president andrew johnson, "white trash" -- 4/12/16

Today's selection -- from Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed. President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's notorious successor, has been vilified as being perhaps the worst president in U.S. history. Nevertheless, Johnson overcame profound poverty to become mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee, then a congressman and senator from Tennessee, then governor of Tennessee, then Vice President and President of the United States. Ten-year-old Johnson's family was already poor (even for his time) when his father died, and his mother had to sell the labor of her children as apprentices, which meant that they in effect became indentured servants for eleven years -- ironic for a man who came to be known for his hatred of slaves. Young Andrew Johnson soon ran away, leaving his new master and his family behind:

"[Andrew Johnson's father] Jacob's death was a disaster for his family. Polly Johnson was left to care for two boys all by herself. She was no stranger to hard work, having plied her trade as seamstress and laundress in a shop and in the private homes of more wealthy families. But a woman alone in those days, a poor woman at that, was vulnerable. ...

Andrew Johnson 1860

"Polly was a laundress for John Haywood, a prominent lawyer in town. Because her son Andrew so resembled Haywood, people in the town suggested that he, rather than Jacob Johnson, was Andrew's biological father; that, and probably the fact that Andrew was so different from his older brother. ...

"With no property of his own, Jacob Johnson had to rely on other men for his family's basic sustenance. Polly Johnson worked out­side the home, doing the same types of jobs that enslaved women did -- being a seamstress for other people and washing their cloth­ing. Although she was free and white, she was still vulnerable, as enslaved women were, to the sexual advances of employers. This did not happen to all female servants, of course, but that Polly Johnson was in the position where it could have happened allowed others to more easily question her virtue. The rumors about her having had a child by one of her employers had instant plausibility in these times precisely because people knew the hazards women faced when they worked in domestic settings where males unre­lated to them were present. ...

"The Johnsons were seen by the better sort in Raleigh simply as 'white trash,' outside the group of the ordinary, perhaps even poor, but strug­gling people who might escape that appellation. ... Polly remarried, but her second husband, Turner Doughtry, was as poor as she. They, white people, in a country that most whites believed had been made for them, had next to nothing.

"And then there came the coup de grâce. Things got so bad that Polly had to sell the labor of her children to a third party. In des­peration she turned to the apprenticeship system, binding her eldest, William, to Thomas Henderson, one of the men whose life Jacob Johnson had saved [in a boat accident]. Henderson apparently took the boy on out of a sense of gratitude and guilt, though providing school fees for one or both of the Johnson boys to give them a basic education would seem to have been a better way to repay his debt to their father. After a time, she moved William to the shop of James Selby, a tailor. Ten-year-old Andrew soon followed his brother there, and he was bound out to Selby until his twenty-first birthday.

"They would not have known it, but even as Polly bound her young sons over to local businessmen to learn trades, a fierce debate raged about the usefulness and fairness of the practice. Supporters saw apprenticeship as way of promoting work and moral character in the youngsters bound out. Critics such as Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations, felt that long apprenticeships like Andrew's were inefficient, wasting valuable time and keeping young people away from the kind of education that would make them more productive citizens as adults. Smith's complaint was moot for the Johnsons because there was no money to educate the Johnson boys."


Annette Gordon-Reed


Andrew Johnson: The American Presidents Series: The 17th President, 1865-1869


Times Books


Copyright 2011 by Annette Gordon-Reed


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