Exploring The Parks: Andrew Johnson National Historic Site

Eliza Johnson's bedroomAndrew Johnson cemetery

Eliza Johnson's bedroom in the Homestead. The Johnson family plot at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. Photos by Danny Bernstein.

As every schoolchild knows, or should know if he or she was paying attention, Andrew Johnson was the first U.S. president to be impeached. For most of us, that's the only thing we know. However, there's a lot more to this complex man. Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville, Tennessee, tells the story of the 17th president and the impact he had on the United States.

A Little History

Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) was born in Raleigh, North Carolina. His father died when he was just three years old. When he was just 10, his mother apprenticed him to a tailor, a position he was supposed to hold until he turned 21. However, after a few years he ran away and eventually settled in Greeneville in eastern Tennessee in 1826. He opened up a tailor shop there, and soon married Eliza McCardle.

While Johnson had no formal education, his wife helped to improve his basic skills in math and writing. While his tailor business flourished, Johnson found time to enter the political arena, and he moved up the political ladder in a methodical manner: alderman, mayor, state representative, state senator, U.S. Representative, governor of Tennessee, and U.S. senator.

Though Andrew Johnson lived in the South, he was a Southern Democrat loyal to the Union cause. When Tennessee seceded from the Union, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Johnson the military governor for the state. Three years later, he became Abraham Lincoln's vice-president.

When President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Vice President Johnson was elevated to president. As president, Johnson was not popular with his Republican Congress. He refused to compromise. As Daniel Luther, a ranger at the historical site, puts it, "He wasn't one of them. He wasn't a good smoozer."

President Johnson vetoed more bills than any other president before him. He wanted to readmit the Southern states much as they were before the war but without slavery. He battled with Thaddeus Stevens, the character played by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie Lincoln.

His frictions with Congress left his opponents anxious for an excuse to get rid of Johnson. They passed the Tenure of Office Act, which required Senate approval before a president could remove an appointee.

President Johnson, however, was not to be swayed. He declared the Tenure of Office Act unconstitutional and removed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. That was the excuse that Congress needed. The House moved to impeached President Johnson, and the Senate tried him, but the chamber failed by one vote to muster the two-thirds majority necessary to convict him. It was certainly a close call.

During his four years in office, Andrew Johnson did more than just survive impeachment. He purchased Alaska from Russia. He started the Easter egg roll on the White House lawn. He was the voice for the working class. As a senator, he had introduced the Homestead Act, which President Lincoln signed in 1862.

President Johnson believed in the strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, he vetoed the Freedman's Bureau, which provided aid to ex-slaves. He also pardoned Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was suspected as an accomplice in the assassination of President Lincoln and imprisoned on Dry Tortugas off the tip of Florida. That was one more decision that could not have endeared him to his Republican Congress.

There was no way that Johnson was going to run for president for a second term. He returned to Greeneville, though he later was re-elected to the U.S. Senate.

The Andrew Johnson site became a national monument in 1942 and a national historic site in 1963.

How to see Andrew Johnson National Historic Site

Ideally, you'll be able to set aside most of a day to see the site and talk to the rangers. The site consists of four separate locations--visitor center, early home, the Homestead, and cemetery. The Homestead can only be seen on a free guided tour, offered almost every hour on the half-hour. To start your visit, park at the Visitor Center.

Visitor Center

Make a reservation to tour the Homestead later in the day. Then watch the 14-minute film, which will give you a good understanding of Andrew Johnson's life and the political conditions of the times.

Andrew Johnson's first tailor shop, a wooden building, is inside the visitor center. To preserve the building, the State of Tennessee erected a building around it in 1926 and opened it to the public. You can peek in the tailor shop, but it's surrounded by railing. The Memorial Building, which encloses the tailor shop, was later deeded to the National Park Service.

After seeing the exhibits on Johnson's interaction with Congress, you can decide if he was guilty or not guilty. You'll get a ticket and vote by putting the ticket into one of two boxes - guilty, not guilty. The ballots are counted once a year. Not guilty wins each time by a large margin.

If you're lucky, Ranger Daniel Luther will greet you from behind the visitor desk. Ranger Luther was in the theater for 30 years. "What is a NPS uniform but a costume?" says the ranger, who plays Andrew Johnson at various events at the site and in town.

Early Home

Across the street from the visitor center, you can tour his early home on your own. Johnson and his family lived in this modest two-story brick home from the 1830s until 1851.

The Homestead

The Homestead, President Johnson's home, is a block-and-a-half up Main Street from the visitor center. The tour starts on the porch. Ranger Kendra Hinkle grew up in Greeneville and started volunteering at the site when she was still in high school. "They couldn't get rid of me, so they hired me," she said. Now she's a park ranger who leads tours of the Homestead.

As Andrew Johnson moved up in the world, he became quite wealthy and acquired a great deal of land in the area. He had a few household slaves, who stayed on as servants after the Civil War. The home is restored to its appearance in 1869 after Andrew Johnson returned from Washington. The house has six bedrooms, a dining room, parlor, kitchen on the bottom floor.

Outside, the two-acre plot of land had a vegetable garden, a smoke house, and the privy. His two daughters, three sons, and five grandchildren lived here on and off. All three sons died early in life: one in the Civil War, one by laudanum poisoning, and one from tuberculosis. It was a hard life, even for supposedly rich folks.

Eliza also had tuberculosis so she had her own bedroom where she could rest during the day. Greeneville changed hands many times during the Civil War and both Union and Confederate forces stayed in the house. Though new wallpaper was hung after the family came back from Washington, the National Park Service exposed some graffiti written on Eliza's bedroom walls by Civil War soldiers. One pencil scrawl said Andrew Johnson the old traitor.

The president's descendants lived here until 1956. Margaret Johnson Patterson Bartlett, the president's great-granddaughter who was the last person to live here, would dress up as Eliza Johnson and give tours. She petitioned government officials to have the house preserved.

Andrew Johnson National Cemetery

Andrew Johnson is buried on a hill a few blocks from his home on his own land. "It was probably a cow pasture," said Ranger Jim Small. In his coffin President Johnson was wrapped in a flag with a copy of the Cnstitution beneath his head. Eliza, who died six months later, is buried next to him, and many of his descendants are buried in the cemetery, too.

Veterans and their dependants are buried in the rest of the cemetery. Ranger Small explained that "Andrew Johnson Cemetery is only one of two National Park Service military cemeteries still open to new veterans; the other is Andersonville National Historic Site."

Talking to the Rangers

One of the pleasures of going to a small historic site early on a weekday is being able to talk to the rangers.

What is it like to have a national park site in the middle of a town? I asked.

One ranger said, "Oh, most people don't know it's a national park." Another said, "businesses have an overinflated idea of the number of people it attracts and the economic impact of the park site." Over 51,000 people visited the park in 2012.

It seems that Andrew Johnson is still a controversial figure, and historians keep bringing out new books on the 17th president. According to Ranger Luther, the American Association of State and Local Historians criticized the historic site for too positive a portrayal of Andrew Johnson. It's natural to feel empathy and affection for a historical figure that you're dealing with every day. After spending several hours with President Andrew Johnson, I too liked the guy.

Nathanael Greene

Greeneville is named for Nathanael Greene, a Revolutionary War general. Greene received 25,000 acres as a land grant but he never lived here. Loyal patriots who settled here honored their hero. If you want more history, visit the Nathanael Greene Museum.

Comments

I just walked a section of the Appalachian Trail which passes Andrew Johnson Mountain, close to Greeneville, TN. It's not much of a mountain and the sign was down. Sad...

Danny