8 Things You Might Not Know About Andrew Johnson

National Archives/Newsmakers/Getty Images
National Archives/Newsmakers/Getty Images

The presidency of Andrew Johnson arrived as the result of a tragedy that shook the nation. Johnson—who was born on this day 210 years ago—took office after Abraham Lincoln was shot by assassin John Wilkes Booth in 1865. But that was far from the only notable milestone in Johnson’s term. In addition to buying Alaska, he became the first American president to face the consequences of impeachment. Keep reading for more on Johnson’s hardscrabble life and semi-tragic tenure as leader of the free world.

1. HE NEVER WENT TO SCHOOL.

Born in December 1808 in Raleigh, North Carolina to two working-class parents, Andrew Johnson enjoyed few privileges while growing up. His childhood home was a log cabin; following the death of his father in 1812, he worked instead of attending school and apprenticed as a tailor. Though he taught himself the fundamentals of reading, he didn’t receive a formal education until marrying Eliza McCardle in Tennessee in 1827. McCardle taught him the basics of math and writing, skills that would eventually aid in his acquisition of real estate and lead to prosperity he once considered out of reach. Following his success, he rose in the ranks of Tennessee politics, eventually becoming mayor of Greeneville before entering the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843. He would then become Governor of Tennessee in 1853 and a Senator in 1857.

2. HE STRADDLED THE LINE DURING THE CIVIL WAR.

Johnson was on the wrong side of history when it came to slavery. During his time in the Senate, he continued to advocate for a territory's right to decide whether the practice was allowed. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, seceding confederate states began breaking off from the Union. But Johnson resisted, believing secession was detrimental to the country as a whole, and remained loyal to Lincoln even as his home state of Tennessee joined the confederates. Due in large part to his support for the president as a “Southern Unionist," Lincoln chose him as his vice-president in his run for re-election in 1864.

3. HE HAD A TOUGH INAUGURATION.

In Johnson’s day, typhoid fever was much more common in the U.S. than it is today—and Johnson happened to be struck with the infection shortly before Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1865. Though he made a recovery, he was still feeling ill before the ceremony. To combat the symptoms, he drank whiskey, slurring his words as a result. The public display of his inebriation led to rumors Johnson had a drinking problem. Lincoln himself was forced to address the rumors, reassuring Washington that they hadn’t just ushered a drunk into the Executive Branch.

4. HE WAS ALMOST KILLED ALONG WITH LINCOLN.

Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865—and if Booth had had his way, he would have taken several more lives that day, including Johnson’s. Meeting with three co-conspirators before their fateful encounter with Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, Booth instructed two of them to kill Secretary of State Seward and then told the third man, George Atzerodt, to attack Johnson. Around the same time Booth was preparing to shoot the President, his cohorts attacked Seward at his home, stabbing him to near-death. Atzerodt took up a post at a nearby hotel where he knew Johnson was staying and attempted to work up the courage to knock on his door and shoot him. But Atzerodt couldn’t do it. He went for a walk instead. After Lincoln’s death and a rash of arrests, he confessed his role in the crime and was hanged on July 7 of that year. Johnson, now the president, signed an executive decision ordering the man's death.

5. HE BOUGHT ALASKA.

For well over a century, Russia had claimed possession of Alaska, the 586,000-square mile territory first explored by the Russians during an expedition in 1741. Fur trading proved bountiful for years, but a slow decline of the export and increased concern they would be overrun by American or British forces led Russia into discussions to sell the land to the U.S. in the 1850s. After the Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward expressed interest, and by March 30, 1867, Johnson’s administration had secured Alaska for $7.2 million in gold. The property didn’t seem worthwhile to political observers, who labeled it “Johnson’s polar bear garden” and “Walrussia” in mocking editorials. Congress delayed the transaction until Johnson failed to secure the Democratic party nomination for president in 1868.

6. HE WAS IMPEACHED.

Less than three years into his term, Johnson was coming under heavy fire for his Southern philosophy on reconstruction and freed slaves. Under his presidency, southern states began enacting "Black Codes" that limited the rights of African Americans, angering the Republicans holding power in the Senate. Johnson also ignored the Tenure of Office Act of 1867, which was intended to limit the president’s power to dismiss officials without Senate approval: He fired Radical Republican ally and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Considering it a deliberate act of defiance, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson on February 24, 1868 with a vote of 126 to 47. Over 11 weeks, Johnson stood trial in front of the Senate, wisely backtracking on most of the positions that had irritated his political enemies. On May 16 and 26, votes were taken and he was allowed to remain in office for the rest of his term.

7. HE GOT CHASED OUT OF A FEW TOWNS.

While beating the drum for his narrow view of reconstruction in 1866, Johnson went on a speaking tour from Washington to Pittsburgh. Scheduled for 18 days, things started to go sour halfway through, when Cleveland, Ohio crowds greeted Johnson with boos. In Bloomington, Johnson was practically drowned out with a chorus of jeers, the audience surrounding his train begging instead for an appearance by Ulysses S. Grant. Pulling away, Johnson saw an effigy hanging from a pole near the train tracks holding both bread and butter, a nod to the disparaging Bread and Butter Brigade term for his appointees.

8. HE TENDED TO A FAMILY OF MICE.

Following the melodrama of his impeachment, Johnson had largely lost the illustrious status afforded to a U.S. president. Still at odds with Congress over reconstruction, he became less motivated. In the White House, he was said to be preoccupied with a family of mice that had taken up residence in his bedroom. He left out water for them and made sure flour was available in case they wanted something to eat. Following his departure from office in 1869, Johnson served in the Senate—the only president ever to do so following his presidential term—before succumbing to a stroke in July 1875.

Could You Keep Up With Theodore Roosevelt's Ruthlessly Efficient Daily Routine?

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An avid outdoorsman, politician, and quote machine, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was never one to sit idle. The 26th president of the United States (1901 to 1909) regarded the calendar as something to be conquered and fulfilled, never squandered. He employed a number of routines to help him achieve his goals during his presidency and beyond, and each was ruthlessly efficient—particularly when he was on the campaign trail.

In his role as running mate to presidential candidate William McKinley in 1900, Roosevelt adhered to a strict schedule that packed more into one day than some people accomplish in a week. In his book The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, author Edmund Morris detailed Roosevelt's activities:

7:00 a.m. Breakfast

7:30 a.m. A speech

8:00 a.m. Reading a historical work

9:00 a.m. A speech

10:00 a.m. Dictating letters

11:00 a.m. Discussing Montana mines

11:30 a.m. A speech

12:00 p.m. Reading an ornithological work

12:30 p.m. A speech

1:00 p.m. Lunch

1:30 p.m. A speech

2:30 p.m. Reading [Scottish novelist] Sir Walter Scott

3:00 p.m. Answering telegrams

3:45 p.m. A speech

4:00 p.m. Meeting the press

4:30 p.m. Reading

5:00 p.m. A speech

6:00 p.m. Reading

7:00 p.m. Supper

8-10 p.m. Speaking

11:00 p.m. Reading alone in his car

12:00 a.m. To bed

Clearly, Roosevelt had an effective strategy for fulfilling the obligations of his working life while still making time for reading in order to enrich his intellect. The habits grew out of his experience at Harvard, where he balanced his schoolwork with athletic pursuits and other interests. Roosevelt devoted fragments of each day to study and refused to entertain any interruptions. Studying or reading for even half an hour with an appropriate amount of focused intensity, he believed, was more beneficial than sitting for twice as long while distracted by friends, food, or daydreaming.

When he became president following the assassination of McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt's responsibilities grew exponentially, but he remained insistent on a highly organized approach to the day. During one week in February 1903, Roosevelt took up to eight meetings in an hour, averaging 7.5 minutes to conduct whatever business was on the table. During this time, he was also posing for his official presidential portrait by artist John Singer Sargent. Rather than sit for one or two marathon sessions, Roosevelt agreed to pose for just one half-hour a day. On Sunday, he cleared his schedule to unwind and keep up with correspondence.

The ability to concentrate has only gotten harder in an era of screens and buzzing phones, and you might think Roosevelt had it comparatively easier. It might help to remember that, in 1912, he was shot by a would-be assassin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin just before going on stage to give a scheduled speech. He managed to complete the 84-minute speech with a bullet lodged in his ribs. For Roosevelt, nothing was going to interfere with the day's routine.

Think you know everything there is to know about T.R.? Test your knowledge with our quiz, "Did Theodore Roosevelt Do That?"

Can a Person Refuse a Presidential Pardon?

Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Presidential pardons have been in the news, which has led to an onslaught of questions about just how far a president's pardoning powers extend—and what would happen if the person being offered the pardon declined it altogether? Is such a thing even possible, or does the pardoned individual in question have no choice in the matter? Believe it or not, it's an issue that has come up a few times over the past two centuries—and the answer isn't exactly a clear-cut one.

To fully answer the question, first an important distinction has to be made between commutation and pardoning. Both are part of the pardoning powers given to the president, but differ in levels. Speaking to ABC News, Randy Barnett, a professor at Georgetown University, explained that "Pardon is an 'executive forgiveness of crime'; commutation is an ‘executive lowering of the penalty.'" And the answer to the question depends on that distinction.

UNITED STATES V. WILSON

In 1833 the Supreme Court heard the case of the United States v. George Wilson. On May 27, 1830, Wilson and co-conspirator James Porter were both sentenced to death after being convicted of robbing a U.S. postal worker and putting the carrier’s life in jeopardy. While Porter was executed just over a month later, on July 2, 1830, Wilson managed to escape the sentence. President Andrew Jackson decided to pardon Wilson for the death penalty charge on the understanding that he had yet to be sentenced for other crimes (for which he was looking at a minimum of 20 years). For some reason Wilson waived the pardon, possibly because of confusion about what case he was being tried for at the time and what cases the pardon was for.

In 1833, the Supreme Court ultimately weighed in on the issue, ruling “A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered, and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.” (Strangely, the details of whether or not Wilson was ever executed are lost to time.)

BURDICK V. UNITED STATES

This right of refusal was affirmed in 1915. George Burdick, city editor of the New York Tribune, refused to testify regarding sources for articles on alleged custom fraud by invoking his Fifth Amendment rights [PDF]. President Woodrow Wilson then gave a pardon to Burdick, protecting him from any charge he may incriminate himself of during his testimony. The idea behind the pardon was to force Burdick to testify, under the theory that he could no longer be convicted for any acts he may reveal. But Burdick rejected the pardon, continued to invoke his rights, and was found guilty of contempt.

The Supreme Court ruled that Burdick was within his rights to refuse the pardon and as such he did not lose his Fifth Amendment rights.

BIDDLE V. PEROVICH

A 1927 ruling added a new wrinkle to the pardoning issue. In 1905, Vuco Perovich was sentenced to hang for murder, which President Taft commuted to life imprisonment a few years later. Perovich was then transferred from Alaska to Washington, and later to Leavenworth. Perovich eventually filed an application for writ of habeas corpus, claiming that his commutation was done without his consent. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that "the convict’s consent is not required."

This ruling has led decades of legal scholars to wonder if the Perovich ruling overturned these earlier cases, with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. arguing “Whether these words sound the death knell of the acceptance doctrine is perhaps doubtful. They seem clearly to indicate that by substantiating a commutation order for a deed of pardon, a President can always have his way in such matters, provided the substituted penalty is authorized by law and does not in common understanding exceed the original penalty" [PDF].

In other words: You may be able to refuse a pardon, but you would not be able to refuse a commutation.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER