The mercurial posthumous career of Andrew Johnson

by Jack Neely

The 17-floor Andrew Johnson Building on Gay Street is likely the tallest building in America that's named for an impeached president. It may, in fact, be the only one.

The fact that there would ever be a building on Gay Street named for President Johnson might have surprised many of his contemporaries here. Our popular representative in Congress in 1868 was Horace Maynard, one of those Republicans who voted to impeach Johnson. The weekly Knoxville Whig warmly endorsed impeachment—and cursed the fact that the president wasn't thrown out of office.

I used to work in the Andrew Johnson Building. The sort of people who call air conditioning "AC" and orange juice "OJ" always called the Andrew Johnson Building the "AJ." The acronym wasn't clear to everybody. Giving directions to a visitor, one of my out-of-state colleagues once referred to it as the "Andrew Jackson Building." I corrected her. She seemed never to have heard of Andrew Johnson, thought it absurd there should ever have been anyone, never mind another 19th-century president from Tennessee, with a name so similar to Andrew Jackson's. She also seemed amused that anyone would care that Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson were actually different people. She kept calling it the Andrew Jackson Building. She was a graduate of a venerable Ivy-League university.

Until last month, Andrew Johnson had become an enigma not only in my colleague's mind but across American culture. For 130 years, he's ridden a roller coaster of public opinion. Despite the fact that the Senate was a vote shy of the two-thirds necessary to throw Johnson out, everyone knew that, in firing a legitimate cabinet official, Johnson had broken a law, had undermined the Constitution, had sinned. He lived six years after he left office, but had few friends. He ran for a seat in the House, but lost to Knoxville's Rep. Maynard; the ex-president came in a humiliating third. Just before his death, Tennessee's Reconstruction legislature appointed Johnson to the U.S. Senate, but he never regained his reputation.

His grave in Greeneville wasn't even marked until a couple of years after his death. If anything at all was named for Johnson during the half-century after his death, it doesn't spring to mind. But history's always conjuring new tricks to play with the dead.

The fact that one of Knoxville's tallest buildings today is named for Andrew Johnson may have a lot to do with the fact that in 1917, a postmaster in Portland, Oregon got fired. He said President Wilson had no right to fire him, and found some lawyers who agreed. The Tenure of Office Act that protected Secretary Stanton back in 1868 ought to protect him, too. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where it landed in 1926.

The Court ruled against the disgruntled postmaster. They said the Tenure of Office Act, which had gotten President Johnson in so much trouble back in '68, was unconstitutional. (Knoxville's own justice on the highest bench, Edward Terry Sanford, voted with the 6-3 majority.) It turned out to be the greatest possible career break for the old man buried up in Greeneville.

Suddenly, Johnson was somebody whose name we didn't have to whisper. By 1927, eminent scholars were rushing out new books portraying Johnson as a homespun American hero: Andrew Johnson, Plebeian and Patriot; Andrew Johnson, A Study in Courage. In some ways his story out-Lincolned Lincoln: a log-cabin birth, dirt poverty, no formal education, rising through adversity to the nation's highest office.

Even down here in Knoxville, where all President Johnson's old enemies were dead, things were changing so fast it would have made Parson Brownlow's head spin. That big new hotel on Gay Street, the jazz-age skyscraper with the fancy ballrooms and elegant restaurant, would no longer be called "the Tennessee Terrace," as originally announced. It would be the Andrew Johnson. They even hired an elderly black man named William Andrew Johnson—a.k.a. "Uncle Bill"—to be the doorman. Born a slave, he'd been named for his famous master. In 1929 he was believed to be the last surviving slave of a president. (Johnson accepted the job, but quit after a few weeks; the septuagenarian apologized that he just couldn't stand up all day anymore.)

Even Hollywood wanted a piece of this brand-new hero. A few years after the rechristening of the Andrew Johnson Hotel, MGM hired heartthrob Van Heflin to play the embattled president in their biopic Tennessee Johnson, in a star-studded cast alongside Regis Toomey, Marjorie Main, Noah Beery, and a sinister Lionel Barrymore as the evil civil-rights radical Thaddeus Stevens.

But history wasn't quite through with the Greeneville tailor. We saw him as a good guy up until the 1960s, when scholars took another look at him and said, "Hey—this guy's a racist!"

And that Andrew Johnson was—if not the simplest sort. As a politician he promoted the right to own slaves. But in the 1850s, Johnson broke with many of his erstwhile allies to defend immigrants against the attacks of the bizarre Know-Nothing party. As military governor of Tennessee during the war, Johnson alienated many of his pro-slave Unionist allies to promote emancipation. Three years later he was a president arguing strongly against allowing the freedman the right to vote. Johnson was no movie hero, but a complicated man in a complicated time.

In recent weeks, Johnson has gotten more attention than he's had since Van Heflin played him in the movies; he's been on TV more than ever before in his strange posthumous career, but this time not so much as president but as precedent.