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.

A New Ruth Bader Ginsburg Bobblehead Is Available for Pre-Order

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum
The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum

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The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a devout champion for feminism and civil rights, and her influence stretched from the halls of the Supreme Court to the forefront of popular culture, where she affectionately became known as the Notorious RBG. Though there are plenty of public tributes planned for Ginsburg in the wake of her passing, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum has a new RBG bobblehead ($25) available for pre-order so you can honor her in your own home.

There are two versions of the bobblehead available, one of Ginsburg smiling and another with a more serious expression. Not only do the bobbleheads feature her in her Supreme Court black robe, but eagle-eyed fans will see she is wearing one for her iconic coded collars and her classic earrings.

RBG is far from the only American icon bobblehead that the Hall of Fame store has produced in such minute detail. They also have bobbleheads of Abraham Lincoln ($30), Theodore Roosevelt ($30), Alexander Hamilton ($30), and dozens of others.

For more information on the RBG bobblehead, head here. Shipments will hopefully be sent out by December 2020 while supplies last.

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100 Years Later, the Story of Florida’s Ocoee Massacre—an Election Day Attack on Black Citizens—Is Finally Being Told

Courtesy of Orange County Regional History Center
Courtesy of Orange County Regional History Center

The bloodiest Election Day in the history of the United States is a story many Americans have never heard. On November 2, 1920, the day of the U.S. presidential election, a white mob attacked a Black neighborhood in the city of Ocoee, Florida. Now, the story of the Ocoee Massacre is being told in a new museum exhibition for its 100-year anniversary, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

The exhibit, titled "Yesterday, This Was Home: The Ocoee Massacre of 1920,” is now on display at the Orange County Regional History Center in Downtown Orlando. It examines what the museum calls "the largest incident of voting-day violence in United States history."

On November 2, 1920, a black labor broker named Moses Norman attempted to vote in what is now Ocoee, only to be turned away when he didn't pay the $1 poll tax. He returned later that day to attempt to vote again, and this time his persistence caught the attention of local Ku Klux Klan members.

Knowing his actions had provoked anger, Norman fled town. A mob of armed white men went to the home of his friend July Perry that night while searching for him. Perry, a fellow labor broker, was 50 years old and had been involved in civic activities like registering more Black citizens to vote. Sha’Ron Cooley McWhite, Perry's great niece, told the Orlando Sentinel that his bravery and activism likely made him a target for white supremacists.

July PerryCourtesy of Orange County Regional History Center

The confrontation at Perry's home led to a shootout and ended with the mob capturing Perry and lynching him. The violence raged in the Black neighborhood throughout the night. By morning, the mob of 250 had burned down 22 homes and two churches and murdered dozens of Black residents.

Like many tragedies suffered by Black communities in U.S. history, the story of the Ocoee Massacre is not widely known. Poor record-keeping and intentional suppression of the news has left historians with an incomplete picture of exactly what happened that night. The Orange County Regional History Center had to collect land records, written reports, and oral histories to recount the event in depth.

"Yesterday, This Was Home: The Ocoee Massacre of 1920” is on display at the Orange County Regional History Center now through February 14, 2021.

[h/t Orlando Sentinel]