NPR's Robert Siegel interviews University of Virginia historian Barbara Perry about the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Andrew Johnson presidency. Perry explains how he was chosen as vice president, and how he suddenly became president after President Abraham Lincoln's assassination.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
150 years ago today John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln as the president watched a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. The following day Lincoln died, and the presidency of Andrew Johnson began.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
At the moment of the shooting, Vice President Johnson was three blocks away at a hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue asleep. A fellow boarder of Johnson's had been at theater and ran to rouse him and tell him the news. The next day, Johnson became the 17th president, taking the oath of office in his hotel room.
SIEGEL: He made a statement afterwards, and we have a reenactment of it from the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville, Tenn. National Park guide Daniel Luther plays Johnson.
(SOUNDBITE OF REENACTMENT)
DANIEL LUTHER: (As Andrew Johnson) Gentleman, I must be permitted to say that I have been almost overwhelmed by the announcement of the sad event that has so recently occurred. I feel incompetent to perform duties so important and responsible as those which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me.
SIEGEL: Johnson became only the third vice president to become chief executive upon the death of the president he served under and the first as a result of an assassination. Here to talk about Andrew Johnson is Professor Barbara Perry of the University of Virginia. Welcome to the program.
BARBARA PERRY: Wonderful to be with you, Robert.
SIEGEL: And to understate things, Andrew Johnson had a tough act to follow in Abe Lincoln. Was he ready for the job of president when he became president?
PERRY: Yes and no. He had held virtually every public office available to a public officer at that time from local office all the way through the United States Senate. He had been the military governor of Tennessee. Yes, because he was chosen to balance the ticket with Lincoln in 1864 as a Southerner and yet as someone who had supported the Union. But he was not the person for the job - a definite no in terms of his personality, in terms of his views towards the South and how he came to blows through an impeachment situation with the radical Republicans in the Congress at that time.
SIEGEL: As you say, he had been put on the ticket in 1864. When Lincoln was first elected in 1860, Hannibal Hamlin was his vice president, and then the switch was made four years later.
PERRY: Yes. I always think Hannibal Hamlin has to be one of the best vice presidential names ever. But he was removed for the ticket in 1864 because he was from the North.
SIEGEL: I've always heard Johnson described as a tailor. Was he actually a tailor, and was he the last president who actually had a manual trade that he could've lived by?
PERRY: Well, interestingly enough, you come to someone like Harry Truman who had been a haberdasher, and a failed one at that. What I like about the subject of Andrew Johnson and his tailor background was that he was actually apprenticed almost as an indentured servant along with his brother to a tailor to learn that trade. He came from such abject poverty that the only way his mother saw to allow him to have any kind of existence was to almost make him an indentured servant and to learn the trade of tailoring. So he is genuinely one of our up-from-poverty presidents.
SIEGEL: Andrew Johnson was, of course, the first president to be impeached, and by a vote in the Senate he managed to not be removed from office. What were the issues in his impeachment?
PERRY: The issues were partisan in part, and that is because he was there to balance the ticket under Lincoln, so he was of a different ilk. He was of a different party - the war Democrats, they were called. Lincoln, obviously a founder of the Republican Party.
So the radical Republicans in the Congress could simply not stomach Andrew Johnson. Their main legal issue, as they saw it, was the so-called Tenure of Office Act which had been an attempt to limit the powers of the president to remove, for example, members of the Cabinet. But as you point out, he was then one vote short of having been removed from office in the United States Senate.
SIEGEL: Do you think that Andrew Johnson pursued the same policies after the war in the South that Lincoln would have, or do you think that Lincoln, whatever his intention, would have been more adroit at dealing with those issues had he survived?
PERRY: We know that Lincoln, of course, was - as the term you used - an adroit politician, very skilled, very adept. And I think Lincoln would have been able to bind up the nation's wounds. So if you have a spectrum, and you have the radical Republicans on one extreme and perhaps Andrew Johnson on another extreme - especially in how they viewed blacks and the freed slaves of the South - I think the Lincoln would have been in that perfect middle as he was able to find. And given his skills and given the fact that he was such an orator, I believe he would have found a way to bring the South back into the Union in a way that probably would have changed history for the better up to this day.
SIEGEL: What did Andrew Johnson do after he left the White House?
PERRY: Well, he has a very fascinating background in that sense. He's the only president to go back to the U.S. Senate. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1875, but sadly died shortly thereafter of a stroke in his - back in his home of Tennessee.
SIEGEL: Professor Perry, thanks for talking with us.
PERRY: Oh, thank you, Robert. It was my pleasure.
SIEGEL: Political scientist Barbara Perry directs the Presidential Studies program at the University of Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.