17. Andrew Johnson

Johnson Birthplace (12/7/07)

Johnson house

The Chris White 2007 Tour of the Birthplaces of Presidents Who Were Former Apprentices is now over. We'll have the t-shirts availble for sale soon. Stop one: Summerhill, NY, the birthplace of Millard Fillmore. Stop two, Raleigh, NC, the birthplace of Andrew Johnson. Our tour motto: TASTE THE SQUALOR!

Sure, you can get the life story at the Johnson sites in Greeneville, Tenn. But it's nice to actually see the alleged place where it all began. Alleged because they don't keep great records for the dirt poor (and what records they do keep are often on the back of used pizza boxes), so they had to lean on oral histories to figure out in which structure the magic happened. It was the kitchen of an inn in downtown Raleigh -- the family worked downstairs (his mom a weaver, his dad taking care of the horses at the inn) and lived in a tiny loft upstairs. The loft is where Johnson came into the world on December 29, 1808.

The demand for inns with stables dropped off somewhat over the decades, so the (alleged) birthplace has been shuffled around a bit. The building is now sitting at Mordecai Historic Park, which is a lot like a zoo, but instead of animals they have historic North Carolina buildings. They're fed on a regular basis, and while attempts to breed the buildings have been largely unsuccessful, they do seem comfortable.

The building itself is underwhelming, but isn't that what America is all about? People of humble origins rising up to lead their fellow man? Assuming those people are white males, of course?

As for the original site of the building, it's now an alleyway two blocks from the State Capitol. There's a rock with a plaque in it. Dogs probably pee on the rock. Good stuff.

Historic Site / Grave (July 17, 2011)

Andrew Jackson was a teenaged prisoner of war, Bill Clinton had an abusive stepdad, and JFK was allowed only two hookers on the yacht at a time. But no president had a more Dickensian arc to his life than Andrew Johnson:

When he was a toddler, his dirt-poor father fell ill and died after rescuing two people from drowining in icy waters. His stepfather was a scumbag and his illiterate mom signed him and a brother up for an apprenticeship with a tailor. He got in trouble for throwing rocks at a woman's house -- to get the attention of a love interest, according to family legend -- and went on the lam for a few years. With a $10 bounty on his head, he moved around and tried to scrape by, but on hearing reports of his mother's desperate condition he risked going back to Raleigh.

Cue the dancing newsies!

He put her on a horse cart and took the family west, to Tennessee, where he set up a tailor shop of his own and found a bride. It was supposedly love at first sight. So at age 18 he was married, and taking care of his family. His wife helped him improve his reading skills, and he hired men to read to him while he worked. Put in some musical numbers and you've got the first act of a Broadway smash. At the Johnson historical site in Greeneville, you pick up the story right around Act II.

That's the shop itself, preserved inside the visitor center, which will in turn be inside Andrew Johnson Funland and Splash Center, the largest collection of Andrew-Johnson-themed waterslides in Northern East Tennessee (opening 2024). Tailoring was key to Johnson's political career; if you run the spot where the elite meet for fashion treats, and you stitch coats that make their butts look good, you're going to make some friends. And if you're discreet about which Freemasons like frilly underthings, then you're going to make some really powerful friends. So Johnson climbed the ladder. He was chosen for town government, then state government, then national government, championing the little guy at every stop. The family grew, and in the 1850s he set them up at this nice house on Main Street:

It's a modest dwelling. There were rooms for Andrew and Eliza, plus many of their semi-deadbeat adult children. A nice wraparound porch would have let everyone enjoy the breezes. But Jackson's wife had picked up a nice case of consumption somewhere along the way, so the house was never a social place; instead, the Johnsons mostly kept to themselves and coughed up blood.

And before too long, they had to cough blood elsewhere. Whatever his beliefs -- he had acquired some house slaves along the way -- Johnson always insisted on staying true to the Constitution and firmly believed that secession was illegal. Remembering that loyalty to the Union, Lincoln appointed him military governor When Tennessee was conquered territory during the Civil War. He ruled with an iron fist, and was rewarded with the vice presidency in 1865 -- and the undying hatred of Confederate types. Fearing for their safety, the whole family had to pull up stakes and move to Washington.

And so the house was gutted. As various factions rolled through Greeneville, they stripped all the woodwork for fires and scribbled on the walls. They found some of that graffiti while restoring the house in the 20th century: "Andrew Johnson the old traitor" scrawled on a bedroom wall. It wasn't exactly peachy in Washington either. Johnson showed up for his vice presidential swearing-in drunk (he had some shots to control his nerves). That pretty much skunked his reputation from the start. Once in the White House, the Republicans all hated him. He escaped removal by impeachment (to be fair, on flimsy terms) by one vote and had to ride out his term under constant personal and political assault. Plus half the rest of his family got consumption, which had to suck.

But at least he could retire to a town where half the people wanted him dead! It actually wasn't as bad as all that. Even without Secret Service protection, the family wasn't harassed; they mosly were left to live in their modest home and cough up blood in private. A daughter restored the shell of a home to its former glory, and visitors today see it as it existed at the end of Johnson's life. It's nothing fancy. It's not even the biggest house in town. But it seems completely appropriate.

For, as writer David O. Stewart puts it, there are no "fun" Andrew Johnson stories. His life was a slog; he had the hard-earned dignity of self-made man and did not take kindly to insults. He wasn't cheery, or witty, or eloquent. He just did the job however he saw fit. He didn't really have the temperament or skill to be president, but then again, he only signed up to be vice president, a job a potted plant could do.

Johnson lost two more political campaigns after leaving the White House, but actually ended up in the Senate when he died. He's buried on the highest hill in town, wrapped in a flag with his head resting on the Constitution.

Nice, huh? And now, FUN JOHNSON FACTS!

  • Johnson's most promising son died during the Civil War when he was thrown from a horse. His least promising son was a failed lawyer and a drunk who died from a drug overdose in a mental institution in Washington D.C. Parenting is weird, huh?
  • Johnson's slaves were freed when he was military governor of Tennessee, and they came back the next day to work for him as freedmen.
  • As a master tailor, Johnson is the only U.S. President who could successfully compete on "Project Runway."
  • Johnson is buried next to his wife, wrapped in the American flag, with his head resting on a copy of the Constitution, and wearing a beer helmet and sunglasses.
  • Anticipating John Denver, Johnson vetoed Colorado statehood.
  • Johnson waited weeks and weeks following Lincoln's death to move into the White House, because Mary Todd Lincoln had some serious old lady smell going on.
  • His most defining characteristic as a politcian was his steadfast belief in states' rights ... TO PARTY!
  • Republican Sen. Edmund G. Ross of Kansas cast the deciding vote to leave Johnson in office, effectively ending his political career but cementing his right to roger Johnson's daughter at will.
  • Though elected to many offices, Johnson never figured out who you had to do to become Greeneville's dogcatcher.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White