Andrew Johnson, or How I Put Myself Back Together

Sometimes the cure for heartbreak is the biography of a disgraced president.

I can’t write an essay to my dead brother so I’m writing to you, the boy who broke my heart. You were as dashing as George Washington, as astute in political theory as James Madison, and as confident as Millard Fillmore. I was Abigail Adams, quick of wit and long of pen. Always, forever Abigail Adams. But I’m not writing our love story; I will not count the ways or make veiled references to intimate musings. This is about how I put myself back together.

A story like this requires a president who isn’t shrouded in romanticism. He was not the father of our country, American royalty, or immortalized on any currency. He was never even elected. This is a down-and-out story, a pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you can’t even find your boots story. (Hell, Andrew Johnson showed up drunk to be sworn in as vice president, but I will get to that later.)

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I collectively refer to the months of January and February 2012 as the Winter of My Discontent because prior to my penchant for presidents (and you of course) I had loved John Steinbeck. I would have called those months A River I Knew But Did Not Love Because I Have Loved Other Rivers, but it is pretentious to quote obscure diary entries from great writers, and I, like Andrew Johnson, eschew pretension. I had recently fired my grief counselor after she cried during one of our sessions. The shock of my brother’s death was wearing off, and after months of emails comprised solely of song lyrics, “I L U” texts, and a couple holiday-themed make-outs, we had officially ceased communication.

This is where you could meet me during the Winter of my Discontent:

  1. On my couch, wrapped in blankets, furiously crocheting a scarf.
  2. In my bed, wrapped in blankets, crying while watching a historical documentary or a TV drama intended for a slightly younger demographic.
  3. In a bar, with my friends, laughing and telling a convoluted story about my daily misadventures while thinking, “I wish I were somewhere else wrapped in blankets.”
  4. I missed my brother; I missed you. Those feeling were so tangled up inside of me that I couldn’t tell one from the other.

In a way, the Andrew Johnson biography I was reading was a relief. He knew deep, aching sadness. He knew grief. Johnson knew about putting yourself back together.

When Johnson was a boy, his father died of a heart attack immediately upon saving three drowning men in their hometown of Raleigh, NC. His death left the family in poverty and Johnson’s mother found work as a washerwoman (which sometimes also meant a prostitute but not always). In the social hierarchy of the antebellum south, the Johnsons were at the bottom.

As soon as they were old enough, Johnson and his brother were apprenticed to a local tailor named James Selby, where they learned to sew and read. Johnson also learned how to deliver grand speeches as the town’s men would often gather in Selby’s shop and recite famous speeches. But Johnson dreamed of bigger things, lonelier things.

Myself? I learned how to crochet. Maybe sewing would have been more practical since most of my coats are missing buttons and most of my jeans have tears, but I placed a high value on blankets during the Winter. I needed something to do with my hands — to count stitches so I wouldn’t think about the way Scott picked at his clothes for weeks before he died. Or how you left tiny, mysterious holes in the same places in every t-shirt you owned. How did you do that? Where did they come from?

When he was fifteen (around the same age Jackson was slashed with a sword for refusing to clean a British officer’s boot, or Polk was undergoing gallstone surgery without any anesthesia, or me when I almost got stuck in Haiti and had to cry my way out of the country covered in a rash from a poisonous plant I had thought was aloe), Johnson ran away from Selby’s tailor shop. Seeking a geographic solution from his life of near slavery, he and his brother escaped to Laurens, SC where Johnson found work as a tailor.

There began Johnson’s first love story: He fell in love with a girl named Mary. He made her a quilt. When she said no to his marriage proposal, Johnson moved on. First back to Raleigh to square off old debts, then west to Tennessee. He wasn’t much of a writer so I doubt the existence of sordid love letters, but oh how I would treasure them (though I seldom look at ours).

My geographic boundings were more far-flung: Paris, Indonesia, Washington, DC. For the first time ever, I felt suffocated by the city of our Founding Fathers. Instead, I learned French. Le cheval mange une pomme. I practiced simple sentences over and over in my bedroom which, surprisingly, is what I did when first learning to talk. I dreamt of research projects about emerging labor unions in the developing world.

And then I stayed still.

By then, Johnson had settled down in Greeneville, TN with his new bride, Eliza. He sewed clothes and she taught him how to write and do simple arithmetic. Frequently, Eliza would read to him as he toiled in his tailor shop, which I imagine to be one of the loveliest ways to spend an evening. But lovely wasn’t enough for Johnson. He dreamed of bigger things, of lonelier things.

From his humble beginnings, Johnson was elected town alderman, then mayor, then state representative. He bought a slave named Dolly when she told him that he had a kind face. Dolly eventually had three kids who were listed as “mulattoes,” which is sometimes interpreted to mean that Johnson was their father, but not always.

Once at a bar, I listened to our friends argue about where to sleep that night: his apartment or hers. They spent the last three nights at her place even though he’s allergic to cats, but she didn’t have her toothbrush and would have to go home anyway. Then I cried, thinking about how we never got a chance for easy arguments because you lived near Alexander Hamilton’s grave, and I by Benjamin Franklin’s (the fact that neither of these men got to be president does not escape me). Because my life was small goodbyes, pain medications, and buying a funeral dress, and yours was making sure that I didn’t collapse.

I took a cab home because losing you and losing Scott were still inextricably linked. When Johnson made it to the national stage, I decided it was time to remake myself out my own hardships. Clawing my way from Discontent and casting off blankets, I would not think about you. I would be charming at parties, and up to date on current events. I would tell interesting stories. So I was, and I did; over and over again until it was true.

While in the House of Representatives, Johnson’s highest goal was passing the Homestead Act, which gave land to white farmers willing to go West. He said, “Pass this bill and you will make many a poor man’s heart rejoice.” He said, “Pass this bill and their wives and children will invoke blessings on your heads.” He lied and said, “Pass this bill and… he could return home to his constituents in quiet and peace.”

My highest goal was learning how to listen to my friends’ problems without thinking, Sure, that hurts, but all your family members are still alive and you aren’t constantly fighting the urge to wrap yourself in blankets.

The Homestead Act took years and years to pass; I like to think it took me a little less time to learn to see through my own pain.

Johnson was in the Senate when the country started to collapse around him. Tennessee seceded from the Union, but Johnson’s vision for himself far outweighed his vision for his country. Despite Dolly and his overwhelming belief in white supremacy, Johnson had long ago cast his lot with the unionists, ostracizing the more conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Johnson could see that there was no future for him back home in the fledgling Confederacy.

What could he do? He had spent his life remaking himself.

With spring nearby, I spent some time kissing a boy who was nothing like you. Instead of telling me knock-knock jokes under the covers, he spoke to me in Spanish. He didn’t care about politics or power, or a life completely different than the one he had. Instead, he wanted a cabin in the woods built with his own hands. I couldn’t tell you who he voted for in November.

Johnson did the only thing he knew how to: He left his family and moved to Washington, DC. He became a senator without a state. He was rewarded for his loyalty to the union by being appointed Military Governor of Tennessee and eventually President Lincoln’s running-mate.

Picture Johnson on the morning of his inauguration to the second-highest office in the nation: this is the culmination of everything he has worked towards, but he is considered a traitor in his home state. His beloved Tennessee is in tatters, and his family kicked out of their home by rebel officers. So hours before the ceremony, Johnson drowned his sorrows and self-doubt in whiskey.

While Johnson was getting blisteringly drunk before his inauguration speech, I was learning how to make sangria. I experimented with recipes for months until I perfected a peach and basil blend. (My secret is in the strawberries.) I was now a woman who brought sangria to parties instead of homemade scarves. I made biting jokes and witty comments about current events.

Sometimes I thought about you, and an old picture of Scott could still make me cry, but more often our stories made me smile. Like how Scott thought that he invented the word “guacamole,” or how you swore up and down that you were the first American to read Harry Potter. There grew a space between the two of you.

About a month later, President Lincoln was assassinated. The son of a poor dead man and a washerwoman was sworn into office and it was a long fall from grace from there.


Photo courtesy of edwarddallas

Kim McMurray lives in Philadelphia, PA. When she was younger, she thought that The Sound of Music ended with Maria marrying Captain von Trapp. It wasn't until middle school that she discovered the second VHS tape where the family has to hide from the Nazis at Maria's old abbey. She believes that this explains a lot about her current world view. She has a blog and you can email her.