Andrew Johnson (his full name) was born in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was born into relative poverty. His father Jacob was the town constable of Raleigh, but died of an apparent heart attack when Andrew was three, while ringing the town bell, shortly after rescuing three drowning men. His mother Polly Johnson had worked as a washerwoman. She continued in that occupation in order to support her three children, of which Andrew was the youngest.
Johnson became a tailor and moved to Tennessee to embark on a political career. He was a self-educated man and reputed to be a good speaker. He married Eliza McCardle when both were teenagers. They had five children together. Johnson served as an alderman and as Mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee and then sat in both houses of the Tennessee legislature. He went on to spend five consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and two terms as Governor of Tennessee, all as a Democrat.
When Tennessee seceded from the Union in 1861, Johnson was a Democratic U.S. Senator from Tennessee. He was a staunch unionist who had campaigned against secession and was the only Southern senator not to resign his seat during the Civil War. Despite his strong union sentiments, he supported the institution of slavery. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of occupied Tennessee, where he was effective in fighting the rebellion and aiding the Union cause.
Johnson was nominated as the vice presidential candidate with Lincoln in 1864 on the National Union Party ticket. He and Lincoln were elected in 1864, and inaugurated in early 1865. According to many reports, Johnson was quite drunk when he was sworn in as Vice-President. A month later, Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson assumed the presidency. A co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth had chickened out of his part in the plan, which was to kill Johnson.
Johnson's presidency is perhaps best encapsulated in this summary of his biography in the American Presidents Series by Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reid:
Andrew Johnson never expected to be president. But just six weeks after becoming Abraham Lincoln's vice president, the events at Ford's Theatre thrust him into the nation's highest office.
Johnson faced a nearly impossible task to succeed America's greatest chief executive, to bind the nation's wounds after the Civil War, and to work with a Congress controlled by the so-called Radical Republicans. Johnson was ill-suited for this daunting task. His vision of reconciliation abandoned the millions of former slaves (for whom he felt undisguised contempt) and antagonized congressional leaders, who tried to limit his powers and eventually impeached him.
The climax of Johnson's presidency was his trial in the Senate and his acquittal by a single vote, amidst drama and palpable tension. Despite his victory, Johnson's term in office was a crucial missed opportunity; he failed the country at a pivotal moment, leaving America with problems that we are still trying to solve.
Johnson almost didn't become President. He was supposed to be assassinated on the same night as Lincoln, but he escaped attack when his would-be assassin, George Atzerodt, failed to go through with the plan and got drunk instead. Johnson had been nominated as the vice presidential candidate in 1864 on the National Union Party ticket as part of Lincoln's plan to show unity and to show that he was first and foremost concerned with preserving the union, even above ending slavery. Johnson was a pro-union man, and remained one even after the war began. But he was also in favor of slavery. He and Lincoln were elected in 1864, inaugurated in early 1865 (Johnson got drunk at his inauguration according to many reports) and a month later Johnson assumed the presidency upon Lincoln's assassination.
As president, Johnson implemented his own form of Presidential Reconstruction, a series of proclamations directing the seceded states to hold conventions and elections to re-form their civil governments. It wasn't the reconstruction that Lincoln had articulated and certainly not the one the abolitionist "Radical Republicans" had in mind. These proclamations along with Johnson's rush to bring the former Confederate states back into the union without due regard for freedmen's rights and his vetoes of civil rights bills embroiled him in a bitter dispute with the Radical Republicans who became infuriated with Johnson's lenient policies. The Radicals in the House of Representatives impeached him in 1868 (a first for a U.S. president), charging him with violating the Tenure of Office Act, when he sought to remove his Secretary of War without Senate approval. His trial in the Senate ended in an acquittal by a single vote.
After his term as President ended, Johnson traveled extensively throughout the country to reiterate his views, especially on reconstruction. He campaigned for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1869, but lost by a narrow margin. In 1872 he ran for election to fill Tennessee's new at–large seat in the House of Representatives. He lost in this election as well. In 1873 Johnson contracted cholera during an epidemic but soon recovered. He also suffered financial losses of about half of his assets when the First National Bank went under. In 1874, the Tennessee legislature elected him over five other candidates to the U.S. Senate. In his first and last speech in the Senate, Johnson spoke eloquently in opposition to President Ulysses Ulysses Grant's military intervention between rival governments in Louisiana. He is the only former president to serve in the Senate after serving as president.
During a Congressional recess, Johnson died from a stroke that he suffered near Elizabethton, Tennessee, on July 31, 1875. When he was buried, his body wrapped in an American flag and a copy of the U.S. Constitution was placed under his head, according to his wishes.