Eliza McCardle Johnson was the wife of the 17th President, Andrew Johnson. She served as First Lady of the United States from 1865 to 1869.
“I knew he’d be acquitted; I knew it,” declared Eliza McCardle Johnson, told how the Senate had voted in her husband’s impeachment trial. Her faith in him had never wavered during those difficult days in 1868, when her courage dictated that all White House social events should continue as usual.
That faith began to develop many years before in east Tennessee, when Andrew Johnson first came to Greeneville, across the mountains from North Carolina, and established a tailor shop. Eliza was almost 16 then and Andrew only 17; and local tradition tells of the day she first saw him. He was driving a blind pony hitched to a small cart, and she said to a girl friend, “There goes my beau!” She married him within a year, on May 17, 1827.
Eliza was the daughter of Sarah Phillips and John McCardle, a shoemaker. Fortunately she had received a good basic education that she was delighted to share with her new husband. He already knew his letters and could read a bit, so she taught him writing and arithmetic. With their limited means, her skill at keeping a house and bringing up a family–five children, in all–had much to do with Johnson’s success.
He rose rapidly, serving in the state and national legislatures and as governor. Like him, when the Civil War came, people of east Tennessee remained loyal to the Union; Lincoln sent him to Nashville as military governor in 1862. Rebel forces caught Eliza at home with part of the family. Only after months of uncertainty did they rejoin Andrew Johnson in Nashville. By 1865 a soldier son and son-in-law had died, and Eliza was an invalid for life.
Quite aside from the tragedy of Lincoln’s death, she found little pleasure in her husband’s position as President. At the White House, she settled into a second-floor room that became the center of activities for a large family: her two sons, her widowed daughter Mary Stover and her children; her older daughter Martha with her husband, Senator David T. Patterson, and their children. As a schoolgirl Martha had often been the Polks’ guest at the mansion; now she took up its social duties. She was a competent, unpretentious, and gracious hostess even during the impeachment crisis.
At the end of Johnson’s term, Eliza returned with relief to her home in Tennessee, restored from wartime vandalism. She lived to see the legislature of her state vindicate her husband’s career by electing him to the Senate in 1875, and survived him by nearly six months, dying at the Pattersons’ home in 1876.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Eliza McCardle Johnson’s spouse, Andrew Johnson.