Eliza McCardle Johnson

Eliza Johnson (née McCardle; October 4, 1810 – January 15, 1876) was the first lady of the United States from 1865 to 1869 as the wife of President Andrew Johnson. She also served as the second lady of the United States March 1865 until April 1865 when her husband was vice president. Johnson was relatively inactive as first lady, and she stayed out of public attention for the duration of her husband's presidency. She was the youngest first lady to wed, doing so at the age of 16.

Eliza McCardle Johnson
Official portrait, as engraved 1883
First Lady of the United States
In role
April 15, 1865 – March 4, 1869
PresidentAndrew Johnson
Preceded byMary Todd Lincoln
Succeeded byJulia Grant
Second Lady of the United States
In role
March 4, 1865 – April 15, 1865
Vice PresidentAndrew Johnson
Preceded byEllen Hamlin
Succeeded byEllen Colfax
First Lady of Tennessee
In role
October 17, 1853 – November 3, 1857
GovernorAndrew Johnson
Preceded byFrances Owen
Succeeded byMartha Mariah Travis
In role
March 12, 1862 – March 4, 1865
GovernorAndrew Johnson
Preceded byMartha Mariah Travis
Succeeded byEliza O'Brien
Personal details
Eliza McCardle

(1810-10-04)October 4, 1810
Telford, Tennessee, U.S.
DiedJanuary 15, 1876(1876-01-15) (aged 65)
Greeneville, Tennessee, U.S.
Resting placeAndrew Johnson National Cemetery
Greeneville, Tennessee
(m. 1827; died 1875)

Johnson significantly contributed to her husband's early career, providing him with an education and encouraging him to strengthen his oratory skills and seek office. Johnson did not participate in the social aspects of politics, however, remaining at home while her husband took office. During the American Civil War, she was forced from her home for her family's Unionist loyalties. She was affected by tuberculosis throughout much of her life, and what activity she did choose to undertake was limited due to her health.

Johnson was briefly the second lady of the United States before becoming the first lady, as her husband was vice president until the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. After becoming the first lady, Johnson delegated the role's social duties to her daughter Martha Johnson Patterson. Though she only made two public appearances during her tenure as first lady, Johnson was a strong influence on her husband, and he would consult her regularly for advice. Johnson returned to her home of Greeneville, Tennessee with her family after leaving the White House, living a quiet retirement. She died six months after her husband and was buried beside him.

Early life and marriage edit

Eliza McCardle was born in Greeneville, Tennessee on October 4, 1810.[1]: 108  She was the only child of John McCardle, a cobbler and innkeeper, and Sarah Phillips.[2]: 116  The family moved to Warrensburg, Tennessee while McCardle was young, but they returned to Greeneville following her father's death.[3]: 191  McCardle was raised by her widowed mother, who financially supported her by weaving[4] and taught her to read and write.[2]: 116  McCardle attended school and received a basic education.[4] She is believed to have attended the Rhea Academy in Greenville.[5]: 203 

McCardle met Andrew Johnson when his family moved to Greeneville in September 1826. She is said to have first seen him while talking amongst her friends, who began to tease her when she expressed her interest in the tailor's apprentice.[3]: 191 [6]: 131–132  McCardle and Johnson began courting almost immediately. The Johnsons left the city later that year, and the couple exchanged letters until he returned in 1827. They married on May 17, 1827.[2]: 117  Mordecai Lincoln, the cousin once removed of Abraham Lincoln, presided over the nuptials.[3]: 191–193  McCardle was 16-years-old, making her the youngest to marry of all the first ladies of the United States.[2]: 117 [7]: 231  After marrying, the couple moved into a two room house, where one of the rooms served as a tailor shop.[6]: 130 

Eliza Johnson provided her husband much of his formal education,[2]: 117  though a common myth suggests that she even taught him to read and write.[3]: 193  They had five children together: Martha in 1828, Charles in 1830, Mary in 1832, Robert in 1834, and Frank in 1852. Once they began having children, much of Johnson's time was spent tending to the household while her husband operated his tailor shop.[2]: 117  In 1831, they purchased a larger home as well as a separate facility for the shop. They moved to a larger home again in 1851.[3]: 193 

Politician's wife edit

Antebellum years edit

With Eliza's encouragement, her husband sought political office.[8] She played a large role in his early political career, assisting him in his education and his oratory skill.[7]: 231  As he attained higher political offices, Johnson avoided the social role associated with a politician's wife, instead tending to their home.[4] By this point, the household included eight or nine slaves.[3]: 194  It is unknown how Johnson felt about owning slaves.[7]: 232  As Johnson's children came of age, she enjoyed seeing her daughters seek husbands and start families of their own.[7]: 232  At the same time, her two older sons became a cause of stress as they were affected by alcoholism.[2]: 117 

While at home, Johnson was responsible for managing the family's finances, including their many investments.[5]: 203  Though she did not accompany her husband when he traveled for his work, she supported him, providing encouragement and helping him with his speeches.[2]: 118  She suffered from tuberculosis, causing infirmity.[4] Her health improved and worsened in turn over the following years, but she never fully recovered. She eventually traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1860 with her sons, staying until the American Civil War began the following year.[3]: 194 

American Civil War edit

During the war, Johnson became an advocate for Unionists that lived in the Confederate States of America.[2]: 118  She was forced to move after the Confederate States Army occupied the region.[4] She moved to her daughter Mary's farm after the Johnson home was captured by Confederate forces. While initially ordered to vacate the entire region within 36 hours in May 1862, she replied "I cannot comply with the requirement", and she was granted an additional five months.[5]: 204 

Johnson eventually made the three week journey to Nashville, Tennessee, during which she was harassed and threatened for being the wife of a Unionist senator. The journey severely affected her health, but upon arriving in Nashville she reunited with her husband, who she had not seen in almost a year.[5]: 204  She later traveled north, passing through Confederate lines without escort, going to Ohio and Indiana to visit her children.[2]: 119  She returned to Nashville in May 1863. The Johnsons' eldest son, Charles, was killed later that year after being thrown from his horse.[3]: 195  She had little reprieve in Nashville, rarely seeing her husband, especially after he began campaigning in the 1864 presidential election.[7]: 233 

Johnson's husband was sworn in as the Vice President of the United States in March 1865.[3]: 195  The following month, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and her husband ascended to the presidency.[1]: 109  This had a severe emotional effect on her; in one letter, her daughter Martha described her as "almost deranged" with worry that her husband would be assassinated as well.[5]: 203  She also lamented the idea of becoming first lady, effectively rejecting the role.[1]: 109 

First Lady of the United States edit

Johnson traveled to Washington with her surviving children, her son-in-law David T. Patterson, and her grandchildren.[2]: 119  They arrived on August 6, 1865.[3]: 196  After arriving, she chose a room on the second floor directly opposite the president's office.[6]: 129  Johnson was not able to serve effectively as first lady due to her poor health, and she remained largely confined to her bedroom, leaving the social chores to her daughter Martha.[3]: 196  Though she disliked being the president's wife, she enjoyed the fact that her entire family all lived together.[1]: 109 

Johnson would receive her husband's guests at the White House,[1]: 109  but she appeared publicly as first lady on only two occasions: a celebration for Queen Emma of Hawaii in 1866 and a children's ball for the president's sixtieth birthday in 1868.[2]: 120  In both instances, she did not rise while receiving guests.[6]: 131  She also received many letters from the public while she was the first lady, often asking for political favors or access to the president. Her correspondences were managed by her daughter and the White House staff. Though she was not active publicly, Johnson was able to regularly engage in activities with her family with some assistance.[3]: 197 

While living in the White House, Johnson often sewed and knitted, and she was frequently reading.[2]: 119–120  Each day, she would make her way through the White House residence, checking on her husband and the staff or spending time with her grandchildren.[3]: 198  She was close to the staff, treating both the white and black servants "as members of the household".[5]: 205  Johnson took up causes of her own, including a financial contribution to orphanages in Baltimore, Maryland,[3]: 198  and Charleston, South Carolina.[7]: 233  She also managed to travel while she was first lady, visiting nearby cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in 1867.[3]: 198 

Johnson did not have an active role in the politics of her husband's administration, though she gave him full support during his presidency, including during his impeachment.[4] She took an interest in the proceedings,[2]: 120  and the president would visit her each morning for her advice.[6]: 128  She held a strong influence over the president, and he regularly considered her advice.[5]: 205  She regularly monitored newspaper coverage of the presidency, clipping stories that she felt deserved the president's attention. She sorted them each day, showing him positive stories each night and then negative stories the following morning.[9]: 57 

Johnson assisted the president with his speeches as she did in his previous political positions, and she worked to prevent the outbursts caused by his temper.[2]: 120  Her fear for her husband's safety persisted throughout his presidency, as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was still in recent memory.[2]: 119  Despite her illness, she would still tend to her husband in certain areas, selecting his wardrobe for him and ensuring he was satisfied with the food provided for him.[6]: 129  Johnson disliked living in the White House, and she was glad when her husband's term ended.[6]: 131 

Later life and death edit

The Johnsons returned to Greenville after leaving the White House in March 1869. Their son Robert took his own life the following month.[3]: 199  Johnson lived a quieter life after ending her tenure as first lady, often spending her time with her children and grandchildren.[7]: 234  She enjoyed a level of independence, sometimes traveling without her husband.[2]: 120–121 Her health declined by the time her husband was elected to the United States Senate in 1875, and she moved in with her daughter Mary. She was widowed shortly afterward on July 31, 1875.[3]: 199  Johnson's poor health and her grief prevented her from attending the funeral,[2]: 121  but she was appointed to execute his estate.[9]: 58  She died on January 15, 1876,[2]: 121  and she was buried beside her husband in Andrew Johnson National Cemetery.[7]: 234 

Legacy edit

Locket image of Eliza McCardle Johnson, possibly created c. 1840; the locket was in the possession of great-granddaughter Margaret Johnson Patterson Bartlett (1903–1992) as of 1972, its current whereabouts are unclear

Johnson was one of the least active first ladies, playing little role in the political or social aspects of the White House. Her influence was that of an educator and adviser to her husband.[2]: 121  She did not meaningfully change the position of first lady during her tenure.[3]: 200  Historians generally describe Johnson as unassuming and unable to fulfill the role of first lady, but also as a capable intellectual partner for her husband. Though her husband's reputation declined considerably over the following century, Johnson's reputation as first lady remained largely unchanged.[7]: 234–235  Johnson's personal papers have been lost, in large part due to the Civil War.[7]: 230  Most primary documents associated with her are among her husband's papers.[3]: 200  In the 1982 Siena College Research Institute poll of historians, Johnson was ranked as the 21st of 42 first ladies.[10]

Johnson returned to the practice common among 19th century first ladies in which she allowed a younger surrogate to perform much of her duties, reestablishing the practice after the highly public tenure of her predecessor Mary Todd Lincoln.[11] She would be the last first lady to invoke illness in this fashion until Ida Saxton McKinley much later.[9]: 58  Johnson may have avoided public attention specifically because of the intense criticism levied at her predecessor and the potential for similar criticism given her husband's controversial presidency. She may also have feared that she lacked the social talents required of a hostess.[9]: 56  By the end of her tenure, she was described as "almost a myth" due to her limited public contact.[9]: 57 

References edit

  1. ^ a b c d e Schneider, Dorothy; Schneider, Carl J. (2010). First Ladies: A Biographical Dictionary (3rd ed.). Facts on File. pp. 108–110. ISBN 978-1-4381-0815-5.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Watson, Robert P. (2001). First Ladies of the United States. Lynne Rienner Publishers. pp. 116–121. doi:10.1515/9781626373532. ISBN 978-1-62637-353-2. S2CID 249333854.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Young, Nancy Beck (1996). Gould, Lewis L. (ed.). American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy. Garland Publishing. pp. 191–201. ISBN 0-8153-1479-5.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Diller, Daniel C.; Robertson, Stephen L. (2001). The Presidents, First Ladies, and Vice Presidents: White House Biographies, 1789–2001. CQ Press. p. 165. ISBN 978-1-56802-573-5.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Anthony, Carl Sferrazza (1990). First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power, 1789-1961. William Morrow and Company. pp. 203–205. ISBN 9780688112721.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Boller, Paul F. (1988). Presidential Wives. Oxford University Press. pp. 128–132.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Sanfilippo, Pamela K. (2016). "Eliza McCardle Johnson and Julia Dent Grant". In Sibley, Katherine A. S. (ed.). A Companion to First Ladies. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 230–235. ISBN 9781118732182.
  8. ^ Longo, James McMurtry (2011). From Classroom to White House: The Presidents and First Ladies as Students and Teachers. McFarland. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-7864-8846-9.
  9. ^ a b c d e Caroli, Betty Boyd (2010). First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. Oxford University Press. pp. 56–58. ISBN 978-0-19-539285-2.
  10. ^ "Ranking America's First Ladies" (PDF). Siena College Research Institute. 2008-12-18.
  11. ^ Beasley, Maurine H. (2005). First Ladies and the Press: The Unfinished Partnership of the Media Age. Northwestern University Press. p. 44. ISBN 9780810123120.

External links edit

Honorary titles
Preceded by Second Lady of the United States
Title next held by
Ellen Colfax
Preceded by First Lady of the United States
Succeeded by