic. Daily she sat by him in the shop and read the classics to him. Such was Johnson's education. Years later it was a great source of pride to him when he walked down the well of the House and dropped a bill in the hopper. He had written every word of it. (Today no Congressman or Senator would deign to write a bill. It would be assigned to some aide who in turn would turn it over to the appropriate staff. But then Congress did not have 15,000 employees as it does now.)

Eliza was Andrew's Mark Hopkins and his Harry Hopkins as well as his Eliza McCardle. She was his political mentor and so he climbed the ladder. Alderman on the town council of Greeneville, Mayor of Greeneville, member of the state legislature (the House) , member of the state legislature (the Senate), member of the Congress (the House) , Governor of Tennessee, United States Senator. All of these positions he filled with distinction and honor. And he was in the United States Senate in the fateful year of 1860. This was the year which set the stage for Secession. Lincoln was elected president - a minority party and a minority president was coming into power. All of the Southern Congressmen and Senators, all of the Southern members of the military forces, and all of the Southern employees of the Federal Government resigned, crossed the Potomac, and made ready to join the new coalition of states. All except Andrew Johnson. He was Senator from Tennessee, a Unionist, and as he saw it an American. He had no intention of leaving. His place was in Washington serving the people of his state. 

The war proved to be a real war. It seemed that it would never end. And in 1864 it appeared that Lincoln could not be re-elected. Feeling in the North over the great loss of life under Grant's leadership was such that the Republicans faced defeat. Under this condition they went to Johnson and asked him to accept the vice presidency - a Democrat/ a Unionist, and a Southerner might insure Lincoln's election. And, as always, it was repeated over and over again, "Besides he will never be president anyway."

Lincoln was reelected. He served one month, and Andrew Johnson was President of the United States. No group formed back of him to help him through this time of trial. Instead, bitter Republicans and angry Democrats sharpened their knives and even their axes; a president was to be crucified. At this time Eliza became ill. His chief counselor and adviser could not help him. Between the grindstones of the North and the South he was to be destroyed. 

It is said that Johnson did not conduct himself well. He was charged with being irascible and intemperate, but never with being dishonorable or corrupt. He finished his term under conditions not known by any other president before or since. Going back to Tennessee, he was returned to the Senate, where he spent his last days, flaying those who had tried so hard to wreck his life no matter what cost it may have been to the country.

In all of this time of trial and tribulation, Johnson gives little evidence of dependence on or need for spiritual guidance. He regularly attended the Methodist Church with his wife, but was not openly expressive of religious feeling or belief.

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Photographs by Mathew Brady
Religion In The Lives Of The American Presidents

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Andrew Johnson

Sources
Posted By: Ray Gurganus

  1. Book:Series of Lectures: Religion In The Lives Of The American Presidents; Website
  2. Book:Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, Vol 6; Website
  3. Website:Wikipedia;

Updated: 1-25-2020