First Lady of the United States
Eliza Johnson was the wife of Andrew Johnson, who became the 17th President of the United States on the morning of April 15, 1865 – after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Due to ill health, Mrs. Johnson left the social duties of the First Lady to her daughter Martha Johnson Patterson, but was a close confidante to the President during his years in the White House.
Eliza McCardle was born October 4, 1810, at Leesburg, Tennessee, the only child of John and Sarah Phillips McCardle. Eliza lost her father when she was still a small child, and was raised by her widowed mother in Greeneville, Tennessee. After her father’s death, Eliza McCardle helped her mother make quilts to support themselves. She was rather tall, and had hazel eyes and brown hair.
Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1808, Andrew Johnson was the younger of two sons born into the Johnson family. His father rescued two or three friends from drowning in 1812, but the effort cost him his health, and he died within a year, leaving his mother Mary to raise Andrew and his brother William. In an effort to provide a trade for her sons, Mary Johnson apprenticed her sons to a tailor in Raleigh when Andrew was fourteen, but Andrew ran away two years later.
Andrew eventually settled in Greeneville, Tennessee, and established a tailor’s shop by nailing a sign over the door stating simply, “A. Johnson, Tailor.” Eliza met Andrew Johnson soon after he arrived in Greeneville in September 1826. They immediately liked each other – Eliza was almost 16, and Andrew only 17.
Eliza McCardle married Andrew Johnson May, 17, 1827, at the home of the bride’s mother in Greeneville. Mordecai Lincoln, a distant relative of Abraham Lincoln presided over the nuptials. They set up housekeeping in the living quarters in the back of the shop, and both of them were sewing and running the business.
As Andrew became intrigued with political discussions of his customers, he realized he was handicapped by the lack of a good education. Eliza was better educated than Andrew, and she tutored him patiently. She helped him improve his reading, writing, and arithmetic. While he worked in his tailor shop, she often read aloud to him.
Eliza was a handsome woman with a strong nose and a wide mouth. She had brown hair, parted in the middle and blue eyes. She dressed well, but modestly, and in dark colors. Considered modest and retiring, Eliza’s personality contrasted sharply with her husband’s more aggressive, outgoing nature. With their limited means, her skill at keeping a house and bringing up a family had much to do with Johnson’s success.
The Johnsons had three sons and two daughters, all born in Greeneville, Tennessee: Martha (1828-1891), Charles (1830-1863), Mary (1832-1883), Robert (1834-1869), and Andrew Jr. (1852-1879). In August, 1852, at age 42, Eliza gave birth to her fifth child, Andrew, Jr. Soon thereafter she was stricken with what a doctor diagnosed as consumption, now known as tuberculosis. Her face became lined earlier in life than normal due to illness.
Andrew Johnson became involved with local politics, and Eliza supported him in his political career. While maintaining his growing tailoring business, Andrew was elected alderman and later mayor of Greeneville. After his election to the state legislature in Nashville in 1835, Eliza stayed at home, taught the children, and managed the family and business finances.
Andrew Johnson rose rapidly serving in the state and national legislatures. He served as Governor of Tennessee from 1853 to 1857, and was elected to the United States Senate and served there from October 1857 to March 1862, but Eliza did not join him in Washington.
Despite frequent, lengthy periods of separation while he held political office in Nashville or Washington, DC, the couple were apparently devoted to each other. From a study of Andrew Johnson’s letters, there is no doubt of the importance of Eliza’s influence on her husband.
Eliza Johnson was a thoroughly conventional mid-19th century woman who, though she showed strength and determination, did not question a woman’s role in the larger world. From the start, she had a soothing, calming influence on Andrew’s easily ruffled feathers. He had a deep inner sense of insecurity that Eliza fought to bolster. She also sought to strengthen his weaknesses. She had a soft voice that could reach Andrew in his darkest moments, and bring him to a more reflective mood.
As her children grew to adulthood, Eliza took great comfort in Martha and Mary, but her sons were trying to Eliza – sons Charles and Robert suffered from acute alcoholism. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Charles remained loyal to the Union. While recruiting Tennessee boys for the Union Army, he became the object of an intense Confederate manhunt. He joined the Middle Tennessee Union Infantry as an assistant surgeon; he was thrown from his horse and killed.
Robert served for a time in the Tennessee state legislature. During the Civil War, he was commissioned colonel of the First Tennessee Union Cavalry. He was private secretary to his father during his tenure as president, but died an alcoholic at age 35. Andrew Jr. founded the weekly Greeneville Intelligencer, but it failed after two years. He died soon thereafter at age 27.
Eliza Johnson remained in the background, seen but not often heard. She remained in Greeneville when Andrew was elected to the state legislature and later to the US House of Representatives. But in 1860, she finally moved to Washington DC to join her husband, who was then a Senator.
When the Civil War broke out the following year, Andrew was loyal to the North. Eliza returned to Tennessee, but as the wife of a notorious Unionist, was harassed and expelled from Greeneville by the Confederates. She stayed with her daughter Mary (Mrs. Daniel) Stover in Carter County until October 1862, when she was forced to leave again. General Nathan Bedford Forrest at first refused to let her through the lines to join her husband, by then military governor of Tennessee in Nashville.
In March 1863, Johnson urged the Confederates to reconsider and rejoin the union, but they refused, and notified Eliza and her family they would have to leave the state. Pleading illness, she declined to leave. Eventually she would travel to Cincinnati and to Indiana to seek out a spa for her health. Their home in Greeneville was destroyed during the war.
Then in late 1863, the Confederates left Tennessee, and Johnson set up a provisional state government in Nashville, where Eliza joined him. They were still in Nashville when they learned Johnson had been nominated for Vice President to run with President Lincoln, in an attempt to appeal to Southern supporters of the Union.
In late 1864, Eliza traveled to Boston to get medical help for her son Robert, whose drinking was out of control. Andrew Johnson was elected Vice President of the United States on the Republican ticket headed by Abraham Lincoln and was inaugurated March 4, 1865.
First Lady of the United States
Eliza Johnson was still in Boston when she heard of President Lincoln’s assassination, and Andrew asked her to join him in Washington. She was devastated with fear for her husband’s safety. Lincoln died around 7:00 a.m. on April 15, 1865; Johnson’s swearing in occurred at 11:00 a.m. with Chief Justice Salmon Chase presiding. He was the first Vice President to succeed to the US Presidency because of an assassination.
By this time, Eliza Johnson had been ill for many years with tuberculosis. While her health periodically worsened or somewhat improved, she remained an invalid, and generally withdrawn from the public eye. She was not able to join Andrew in Washington, DC until June 1865.
Therefore the Johnsons’ oldest daughter, Martha Johnson Patterson, immediately took over the duties of the First Lady. She was a competent, unpretentious, and gracious hostess. Eliza appeared publicly as First Lady on only two occasions – at a reception for Queen Emma of the Sandwich Islands in 1866, and at her son Andrew’s birthday party in 1867.
Washington and the White House were not new to Martha. She had attended school in the capital while her father was a congressman, and enjoyed friendships with former First Ladies Sarah Polk and Harriet Lane, who acted as hostess for the only President who never married: James Buchanan. Martha had spent several holidays at the Polk White House.
After four years of war and a stampede of visitors to President Lincoln’s funeral, the Johnsons found the White House in a state of disrepair. After her husband’s assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln had remained in the White House until early June 1865. While she was bedridden in grief, vandals had free rein to slash carpet and furniture, rip wallpaper, and pilfer art objects and china.
As a result, the drapes and rugs were torn, much of the furniture was dirty and broken, the walls and floors were stained with tobacco juice, and the entire house was infested with insects. Congress granted $30,000 for the remodeling, and Martha remained within her budget, buying new wallpaper, slipcovers for old furniture, and muslin cloth to cover the carpets during receptions. She brought the long-forgotten portraits of former presidents out of storage and hung them on the ground floor.
When the Johnson family moved into the White House, they comprised one of largest presidential families to enter the Executive Mansion. There were twelve in all – Martha Patterson, and her Senator husband, their two children, the widowed Mary Stover and her three children, as well as the two Johnson sons, Robert and 13-year-old Andy.
The president’s office was directly across the hall from Eliza’s second-floor bedroom, and she always listened for his voice. Whenever it grew excited or angry, she slowly crossed the hall and admonished him for losing his temper. Her calming influence always proved to be beneficial.
Aside from these visits to the President’s office and two public appearances – one at a reception for Queen Emma of the Sandwich Islands and the other at a birthday party for her son Andy – Eliza Johnson remained totally out of the public eye. Most of her time was spent reading, knitting, and visiting with family.
Despite her infirmity and her opposition to a public life, Eliza was an important political adviser to President Johnson. She was an avid reader of national newspapers, administration papers, and political journals, and often assisted her husband in preparing his speeches. Eliza may well have influenced his lenient Reconstruction policy regarding former soldiers and the Proclamation of Amnesty.
Eliza steadfastly supported her husband at a time when his administration was under attack and no doubt served as a model and an inspiration to future First Ladies who found themselves in similar situations. She clipped newspaper and magazine articles about the President, and divided them into two parts. Those supporting her husband she gave him in the evening to assure him a pleasant night’s sleep, and saved the more critical ones for the morning.
Frail in health but strong in the face of adversity, Eliza McCardle Johnson was an important presence behind the scenes of the Johnson White House, influencing both her daughter’s and her husband’s agendas. According to Eliza, while a First Lady’s public persona was “all very well for those who like it,” she did “not like this public life at all. I often wish the time would come when we could return to where I feel we best belong.”
Image: President Andrew Johnson
In 1868, during the height of Andrew Johnson’s quarrel with Congress that almost led to his impeachment, Eliza read all the newspapers, clipping out articles that she thought he should read. During those difficult days Eliza held daily prayer vigils for his acquittal and dictated that all White House social events continue as usual.
Martha’s husband David Trotter Patterson was an attorney serving as a US Senator from Tennessee. In his father-in-law’s impeachment trial provided President Johnson with the one-vote margin by which he escaped being removed from office. “I knew he’d be acquitted; I knew it,” Eliza declared when she was told the results of the Senate vote. Her faith in him had never wavered during those difficult days in 1868.
The Johnson’s departed from Washington before Grant’s inauguration and returned to their home in Greeneville, Tennessee. Eliza had become a complete invalid, and Andrew assumed her care. The last years of her life were quiet.
Andrew ran for the US Senate in 1874 and won, which the Johnsons viewed the election as a vindication of his life and career. Eliza remained in Tennessee as he traveled to Washington to take his seat in 1875. Her health had remained poor, and she was in serious decline by that time.
Andrew Johnson only served a few months of his term. While visiting at his daughter Mary’s home at Carter’s Station, Tennessee, he suffered a stroke and died on July 31, 1875. He was buried in a private grave on their property, which later reverted to the federal government, and was designated as the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Greeneville. Eliza was too ill to attend his funeral.
Eliza McCardle Johnson died of tuberculosis on January 15, 1876, at age 67, having survived her husband by only six months. She was buried next to him.