He’s the man who followed Honest Abe, and let’s be honest, Andrew Johnson is one unpopular president. One book I have describes Johnson as a “hard-drinking, racist, self-made man from Tennessee who was snatched from obscurity by Abraham Lincoln only to become the first president in American history to be impeached.” Ouch.
However, after touring his boyhood home you may gain some respect for our 17th president – this guy went through a lot!
While visiting friends in North Carolina, we took a Nerd Trip to Raleigh, Johnson’s birthplace. The Johnson house is what I call a “Bogus Nerd Trip,” in that, the historians are “pretty sure” it’s Johnson’s house, but not 100 percent (apparently there is “reliable lore” that this is THE house). The house itself has been moved three times and now resides in Mordecai Historic Park.
Johnson’s father died when he was very young, and he and his brother were forced into an “involuntary apprenticeship” to a tailor, learning excellent sewing skills, but apparently enduring horrible living conditions.
Things got so bad, Johnson ran away in his early teens, and a warrant was issued for his arrest (Years later he allegedly tried to pay back the tailor, who refused Johnson’s money.)
This fugitive future president made his way to Greenville, Tennessee, opening a tailor shop that is now a national historic site. The Raleigh site has a coat Johnson made as well as some super big tailoring scissors he used.
Johnson did not learn to read as a child, his wife taught him. He became interested in debate and politics, going from mayor to congressman to governor to senator. Although he was from a Southern state and was, as our guide described, “okay with slavery,” Johnson was not okay with the secession of the Southern states.
Johnson stayed in Washington during the Civil War, and President Lincoln apparently appreciated that. Our guide said that when Lincoln was running for re-election, he thought a Southern vice president would help as the nation tried to come together after the Civil War, which probably seemed like a good idea until Lincoln’s assassination.
As you can imagine, many people were not happy with a Southerner in the White House. Our guide described Congress was “extremely uncooperative,” and Johnson became “a paralyzed and ineffective executive.” On the flip side, she said Johnson was notoriously stubborn and did not like to compromise (I always appreciate when guides are forthcoming about a historic person’s faults and foibles).
And, if you think politics is rough now, you should see some of the vicious political cartoons on display at the Johnson house. You can also see tickets and other objects related to Johnson’s impeachment (he survived by one vote). There’s also a souvenir goblet commemorating the purchase of Alaska.
So we can honestly say that we learned a lot at the Johnson house, and we ended our visit on a sweet note with a pit stop at the original Krispy Kreme donut shop!
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