Andrew Johnson presided over the American government during the turbulent years immediately following the Civil War. He did not fare well, nearly becoming the first president removed from office by Congress.
Today people still argue about his legacy. Some consider him a mistreated president who should get credit for helping to preserve the union. Others think less of him.
Rather than tell you the story of Johnson's life, we're going to link you to two web sites that do an excellent job doing so. The first (click here) is one put together by the office of the White House, in Washington D.C. The second (click here) was written by the Miller Center for Public Affairs and the University of Virginia.
The Johnson Homestead
Regardless of how you feel about Andrew Johnson's legacy, you should visit the Andrew Johnson Historic Site in Greeneville -- a place that wonderfully puts in perspective his life and the era in which he lived.
The "site" actually consists of several things, including a visitor's center, Johnson's tailor shop, the two homes in which he lived for most of his life (when he wasn't in Washington or Nashville), and his grave. One of the things that makes the site a treasure is the fact that, compared to most presidential homes, the things surrounding the properties haven't changed much in appearance since Johnson lived here (compared to, say, The Hermitage in Nashville). In Greeneville, you feel like it hasn't been that long since Andrew Johnson was there.
Here are some of the highlights:
Johnson's tailor shop
Visitor's centers are always good places to start tours like this one, and the Andrew Johnson Historic Site is no different. Here you will find exhibits and literature that explain his life and his presidency, which you would expect to find. But in this visitor's center you'll find a few things you might not expect. For one thing, the film on the life of Andrew Johnson is the best visitor's center film shown in Tennessee (in the film, the voice of Andrew Johnson is provided by none other than former U.S. Senator and actor Fred Thompson). The visitor's center is also built around one of the most important structures in Andrew Johnson's life: the wood structure that served as his tailor shop from 1831 until 1843.
They won't let you walk into the tailor's shop. But you can stand beside it and look in. When you do so, you can hear a recording of the types of sounds that might have emanated from the shop when Mr. Johnson operated a business there. If you didn't know any better you might think that the old structure is haunted.
The ballot box
The film at the visitor's center explains the impeachment process, and tells you how President Johnson was impeached by the U.S. House but not removed from office by the U.S. Senate (much like another president named Bill Clinton). After you have seen the film, a member of the staff of the visitor's center will give you a replica of the ticket Congress used way back then. You can then go over to the museum section and vote on whether you think Johnson should have been removed from office or not.
Displays inside Johnson's boyhood home
While you are at the visitor's center, sign up to take a guided tour of Johnson's later home -- also known as the Johnson Homestead -- about three blocks away. While you are waiting for that tour to begin, wander across the street to the home in which Johnson and his family lived in the 1830s and 1840s. Here you will find more information about his life and career. There is a lot to talk about. After all, Andrew Johnson was, during his lifetime, Greeneville city alderman, Greeneville mayor, state representative, state senator, U.S. representative, U.S. Senator, governor, military governor, vice president, and president.
Assuming you take the guided tour of the homestead, you'll hear much more interesting and detailed things then than we can give you now. They'll tell you about the furniture, the paintings, additions to the house, that sort of thing.
Here are a couple of tidbits we found especially fascinating:
During the Civil War the town of Greeneville changed hands from Confederate to Union troops several times. Soldiers and officers from both sides, at various times, stayed in this house. For much of the war, Johnson was Military Governor of Tennessee, appointed by President Lincoln. So to the Confederate soldiers staying here, Johnson was a traitor, and many of them wrote insulting messages to Johnson and left them on the walls so he could read them when he got home. If you look closely at this little piece of wall pictured here you might make out some of the writing left by Confederate soldiers.
And here are some assorted kids' toys that you'll see on the floor of one of the bedrooms. The toys are a touching reminder that this wasn't just the place where Andrew Johnson and his wife Eliza lived, read, ate, slept, and entertained. This is the place where, at various times, many of their five kids and five grandkids lived. Some of the most fascinating stories that you'll hear on the tour have to do with the Johnson children. Ask the tour guide about them.
After you leave the homestead we suggest you take a short drive to the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, where you will find the grave of America's 17th president.
Before he died, Johnson said that when he was dead he would need "no softer pillow than the Constitution and no warmer blanket than the American flag." Because of this, he is buried with his head resting on his copy of the Constitution and his body wrapped in an American flag.
Click here to be taken to the official web page of the Andrew Johnson Historic Site.