Andrew Johnson was born December 29, 1808 in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Jacob and Mary Johnson. He had a brother William four years his elder and an older sister Elizabeth who died in childhood. Johnson's grandfather William was poverty stricken, and left his son Jacob landless and illiterate. In Raleigh, Jacob became town constable and suddenly died shortly after rescuing three drowning men, leaving his family in poverty when Andrew was three. Andrew Johnson's mother tried to support the family by taking in work spinning and weaving, and she later was remarried to Turner Doughtry.
Andrew Johnson's mother bound Andrew as an apprentice tailor; Johnson had no formal education but taught himself how to read and write, with some help from his masters, as was their obligation under his apprenticeship. At age 16 or 17, Johnson left his apprenticeship and ran away with his brother to Laurens, South Carolina. The brothers spent two years in Laurens, working for a tailor. Johnson returned to Raleigh and from there traveled with his mother, stepfather and brother to Greeneville, Tennessee and established a very successful tailoring business in the front of his home; he was joined by a partner, Hentle W. Adkinson.
At the age of 18, Johnson married 16 year-old Eliza McCardle, the daughter of a shoemaker in 1827. The couple remained married married for 50 years and had five children. Though she suffered from consumption, Eliza was consistently supportive of Johnson's endeavors; she taught Johnson arithmetic up to basic algebra and tutored him to improve his literacy, reading, and writing skills.
Entering politics, he became an adept stump speaker, championing the common man and vilifying the plantation aristocracy. He 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 and was dedicated to a limited government. Also a Unionist, but pro-slavery, he was the only Southern senator not to resign his seat during the Civil War, became the most prominent War Democrat from the South and supported Lincoln's military policies. In 1862, Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of occupied Tennessee, where he was effective in fighting and ending the rebellion; he implemented Reconstruction policies in the state and transitioned for a time to a pro-emancipation policy.
Johnson was nominated as the vice presidential candidate in 1864 on the National Union Party ticket. He and Lincoln were elected in 1864, inaugurated in early 1865 and a month later Johnson assumed the presidency upon Lincoln's assassination.
After Lincoln's death, President Johnson proceeded to reconstruct the former Confederate States while Congress was not in session in 1865. He pardoned all who would take an oath of allegiance, but required leaders and men of wealth to obtain special Presidential pardons. By the time Congress met in December 1865, most southern states were reconstructed, slavery was being abolished, but "Jim Crow Laws" to regulate the freedmen were beginning to appear.
Radical Republicans in Congress moved vigorously to change Johnson's program. They gained the support of northerners who were dismayed to see Southerners keeping many prewar leaders and imposing many prewar restrictions on African Americans. The Radicals' first step was to refuse to seat any Senator or Representative from the old Confederacy. Next they passed measures dealing with the former slaves. Johnson vetoed the legislation. The Radicals mustered enough votes in Congress to pass legislation over his veto, the first time that Congress had overridden a President on an important bill. They passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which established Negroes as American citizens and forbade discrimination against them.
A few months later Congress submitted to the states the Fourteenth Amendment, which specified that no state should "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." All the former Confederate States except Tennessee refused to ratify the amendment; further, there were two bloody race riots in the South. Speaking in the Middle West, Johnson faced hostile audiences. The Radical Republicans won an overwhelming victory in Congressional elections that fall.
In March 1867, the Radicals effected their own plan of Reconstruction, again placing southern states under military rule. They passed laws placing restrictions upon the President. When Johnson allegedly violated one of these, the Tenure of Office Act, by dismissing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the House voted eleven articles of impeachment against him. He was tried by the Senate in the spring of 1868 and acquitted by one vote. Johnson's presidency saw the addition of Nebraska to the United States and the purchase of the Alaska territory. Andrew Johnson completed the remainder of Abraham Lincoln's term of office but failed to receive his party's nomination in 1869.