Eliza Johnson: First Lady In Tumultuous Times

Her husband was the first U.S. President to go through the impeachment process, though he was not removed from office. What did she think about the Reconstruction Era? How did she respond while her husband was at the center of extreme national controversy?

Meet Eliza Johnson, the first of the first ladies during the Reconstruction Era.

Eliza Johnson

Before The White House

Born October 4, 1810, Eliza McCardle grew up in Tennessee, the daughter of working class parents. In her teens while at Rhea Academy, she met Andrew Johnson who had just arrived in town. The following year they married on May 17, 1827, and Eliza is the the first lady who was married at the youngest age! While Mr. Johnson worked in his tailor shop trying to make ends meet, Eliza sat with him, reading aloud, and he later acknowledged that she taught him arithmetic and writing and challenged him to think about politics. They had five children and all survived to adulthood.

As Andrew Johnson took a more active role in local, state, and national politics, Eliza managed their finances and home. She also read many newspapers, summarizing what she discovered for her husband and helping to keep him informed on important issues while he managed his own busy schedule. By 1853, Eliza’s health was failing and she was unable to move to Nashville when her husband took office as governor; her illness – tuberculosis – kept her close to home while Andrew Johnson took a more active role on the national political stage.

During the Civil War, Eliza – a Union sympathizer – was forced from her home by Confederate neighbors. Forced to refugee, she was detained several times by Confederate generals, but eventually managed to reach Nashville and safety within the Union lines. By 1864 when Andrew Johnson was nominated to run as Lincoln’s vice president, Eliza had difficulties caring for their son who struggled with alcoholism. This situation and her own precarious health prevented her from taking any visible or active role in the election. In fact, she did not even attend his inauguration as vice president in March 1865, detained in Nashville.

First Lady – Unexpectedly

When news reached Eliza of Lincoln’s assassination and Andrew Johnson’s swearing in to the presidency, she panicked, believing her husband would be killed also. It was time of great uncertainty in the United States; Confederate armies still existed, Lincoln’s death had to be avenged, and no one quite seemed to agree on a plan for reuniting the country.

President Andrew Johnson

On August 6, 1865, Eliza Johnson arrived in Washington D.C., bringing most of her surviving family. She quickly established a sitting room in the White House as the informal gathering place for her family and began planning how she would fill the domestic role and public hostess role in the executive mansion. Eliza decided that her oldest daughter – Martha Patterson – would assume the position of hostess during the open, public receptions since Martha had experience in Washington society. However, Eliza reserved the role of hostess at formal dinners and when foreign dignitaries visited for herself and also managed most aspects of White House entertaining behind the scenes.

Eliza and her daughters worked as a team to reestablish a sense of normalcy from the White House gatherings, but her fears of her husband’s assassination and declining health made her a “less visible First Lady” and sparked rumors about her. The discovery of new documents within the last decade, though, have suggested that Eliza took an active role within the White House, though not always seen by the public eye. She routinely visited with guests during the more formal evening gatherings and hosted state dinners.

A First Lady During The Reconstruction Era

While her health difficulties limited her visibility to the public, Eliza was also navigating new fears and terrors in the White House. Andrew Johnson had become president because Lincoln had been assassinated; if it happened once, it could happen again? Eliza may have been attempting to limit some of the public happenings at the executive mansion in an attempt at security.

She made new friends in Washington, even reaching out to the wives of former Confederate generals. Perhaps in this way, she attempted to lead an effort at reconciliation with the South, even as Congress fought her husband for control of the Reconstruction.

The White House, photographed in 1846

The 1860’s was still a time of politics when women knew and were socially affected by the happenings, but they were rarely scrutinized or seen to take the public stage alongside their husbands in times of tumultuous difficulty. As troubles unraveled into the impeachment trial, Eliza continued her lifelong habit of following reporters and public opinion of her husband in the newspapers – likely reporting her observations directly to him as it was helpful. Later, she would claim she always knew he would be acquitted.

One public step that Eliza Johnson took during time as First Lady was in 1867. She volunteered to help with a national recognized fundraiser that was collecting funds to build an orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina for southern children who had lost both parents as a result of the Civil War. Eliza gave some of her personal treasures to assist with the fundraising. Interestingly, in taking this step and allowing the newspapers to print her name in their publicity about the project, she purposely let her name be listed with women formerly of the Confederacy, including Varina Davis and Mary Lee. While exact motivations are difficult to discern, Eliza certainly pushed the boundaries for Reconstruction and reconciliation by allowing her name to appear in print and linking her name with former “rebel women.”

Eliza Johnson left Washington in 1869 at the end of her husband’s term in office. Sadly, she died before the Reconstruction Era ended, passing away on January 15, 1876.

Remembering Her

Arguably, Eliza Johnson is one of the “forgotten First Ladies.” Some criticized by her peers for her less visible role in the White House, she nevertheless successfully supported her husband’s political journey from tailor shop and town square to the White House and a judgment from Congress.

As for her role in the Reconstruction, Eliza Johnson seems to have used her position as First Lady to encourage reconciliation, and she reached out to help charitable causes. Through the unexpected four year term, she set a quiet example, trying to exemplify dignity and compassion in a chaotic time of American history.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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