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By Annette Gordon-Reed
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Annette Gordon-Reed
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The Tailor's Apprentice
He began life in that most American of clichés. Andrew Johnson actually was born in a log cabin. Unlike other mere pretenders, the seventeenth president of the United States could justifiably claim a primal connection to the nineteenth century's most potent symbol of political simplicity and virtue. By the time Johnson appeared on the political scene, the pure and unspoiled common man — with no family name or fortune, no easy-street childhood — who rose by dint of his innate talent and hard work, was the preferred hero of the day. He was the legitimate representative of "the people." The worship of — or, to be less pejorative, faith in — "the people" and the common man first emerged as a political force with the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and the triumph of his Republican Party over the Federalists. It was a controversial proposition that flourished initially because the men who championed it were not actually "common" themselves. As only the notoriously anti-Communist Richard Nixon could have opened China, Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, members of the southern gentry all, made the idea of non-elite participation in the government a viable concept. If they could bow to the will of the plain people of their society, everyone should.
As time passed, and the franchise expanded to take in the great bulk of ordinary white men, it was only natural that those men would want to place in office individuals who came from their ranks, not only at the local level but in the highest offices in the land. The much more ancient and traditional vision of rule by elites held on until Andrew Jackson arrived and made support for popular democracy, disdain for elitism, and the belief in improvement, by individuals and society in general, the supposed defining characteristics of the American identity. The democratization of the political process moved the United States even farther away from Europe and continued the promise of the American Revolution. It made possible the rise of Abraham Lincoln, and it also brought forth Andrew Johnson.
* * *
Andrew, the third child of Jacob and Mary (Polly) Johnson, was born on December 29, 1808, in Raleigh, North Carolina. The couple's eldest was William. Their second, a daughter named Elizabeth, died as a child. Although it was the state capital and a county seat, there was not much to Raleigh, with so little to commend it that officials of the government did not even want to live there. Still, it did have some of the trappings of a capital city: a statehouse and hotels, two of them, to house the representatives who came to town when the legislature was in session. One of the hotels was a stopping point for the stagecoach, going north and south, linking the small backwoods town to other parts of the country. So, from the very beginning, young Andrew had access to the larger world outside his own very small village.
Jacob and Polly were illiterate. It is unlikely, therefore, that either could have directly contributed to Andrew's intellectual life and growth. As things would turn out, Jacob was not long enough in his youngest son's life to have much of a personal impact. Jacob Johnson's story was that of man who achieved a small measure of success following much hardship. After holding a succession of odd jobs, he was able to make a fairly stable living for his family working as a porter in the State Bank of North Carolina. One perhaps gets a glimpse of the son's talents in the father, for, though he was quite poor, Jacob made a good impression on his neighbors — that was how he got to be a porter in the bank, and how he was able to become a constable and "captain of the town watch as well as the city bell ringer." Ambition, then, seems to have been a family trait.
Jacob Johnson made his greatest mark in life with an act that deprived his wife of a husband and his sons of a father. He was standing on a pier one day when he saw a boat containing three men, including the editor of the town newspaper, the Star, capsize. He jumped in to help the men and, indeed, pulled them to safety. But the strain of the effort weakened Jacob severely. Although he recovered enough to leave his home and return to work, he died soon after the episode, most likely of a heart attack, as he rang the town bell. Because he had become a respected figure, and probably because he had saved the town's newspaper editor, an admiring obituary appeared in the local paper. It mentioned that "in his last illness he was visited by the principal inhabitants of the city, by whom he was esteemed for his honesty, sobriety, industry, and his humane, friendly disposition."
Jacob's death was a disaster for his family. Polly Johnson was left to care for two boys all by herself. She was no stranger to hard work, having plied her trade as seamstress and laundress in a shop and in the private homes of more wealthy families. But a woman alone in those days, a poor woman at that, was vulnerable. In fact, even before Jacob died, an air of vulnerability attached to Polly in a way that illustrates the social meaning of being poor and white during Andrew Johnson's early years.
Polly was a laundress for John Haywood, a prominent lawyer in town. Because her son Andrew so resembled Haywood, people in the town suggested that he, rather than Jacob Johnson, was Andrew's biological father; that, and probably the fact that Andrew was so different from his older brother. Observers could look at Andrew with his "dark complexion," "black hair" and eyes, and then look at William with his "freckled face," "light hair and fair complexion" and wonder what could have happened. There was even alternative gossip suggesting that another lawyer in town, William Ruffin, was Andrew's real father.
There is little doubt that the structure of Jacob and Polly's family life made it easy for people to talk about them in this way. The couple's mode of living missed nearly every one of the marks of the kind of independent and respectable life that their son would come to champion in later years. The idealized common man, particularly the farmer, was virtuous primarily because he was not beholden to anyone. He had his own land that he and his children could work and raise crops to feed themselves and sell any surplus. His wife worked in the home, preparing food for the family and making any clothing they needed. If he was an artisan, he had a specific skill that others did not possess, but needed, and for which they were willing to pay. His talent ensured his independence. This was important for one's social standing because independence preserved virtue. It prevented people from having to do degrading things or compromise themselves. People of the "better sort" knew the things that propertyless, unskilled men and women had to do in order to survive, because in many cases they were the ones making them do these things.
With no property of his own, Jacob Johnson had to rely on other men for his family's basic sustenance. Polly Johnson worked outside the home, doing the same types of jobs that enslaved women did — being a seamstress for other people and washing their clothing. Although she was free and white, she was still vulnerable, as enslaved women were, to the sexual advances of employers. This did not happen to all female servants, of course, but that Polly Johnson was in the position where it could have happened allowed others to more easily question her virtue. The rumors about her having had a child by one of her employers had instant plausibility in these times precisely because people knew the hazards women faced when they worked in domestic settings where males unrelated to them were present. People would have thought twice, or more, about making these types of statements about a wife who worked only in her own home. An air of respectability would have served as her cloak.
Hans L. Trefousse, Johnson's principal modern biographer, notes that stories about Johnson's paternity "surfaced frequently during [his] later campaigns and during his presidency" and that it is "unlikely that they were heard at the time he actually lived in Raleigh." There is no way of knowing how likely or unlikely it was that anyone ever suggested during Johnson's boyhood, or in the years before he became a prominent figure, that his legal father was not his biological father. Not all town gossip makes it into newspapers or contemporary letters, and it is only logical that stories about people who become prominent tend to come to the fore when there is a reason to write about them. No one thought the young man and his family worthy of memorializing, other than when his father risked and lost his life saving three men from drowning. Both Haywood and Ruffin were respected figures, lawyers at that. Gossip about them from an identifiable source might bring a defamation suit. Trefousse rightly suspected that a heavy dose of class bias triggered the rumors. Johnson started so far down in the world that it was hard for some people to understand how he could have risen to the heights he achieved. Could a president of the United States come from the family Jacob and Polly created? Giving him an "upper class" father might explain Johnson's rise.
If class snobbery truly did help fuel talk about Johnson's supposedly ambiguous paternity, isn't there a contradiction? How did people of that time square the fetish for the common man with skepticism about the natural worthiness of a person like Andrew Johnson? The answer is that there is common, and then there is common. The Johnsons' poverty was not genteel. They were no fallen gentry with money gone but all the values attributed (rightly or wrongly) to the emerging middle and upper classes intact. Nor could Andrew be portrayed as a poor farm boy in a narrative that played to the American romance with the land, the Jeffersonian belief that "those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if he ever had a chosen people." The Johnsons were seen by the better sort in Raleigh simply as "white trash," outside the group of the ordinary, perhaps even poor, but struggling people who might escape that appellation. And as selfless and admirable as it was, Jacob's heroism in diving into the deep to save several of his neighbors brought his family to a state of near destitution, pushing them farther onto the social margins. Polly remarried, but her second husband, Turner Doughtry, was as poor as she. They, white people, in a country that most whites believed had been made for them, had next to nothing.
And then there came the coup de grâce. Things got so bad that Polly had to sell the labor of her children to a third party. In desperation she turned to the apprenticeship system, binding her eldest, William, to Thomas Henderson, one of the men whose life Jacob Johnson had saved. Henderson apparently took the boy on out of a sense of gratitude and guilt, though providing school fees for one or both of the Johnson boys to give them a basic education would seem to have been a better way to repay his debt to their father. After a time, she moved William to the shop of James Selby, a tailor. Ten-year-old Andrew soon followed his brother there, and he was bound out to Selby until his twenty-first birthday.
They would not have known it, but even as Polly bound her young sons over to local businessmen to learn trades, a fierce debate raged about the usefulness and fairness of the practice. Supporters saw apprenticeship as way of promoting work and moral character in the youngsters bound out. Critics such as Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations, felt that long apprenticeships like Andrew's were inefficient, wasting valuable time and keeping young people away from the kind of education that would make them more productive citizens as adults. Smith's complaint was moot for the Johnsons because there was no money to educate the Johnson boys.
Smith was right. It did not take eleven years to learn the basics of becoming a tailor. There still remained, however, the problem of what to do with the children of people who had fallen on hard times. Ideally masters were supposed to serve as a form of surrogate parent to their apprentices. In addition to instructing them in a trade and giving them room and board, they were to teach their charges the alphabet and set examples that would show the youngsters how to become upright and functioning adults. There is little indication that beyond teaching Andrew the rudiments of being a tailor Selby himself had any great effect on the boy. He left it to one of his employees to teach Andrew his letters, and Andrew did not even board with him full-time. He often stayed home with his mother and stepfather. During those times, Polly was paid cash "in lieu" of her son's board, an arrangement that probably suited the struggling family even better. They could have their boy at home occasionally and have money in hand for household expenses.
It is significant that the Johnson family travails were unfolding in a society where racially based slavery put its own peculiar stamp on social relations, making people very aware of their place within the hierarchy. In this setting, being free was clearly better than being enslaved, and being white was better than being black. But what of the people who lived in a state between freedom and slavery? As a contracted apprentice Andrew was far from being a slave. He and his brother did not have to serve for their lifetimes. Although Selby could apply moderate correction to the Johnson boys, he could not go as far as he could have gone when meting out punishments to an enslaved person. Besides, in those days, children were regularly subjected to corporal punishment. But the sort of apprenticeship that Johnson was under — the restrictions it placed on him and what it told him about the precarious nature of his family life — was close enough to the state of not being free for comparisons to slavery to be made. Polly and her boys were less "free" than other families who were not involved in the apprenticeship system. Thus the family was not reaping the full benefits of being white in the society where they lived.
The idea of white supremacy gave people in the Johnsons' social position a sense of identity that softened the reality of their downtrodden existence. While there is no question that as a free person Andrew was legally better off than an enslaved boy, and would have thought of himself as superior to any black person, the question of actual racial superiority was more problematic. Thinking one is superior to others, and acting that way, does not make it so. Moreover, when nothing in one's material circumstances signals superiority, it can create nagging doubts. What beyond their white skin did poor whites have to show for being better than blacks? The closer they came to blacks, in terms of the way they lived, their lack of social standing, independence, and putative lack of virtue, the more anxious they grew. Having nothing themselves, they claimed superiority by asserting that a common skin color linked them to the talents, actions, and accomplishments of others who looked like them.
Not every poor white person felt this way. Some saw points of commonality with the people of a different color who labored and struggled as they did. They believed that poor whites and blacks were being manipulated by the elites with a policy of "divide and rule." Those at the top of society were hoping that their lower-class white counterparts would never figure this out and decide to form bonds with blacks that might effectively challenge their power.
We can never know for certain, but it was probably during these early years that Andrew Johnson began to develop his very deep-seated obsession with the wrongs that poor whites suffered at the hands of the planter class and their alleged enslaved coconspirators. In Johnson's later formulation, slavery was not primarily the destroyer of black lives. Its chief harm was that it prevented lower-class whites from rising to take their rightful place at the head of the table — that and all the race mixing that was going on within the institution. As his actions during his presidency suggest, Johnson's much-vaunted hatred of the southern planter class was born of deep envy and a form of unrequited admiration. It was the burning hatred of a lover spurned and scorned. All it took to quench the fire was for the lover to be put in the position to receive suitable attention from the object of his secret affection.
Historians have noted the vindictive way that President Johnson made the disgraced Confederate grandees come before him personally to, in effect, beg to be readmitted into the United States. He made a great show of this. And then, with great alacrity after those initial meetings, he pardoned them and sought to put them into virtually the same positions of power they held before the war. This was long after his early years in Raleigh, but Johnson's treatment of these men resembles the ending of a modern-day high school revenge fantasy. The boy who couldn't get a date dreams of attending his class reunion under circumstances that required everyone who turned him down to ask a favor of him. "Just wait," one can almost hear young Andrew saying, "they'll be sorry!"
Johnson's later bravado and talk about the glories of the "Anglo-Saxon" race notwithstanding, he had brushed up close to the nightmare of dependency and social degradation. He was the school-age boy who knew that others his age were going off to school to receive the kind of education he understood was the gateway to a more stable and prosperous life. The town had the usual complement of wealthy people who participated in the kinds of activities that showed the power of their social position. Johnson wanted that for himself. His desire for it burned. And it was in Selby's shop that he got his first notion that his wishes might be fulfilled.
Excerpted from Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed. Copyright © 2011 Annette Gordon-Reed. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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