Andrew Johnson: Remembering a champion of the Church


All the talk about President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial is bringing attention to President Andrew Johnson, who served from 1865-69, the first American chief executive to be impeached, although he was not removed from office by the Senate.

This interest arises as people wonder about the process of presidential impeachment, rare in American history.

Beyond this question, Andrew Johnson should have a place in Catholic history books. When Catholics in this country needed a friend in high places, Andrew Johnson was there, forthright, unwavering and bold, risking political disadvantage for himself. He attended Mass regularly. His children and grandchildren became Catholics.

Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1808. Reared in deep poverty, he never attended school.

In his adolescence, he moved, or fled, to Greeneville, Tennessee, one of the earliest communities of Americans west of the Appalachian mountain chain. In Greeneville, he became an apprentice to a tailor, and he also met a young woman from “the right side of town,” Eliza McArdle.

They were married. She had been properly schooled. While her husband sewed in his little tailor shop, still standing and a historic shrine, she taught him to read and write. She was a Presbyterian but open-minded.

Making friends, despite his rough edges, Johnson quickly climbed the political ladder, being elected mayor of Greeneville, and then he went to Congress.

At the time, Catholics, outside Louisiana and a few other places, were few, powerless and poor in America, most often immigrants from Europe or children of immigrants from Europe. As a rule, they were unwanted. Inevitably, they had a hard time. Think of many immigrants today to get the picture.

Now, it is impossible to imagine how threatened Catholics were at that time. Johnson championed Catholics. His first speech on the floor of the House of Representatives denounced anti-Catholicism.

After two terms in Congress, Johnson returned to Greeneville to run for governor of Tennessee. In the campaign, he blistered his opponent for voicing anti-Catholic views. Johnson was elected.

In 1857, he was sent to the United States Senate. The citizens of Tennessee voted overwhelmingly to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy in 1861, but Johnson, although a slave-owner and supporter of slavery, refused to accept the vote.

Abraham Lincoln thought that Johnson, a Southerner, who endorsed slavery but was loyal to the Union, was the ideal running mate in 1860. The Lincoln-Johnson ticket won, so, as vice president when Lincoln was killed in 1865, Johnson became president.

Rumors circulated that Lincoln’s death resulted from a Catholic plot to put Johnson in the presidency, abetted by the fact that several conspirators in the assassination were Catholics: Mary Surratt and her son, Dr. Samuel Mudd, and, it was alleged, even John Wilkes Booth himself. The pope and the Jesuits at Georgetown were accused of organizing the scheme.

Behind this elaborate, orchestrated Catholic foul play, it was said, was Johnson’s friendliness to the Church. With him as president, Catholics would enjoy favor and even run the country.

These charges were ridiculous, but they showed how well-known was Johnson’s regard for the Catholic Church, and they also demonstrated the fever of anti-Catholicism at the time.

Despite these whispers, Johnson’s fondness for the Church never stalled. He attended Mass every Sunday in a church in Washington. He and Eliza sent their sons to study under the Jesuits at Georgetown, their daughters to the Visitation nuns’ school.

Johnson’s presidency was controversial, so he was impeached but acquitted. After leaving office, he returned to Greeneville, where he was a generous donor to its little Catholic church.

He was visiting his daughter, who had converted to the Church, in 1875, in her home near Elizabethton, Tennessee. Suddenly stricken, it is thought with a stroke, he died. Unproven legend is that on his deathbed, his daughter baptized him a Catholic. No written record, only hearsay, exists, but it is not far-fetched.

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


Catholic News & Perspective

Provides information on the Church, the nation and the world from OSV, America's most popular and trusted national Catholic news source


With church shootings on the rise, what are Catholic parishes doing to keep the faithful safe?

Wednesday, February 19, 2020
By: Brian Fraga The people in the pews next to Chris Pereira probably have no idea he’s armed with a loaded weapon. The handgun he carries at... Read More

Vatican homeless shelter continues long history of the Church’s charitable works

Monday, February 17, 2020
By: Msgr. Owen F. Campion Talk about a breath of fresh air. NPR spent some minutes reporting that Pope Francis had turned a one-time palace near... Read More

Opening the Word: The Law's horizon

Friday, February 14, 2020
By: Timothy P. O'Malley Many residents of the United States distrust law. Yes, Americans appreciate basic traffic laws, legal prescriptions... Read More

Understanding the liturgy of the domestic church

Wednesday, February 12, 2020
By: Greg Popcak Have you ever thought of your family life as a liturgy? The liturgy of domestic church life. Does that seem odd? It... Read More

Many lessons were taught at the first desegregated high school in the South

Monday, February 10, 2020
By: Msgr. Owen F. Campion Catholic Schools Week, observed not very long ago, caused me to think about my 12 years of Catholic education, in... Read More

Opening the Word: The light of the world

Friday, February 7, 2020
By: Timothy P. O'Malley Our Gospels proclaim the blessedness of the poor, the hungry and the thirsty. The Gospels demand radical poverty, total... Read More

Sisters in solidarity: Praying for an end to abortion

Wednesday, February 5, 2020
By: Deirdre A. McQuade Planned Parenthood clinics perform over a third of all abortions in the United States. They are known to schedule even more... Read More

A culture caught up in the ingesting of darkness

Monday, February 3, 2020
By: Kathryn Jean Lopez I had an intense March for Life experience, as I typically do. People from all sorts of stages of my life seem to converge... Read More

Opening the Word: The materiality of salvation

Friday, January 31, 2020
By: Timothy P. O'Malley On interstates, it’s normal to encounter billboards that announce to harried motorists, “Jesus saves.”... Read More

How to stay above the fray in 2020

Wednesday, January 29, 2020
By: Deacon Greg Kandra Is it over yet? Maybe you’re having the same feeling: 2020 has barely begun and already you want it to be over. If the... Read More

Online Giving

Online Giving

Secure and Convenient Donate now!