Eliza McCardle Johnson
The First Lady From Tennessee
Many First Ladies have had their origins in wealth, but others have come from less privileged backgrounds. Such was Eliza McCardle, who grew from obscure poverty to national notice because she met a young tailor in frontier Tennessee.
The daughter of a Scottish shoemaker, Eliza was born in October, 1810 in Leesburg, Tennessee and her father died when she was quite young.
Eliza was sixteen in 1826 and she and her mother lived in Greenville, Tennessee supporting themselves by making and selling quilts and fabric shoes. Eliza was also a student at a nearby academy and though poor, they lived in a comfortable home. When a young tailor’s apprentice named Andrew Johnson arrived in town with his family, the young woman he met was tall, and pretty with hazel eyes and brown hair and what was termed a “delicately modeled” Grecian nose.
Apparently, Eliza was walking down a Greenville street when Andrew approached to ask about a place to stay. He and his family, which included his mother and stepfather, had all their household belongings crammed into an old wagon and were newly arrived from Raleigh, North Carolina, across the Great Smokey Mountains. Eliza referred them to a local property owner who had a cottage to rent.
At this time, Johnson was eighteen but probably looked older. He soon found work with a local tailor, and then eventually established his own shop. Johnson and Eliza were married in May, 1827 and moved into the living quarters behind the tailor shop. While working in the shop, as Johnson became intrigued with political discussions of his customers, he realized he was handicapped by lack of education. Therefore, Eliza helped him improve his reading, writing and figuring. In addition, as his tailoring business became more successful and he took on employees he hired other young men to come and read to them while they worked. He also became involved with local politics.
He was elected to the Tennessee legislature in 1835 and later to Congress. Meanwhile at home, Eliza was skillfully managing their home and a growing family. They had four children. Martha was born in October, 1828, Charles in February, 1830, Mary in May, 1832 and Robert in February, 1834. Sadly, the Johnson sons met early deaths. Charles was a physician and died at 33 in action around Nashville during the Civil War and Robert died in his mid 30s from a weakness for alcohol. Then in August, 1852 at age 42 Eliza gave birth to her fifth child, a boy named Andrew. However, soon after she was stricken with what one doctor diagnosed as consumption as tuberculosis was called then. It meant Eliza spent the next twenty years as an invalid.
Also in 1852, Johnson was elected Governor of Tennessee and then to the U.S. Senate in 1857. Then as Tennessee voted to secede from the Union, despite Johnson’s pleas that they remain loyal to the union as he had. When General Grant assumed control of a portion of Tennessee, Johnson was appointed military governor. In March, 1863 Johnson urged the Confederates to reconsider and rejoin the union, but as they refused, they notified Eliza and her family that would have to leave the state. Pleading illness, she declined to leave. Then in late 1863, the Confederates left Tennessee and Johnson set up a provisional state government in Nashville where Eliza joined him.
The couple was 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. Johnson was elected as Vice President in 1864 and assumed office in March, 1865.
After her husband’s assassination, Mary Lincoln remained in the White House until early June, 1865. Then when the Johnson family moved in, they comprised one of largest presidential families to enter the Executive Mansion. There were twelve in all – Martha, and her Senator husband, their two children, the widowed Mary and her three children as well as the two Johnson sons, Robert and 13-year-old Andy.
When they moved in, they found a White House interior in ruins. While Mrs. Lincoln had been bedridden in grief, vandals had had free rein in to slash carpet and furniture, rip wallpaper, and pilfer art objects and china. Daughters Martha and Mary labored long and hard to restore the mansion to its previous grandeur. Congress granted $30,000 for the remodeling, and Martha remained within her budget, to complete tasteful adjustments. Martha also installed cows to graze on the White House lawn, and provide fresh milk.
Because her health was poor, Eliza spent most of her time in the family quarters in her room opposite the president’s study on the second floor. There she kept the door open to see and hear the activities of the president, as well as other members of the official and personal family. Eliza kept busy with visits from her husband and family, as well as perusing newspapers and magazines, clipping articles about the President. She divided these cuttings into two parts – those supporting her husband she gave him in the evening to assure him a pleasant night’s sleep. The more critical she gave him in the morning.
With all the children in residence, there was an ongoing hum of activity with all the youngsters’ activities, including picnics, and pony rides. The President also found time for outings, which served to relieve the stresses of office.
On January 1, 1866 they held the traditional New Year’s Reception which was traditionally open to anyone who dropped by. Since Eliza was too ill to attend, Martha and Mary entertained as hostesses, a procedure they would continue to follow.
When Johnson was not re-nominated for the Presidency in 1868, he left the White House with mixed emotions. They had made many friends, but there was a sense of sadness at how they had been treated in certain political situations. Then the President and his family decided to have a last major social event to celebrate young Andrew’s sixteenth birthday. Eliza was well enough to help prepare as well as attend as her youngest son received his visitors. Andrew and Eliza were the only adults present among some 300 children who were sons and daughters of White House officials and staff. They were served refreshments in the State Dining Room as the Marine Band performed. However, though Eliza attended this one social event, she was still limited. When greeting the young visitors she would tell them, “My dear, I am an invalid.”
As the family left the White House, Martha expressed perhaps the whole family’s opinion. “Mother is not able to enjoy these entertainments, Belle [her daughter] is too young, and I am indifferent to them, so it is well they are almost over.”
By the time they returned to Tennessee, Eliza had become a complete invalid, and Andrew assumed her care, as they kept busy around their Greeneville home.
Johnson continued to campaign for friends, and also for himself. He ran for the Senate in 1874, but Eliza remained in Tennessee as he traveled to Washington to take his seat. However, he only served several months and died in March, 1875. Eliza lived just a short time – dying in January, 1876.
A native of Kansas City, Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College, Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968).