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.

When Theodore Roosevelt’s Son Snuck a Christmas Tree into the White House

George Varian, Ladies Home Journal // Public Domain, Courtesy of HathiTrust
George Varian, Ladies Home Journal // Public Domain, Courtesy of HathiTrust

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

On Christmas morning 1902, the children of Theodore and Edith Roosevelt woke up early, got dressed, and began banging on the door of their parents’ White House bedroom. It was there, Roosevelt explained the next day in a letter to James Garfield, grandson of former president James A. Garfield, that “six stockings, all bulging out with queer angles and rotundities, were hanging from the fireplace.”

The six members of the Roosevelt brood were not the only ones to receive gifts that day. Archie, the president’s second-youngest child, had a surprise for his parents, too: a little Christmas tree, which he had hidden in a closet and “rigged up with the help of one of the carpenters.” Hanging from the tree were gifts for the family and some of the Roosevelt’s veritable menagerie of pets: “Jack the dog, Tom Quartz the kitten, and Algonquin the pony, whom Archie would no more think of neglecting [than] I would neglect his brothers and sisters,” Roosevelt wrote.

Christmas trees laden with glittering decorations are now a central part of the White House holiday tradition. The official White House tree is formally welcomed by the First Lady and installed in the Blue Room—a custom that began in 1912. Some first families have opted to deck the White House halls with dozens of Christmas trees. But if Archie Roosevelt hadn’t ferreted his secret gift into the official residence in 1902, there may not have been a Christmas tree in the White House that year, the second of Roosevelt’s presidency.

"There will be no Christmas tree at the White House"

Newspaper reports from the time remarked with interest that the president’s family would not celebrate the holiday with a tree. The New York Sun, for instance, published an article in late December 1902 noting that while the Roosevelts would spend the morning exchanging gifts, “there will be no Christmas tree at the White House.”

White House Christmas decorations
A Christmas tree was set up in the East Room of the White House in 1936 at the end of President Franklin Roosevelt's first term.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publications

Rumors soon began to spread as to why a twinkling evergreen was not part of the family’s planned Christmas decor. A now-ubiquitous anecdote emerged: The president, a staunch conservationist, had imposed a ban on Christmas trees in the White House. And 8-year-old Archie found a way to circumvent the rule, bringing an extra dash of holiday cheer to the residence.

It wasn’t an outlandish theory. Roosevelt was indeed a leading figure of America’s conservation movement, which arose in response to the heavy exploitation of natural resources in the mid- to late-19th century. Though an avid hunter, Roosevelt was troubled by the mass slaughter of big game species like bison and elk. He recognized that the country’s natural resources were finite, its environment vulnerable and in need of protection. During his presidency, Roosevelt created the United States Forest Service and established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and, with the signing of the 1906 American Antiquities Act, 18 national monuments.

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” Roosevelt once wrote. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

"The Forestry Fad"

Some environmental advocates in Roosevelt’s day opposed harvesting evergreens for use as Christmas trees. In late December 1899, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Roosevelt’s predecessor, President William McKinley, had received “many letters … begging Mr. McKinley to refuse to have a Christmas tree.” The writers had “taken up the forestry fad,” decrying the “Christmas tree habit” as “an immense and lamentable destruction of young firs and spruces,” according to the publication.

But Jamie Lewis, historian at the Forest History Society, says he has not found evidence that the 26th president ever took a similar stance on the Christmas tree quandary. In fact, Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service who collaborated closely with Roosevelt on conservation matters, did not believe forests would be harmed by cutting down evergreens at Christmas time.

“Ultimately,” Lewis tells Mental Floss, “[Roosevelt] had no ban on Christmas trees.”

Lewis thinks there is a simpler explanation as to why the president decided to forgo this particular holiday symbol: “As far as I know, it was family tradition that they just didn't have a tree.”

Christmas trees at the White House
Workers put Christmas decorations on the front of the White House in 1939, during President Franklin Roosevelt's second term.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The Baltimore Sun reported as much in a December 1901 article, which explained that “[t]here will be no Christmas tree [in the White House], as a tree has never been part of the celebration of Christmas in the Roosevelt family.” In an earlier article, the same publication suggested that with six children and multiple guests traipsing through the White House, there simply wasn’t enough room for a tree.

“In the private part of the house conditions are such that Mrs. Roosevelt finds she cannot devote a single room to a tree and therefore it has been decided by the President and herself that the children must have their tree at the home of their uncle and aunt,” the Sun reported.

Robert Lincoln O’Brien, a journalist who served as the White House executive clerk during the Cleveland administration, echoes this sentiment in his account of Archie’s surprise Christmas tree, which appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1903. “The main motive of Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt … is to enjoy Christmas as simply as possible,” O’Brien writes. “Almost every room of the White House at the holiday season, in a family of so many children, is overloaded with things; trees upon which to display them would only add so much more.”

"Pagan Symbols"

Today, this might seem like a rather Grinch-like attitude. But at the turn of the 20th century, not every home in America where Christmas was celebrated would have a bedecked evergreen. In fact, Christmas trees had only recently become a widely accepted feature of the holiday season. As late as the 1840s, many Americans, influenced by the country’s Puritan roots, saw Christmas trees as pagan symbols. Immigrants from Germany, where it was common practice to honor the holiday with a decorated tree, helped usher in a fondness for the custom. Even then, however, Christmas trees were typically reserved for households with children; presents would be stored under, or hung from, the evergreen.

Christmas tree at the White House
The White House Christmas tree was arranged in the Blue Room in 1961, during John F. Kennedy's first year in office.
Robert L. Knudsen, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library // Public Domain

The same was true of the America’s first families. “Presidents Grant and Cleveland both had Christmas trees in the White House only because they had young children,” Lewis writes on the Forest History Society website, “while presidents without young children had no tree.”

Roosevelt, of course, had multiple little ones living with him at the White House, which is perhaps why the family’s tree-less Christmas was remarked upon in contemporary newspaper reports.

“They were a dynamic, fascinating family that the press loved covering,” Lewis explains, adding that journalists may have been particularly eager for content as Christmas approached.

“Congress would have adjourned weeks before,” he says. “They weren't working right up until the week before Christmas. So [the media is] desperate for copy, and here we have this fascinating family. I think some of the myth and legend is born out of boredom, frankly.”

The tale of clever Archie flouting a presidential ban in 1902 certainly made for a good story—even if it wasn’t an entirely accurate one. In subsequent years, Lewis writes, newspaper articles not only remarked that the Roosevelts would once again not have a Christmas tree, but also speculated whether Archie would “pull a fast one” on his father.

“An Ideal Christmas”

If there was no ban, it seems more likely that Archie’s intention was simply to present his parents with a nice gift. In his letter to Garfield, Roosevelt describes the tree as a “surprise,” and doesn’t seem cross about the gesture.

“[A]ll the children came into our bed and there they opened their stockings,” he wrote. “Afterwards we got ready and took breakfast, and then all went into the library where each child had a table set for his bigger presents.”

Christmas tree at the White House
Lyndon Johnson set up a modest Christmas tree in the White House in 1963.
White House Photo Office, LBJ Presidential Library // Public Domain

Archie’s tree also may have planted the seeds for a new family custom. In late December 1906, Roosevelt noted in a letter to his sister that “Archie and [his younger brother] Quentin have gradually worked [up] a variant on what is otherwise a strictly inherited form of our celebration, for they fix up (or at least Archie fixes up) a special Christmas tree in Archie’s room.”

That year, the Roosevelt children decorated a second tree for their parents—perhaps to surprise them, now that Archie’s “variant” had become part of the Christmas tradition. While Roosevelt and his wife, Edith, were busy admiring Archie’s tree, “two of the children had [slipped] out,” the president explains, “and when we got back to our own room there was a small lighted Christmas tree with two huge stockings for Edith and myself.”

It was, Roosevelt writes, “an ideal Christmas.”

Scientists Just Created 3D Digital Replicas of John F. Kennedy’s Assassination Bullets

NIST
NIST

Part of the National Archives and Record Administration’s duty is to provide the public with access to its billions of pages of texts, maps, photos, film, and other artifacts of American history—but some of them aren’t so easy to view. The bullets from John F. Kennedy's assassination, for example, have long been considered too fragile for anything but sitting in a climate-controlled vault in Washington, D.C.

However, they recently took a field trip to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where the ballistics team there used advanced microscopic imaging techniques to create breathtakingly accurate 3D digital replicas.

jfk bullet 3D replica
NIST

According to a press release from NIST, the collection includes two fragments from the bullet that killed Kennedy, the so-called “stretcher bullet” that hit both Kennedy and then-governor of Texas, John Connally; two bullets from a test-fire of the assassin's rifle, and a bullet from an earlier unsuccessful assassination attempt on Army Major General Edwin Walker that might have come from the same rifle.

As you can probably imagine, the two fragments from Kennedy’s fatal bullet are the most affecting pieces of the collection. They also give you a pretty good understanding of how difficult it must have been to recreate them—the bits of metal are twisted into gnarled, asymmetrical shapes that look different from every angle.

jfk bullet 3D replicas
NIST

To replicate each miniscule mark, ridge, and divot, NIST physical scientists Thomas Brian Renegar and Mike Stocker spent hours rotating the artifacts beneath the microscope, capturing images from all perspectives, and then combining parts of the images to create full 3D versions of them.

“It was like solving a super-complicated 3D puzzle,” Renegar said in the release. “I’ve stared at them so much I can draw them from memory.”

Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, has generated no small number of conspiracy theories over the years, but NIST and the National Archives made it clear that the project to replicate the bullets was “strictly a matter of historic preservation,” and not in any way a reopening of the case. But once the complete 3D scans are made available in the National Archives’ online catalog in early 2020, members of the public are free to analyze them however they like.

“The virtual artifacts are as close as possible to the real things,” Martha Murphy, the National Archives’ deputy director of government information services, said in the release. “In some respects, they are better than the originals in that you can zoom in to see microscopic details.”

And while Kennedy’s case is closed, the cutting-edge technology used on his bullets will be used in the future.

“The techniques we developed to image those artifacts will be useful in criminal cases that involve similarly challenging evidence,” NIST forensic firearms expert Robert Thompson said in the release.

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