Monday, July 11, 2016

Andrew Johnson: Libertarian ideas

Andrew Johnson became the 17th President of the United States after the untimely death of Abraham Lincoln. He is generally considered one of the worse presidents, This actually might be true considering he had essentially no clout over a Radical Republican controlled Congress.

Johnson was born in a log cabin in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1808 to impoverished and nearly illiterate parents.  He had one older brother, William.  His dad, Jacob, worked as a hotel porter and bank janitor.  When Andrew was only three-years-old, Jacob dove into an icy river rescue three men from drowning.  While all the men survived, Jacob fell ill and died shortly thereafter.   His widowed mother, Mary (nicknamed Polly), made money as a weaver and spinner.  Later that same year she married Turner Haugherty, although the family still continued to live in poverty.

When he was 10 he joined his older brother as an apprentice to a tailor named James Selby. This worked nice for the parents, because they knew their sons would learn how to make and alter clothing while being fed and housed.  While the agreement required the boys to obey and work for their master until they were 21, when Andrew was 16 he and his brother played a prank that went bad.  Not wanting to face punishment they ran away.  Selby put an award out for their return.

After two years of being on the run, Andrew returned home to reunite with his mother and Turner. Selby wanted him to pay a high fine that he could not afford.  He and his mother and stepfather then headed to Tennessee where they would not be subject to North Carolina apprentice laws.  Andrew, now seventeen, set up his own tailor shop, hanging over the door a sign that said, "A. Johnson Tailor."

Over the years he attempted to teach himself how to read, although he was never fully able to master the skill until, at eighteen in 1827, he married sixteen-year-old Eliza McCardle.  She was the daughter of a shoemaker and was well educated.  While he worked in his little shop, she read to him and taught him to read and write.

Johnson became involved in politics early on as a town alderman and as a mayor.  He considered himself a Jacksonian Democrat, and was therefore an ardent supporter of state's rights and the rights of individuals. He learned that he was very good at giving speeches and debating, and he became very popular.

He rode this popularity into the state legislature's lower house in 1834 and 1838, and then the state senate in 1841.  He was then elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843 and served until 1853. He was an ardent opponent of high taxes and regulations that would hurt the common man. In this way he became an opponent of the Whig party that grew strong in Tennessee that championed for a larger, more active government that needed higher taxes and tariffs to create and maintain roads and canals that would improve transportation to increase business and trade.

As a State Senator he opposed any bill, even when he figured it would work to his benefit, that was paid for by the public.  One Whig bill would have paved roads in his own district, and he opposed it because it would be constructed at the taxpayers expense.  He believed people most likely to use the roads should pay for it.

Another thing he opposed was large government grants to railroads so that they could use small portions of this land to lay tracks.  They would then sell the remaining lands to settlers at a profit. Johnson thought this worked to the disadvantage of the common man who was trying to make a living.

In stead, ho proposed a Homestead Act in 1846. The government would grant a deed to any land a person settled on with the agreement that the land would be cleared and farmed it.  After a person lived on the land for five years it was theirs to keep.  He continued to re-introduce this bill.  At the same time he continued to oppose any bill proposed by Whigs that increased the size and scope of government at the taxpayers expense.

He was so strongly anti-big government that he even opposed building a national museum that would eventually become the Smithsonian Institute, a U.S. patent office that would allow people to register new inventions.  He even, at one point, suggested cutting salaries of government officials, including his own salary.

So he was quite, as we would consider today, the libertarian.

In 1852 his Congressional district was redrawn in such a way he was unable to run for re-election to the U.S. House.  He then managed to muster up support so he could become governor of Tennessee. He succeeded.  In fact, the man he beat was the same person who redrew the congressional lines, giving him a good feeling of vindication.

However, the job had little power, so he had trouble getting any of his ideas passed through the state Congress. This was a problem that would plague him once again when he became president after the death of Abraham Lincoln.

In 1857, during his last years as governor, he championed the state legislature to elect him to the U.S. Senate.  This allowed him to once again become involved in national affairs.  Atop his agenda was to get Homestead Bill passed.  Other than that he had no agenda.  Little did he know what cards were in store for him as the Civil war era began.