The award for Most Humble Origins goes to Andrew Johnson, hands down. He was born to a sharecropper in North Carolina, but his father died when he was just 3 years old. Never having the money to attend school, Andrew became an indentured servant when he was 14, but eventually ran away to reunite with his mother. Struggling to eke out a living, they hauled all of their belongings over the mountains into Tennessee. It was a budget move; they lugged everything in a two-wheeled cart pulled by a blind pony. Despite the fresh start, the family's prospects never truly improved.
Growing up poor and uneducated in the South likely helped to foster Johnson's verdant racism. Yet, because he was against secession, he was considered loyal to the North. Lincoln spotted him as a Southerner with Northern sympathies and picked him to be his running mate in 1864. Aside from sharing the ticket, the two men didn't have much in common politically.
Following Lincoln's assassination, Johnson was happy to leave the Southern states to themselves to hash out the details of Reconstruction while Congress was conveniently out of session. As a result, "freed" slaves were basically turned into a permanent underclass. Furious, Congress turned against the sitting president, and in 1868, Johnson was impeached. Although it was purely a political maneuver, the move effectively neutered Johnson for the last year of his presidency.
What did Johnson do with his remaining time in the White House? Mainly, he tended to a family of mice living in his bedroom. Seriously. He'd place fresh water next to the fireplace and keep a constant basket of flour for them on the floor. Referring to the mice as his "little fellows," a lonely Johnson appreciated the fact that they didn't care where he came from—or whether or not he'd just been impeached.
Jenny Drapkin is the Senior Editor of mental_floss magazine. We're currently serializing "All The Presidents' Secrets," her fantastic feature from the September-October 2007 issue. Previous Installments: Rutherford B. Hayes, Calvin Coolidge, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt. Tomorrow: Thomas Jefferson.