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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Andrew Johnson Portraits

A Lincoln-Johnson campaign poster,1864

Andrew Johnson, 1880, Eliphalet 
Andrews, official White House portrait.
Today is the birthday of another one-time President of the United States. Our seventeenth President, Andrew John-son, was born on this date in 1808. Johnson was one of a handful of men elected as vice-president to be suddenly elevated to the presidency as the result of the assassination of his running mate, in this case, Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865. Being inaugurated as President is a difficult situation full of unexpected challenges and circum-stances. Being abruptly thrust into such a high office at one of the most trying times in our nation's history is almost unimaginable. Another vice-president, Harry S. Truman who endured the same situation some eighty years later, put it this way: "I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen upon me." Harry Truman took a bad situation and made the most of it. Andrew Johnson could not.

Andrew Johnson, after 1866,
Washington B. Cooper,  now in the
National Portrait Gallery
Andrew Johnson, as depicted posthum-ously by Eliphalet Andrews in 1880 (above, right) became President at perhaps the second worst possible moment in American history--the just days after the end of the Civil War. Lincoln, four years before, was likely the only President to have come to that office under more dire circumstance. At least, he'd been elected. Johnson, like eight others in American history, was not. Johnson's situation was made worse in that he was nominally a Democrat, but one who, as a Tennessee senator, had continued to support the union when his state seceded. Not only that, but his loyalty to the union included a strong loyalty to the assassinated President and his plans for putting the country back together again following the war. This brought him into a direct confrontation with a radical Republican party controlling Congress, which was more interested in punishing the South than restoring the union.

The impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson,
Harper's Weekly, Theodore R. Davis
Senator Andrew Johnson,
1860, Samuel Shaver
As a result, Andrew Johnson is best re-membered as the first (of only two) Presidents to be impeached by the House of Rep-resentatives, and tried by the Senate. He was acquitted by just one vote. Some might argue that, in retrospect, had Lincoln's generous plans for Reconstruction been carried out by Johnson, despite Republican objections and obstruct-ionism, the nation might have largely been spare more than a hundred years of social conflict we now call the Civil Rights Movement. However, Johnson was no political saint. He was a dyed-in-the-wool racist, opposed to the fourteenth amendment giving former slaves the right to vote, and cared little for their social or economic plight, putting himself in the position of a strong "states rights" advocate. In short, he was a man out of step with the ruling Republican majority and worse, out of step with history.

Unpopular presidents are seldom pursued by artist wishing to paint their portraits.
However, photographers, such as Matthew Brady, weren't so particular.
First Lady
Eliza McCardle Johnson
Andrew Johnson was born into poverty in Raleigh, North Carolina, but moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains area of Greenville, (eastern) Tennessee at an early age. His father died when Andrew was a boy of three. His mother supported the family as a washerwoman. He had virtually no education as a child, becoming a tailor's apprentice when he was ten. He married at the age of eighteen a shy local girl of sixteen named Eliza McCardle who bore him five children, teaching them, as well as her husband, mathematics and how to read. Nearly fifty years later, as First Lady, Eliza McCardle (right) passed most of her White House social duties to her daughter, Martha. It would seem that President Johnson had more urgent items of business than posting for painted portraits. Only one, rendered during his presidency, is known to exist, that of Washington B. Cooper, now in Washington's National Portrait Gallery. It dates from 1866. There are, however, dozens of different photo-portraits of Johnson, principally those of the famed Civil War photographic pioneer, Matthew Brady (above).

Inasmuch as their are so few painted portraits of Andrew Johnson, this colorized image of one of Brady's photographs is all the more interesting, and surprisingly well done.
Part of a series of "Bad Presidents,"
contemporary artist, Jimmy Emery, has
created this painted caricature of Johnson.
Following his narrow scrape with impeachment, Johnson and his wife returned to Tennessee at the end of his single term in 1869. The former president remained active in Ten-nessee politics, seeking vindication, which culminated in his election as Senator in January of 1875, the only former president to return to Congress after his term in office. It was a short-lived moment, a brief special session during which the former president spoke from the floor on the Senate only once. After the session ended, Johnson returned home where he suffered a stroke on July 30th. He died the following day at the age of sixty-six.

Whether he was a "bad president" or not, Andrew
Johnson's bronze personage, joins that of all the other
Presidents (good or bad) on the streets of Rapid City,
South Dakota.


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