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
The daughter of a Scottish shoemaker, Eliza was born in October,
1810 in Leesburg, Tennessee and her father died when she was quite
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
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
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 ,