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Eliza Johnson, Martha Johnson - First Lady

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When Andrew Johnson was sworn in as President following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, his tubercular wife was not there to witness the ceremony. In fact, Eliza McCardle Johnson did not travel to Washington, D.C., until two months later and even then did not assume the traditional duties expected of a presidential spouse. Pleading ill health, she asked her two daughters, Martha Johnson Patterson and Mary Johnson Stover, to take on the role of First Lady.

Although both daughters acted as their mother's surrogate, it was Martha Johnson Patterson who assumed most of the First Lady's obligations. Neither Washington, D.C., nor the White House was new to Martha. She had attended school in the capital while her father was a congressman, she had enjoyed friendships with former First Ladies Harriet Lane and Sarah Polk, and she had spent several holidays at the Polk White House. But while Washington and the executive mansion were somewhat familiar to her, her new responsibilities were not. In fact, she is believed to have appealed to the public for understanding, explaining, "We are plain people from the mountains of Tennessee, brought here through a national calamity. We trust too much will not be expected of us."Whether or not Martha made such a request, social critics approved of her simple but capable approach. Martha chose not to hostess lavish receptions, offering less formal entertainments instead. She handled all of her mother's correspondence and directed the refurbishment of the White House. The presidential mansion had fallen into a state of disrepair after four years of war and a stampede of visitors who had attended Lincoln's funeral. As a result, the drapes and rugs were torn, much of the furniture was dirty and broken, the walls and floors were stained with tobacco juice, and the entire house was infested with insects. To bring the White House out of such squalor, Martha used her $30,000 budget to buy new wallpaper, slipcovers for old furniture, and muslin cloth to cover the carpets during receptions. Although Martha was a visible presence in her father's administration, her mother steadfastly refused to become a public figure. Eliza Johnson abjured all press interviews and made few public appearances. According to Eliza, while a First Lady's public persona was "all very well for those who like it," she did "not like this public life at all. I often wish the time would come when we could return to where I feel we best belong." Despite her infirmity and her opposition to a public life, Eliza was an important political adviser to her husband. She was an avid reader of national newspapers, administration papers, and political journals and often assisted her husband in preparing his speeches. Although she spent much of her time on the second floor of the White House, she did so in a room across from her husband's office. It allowed her to monitor his discussions from her open door, to walk across the hall to calm his temper when needed, or to offer advice and opinions when warranted. In fact, it is Eliza who may have influenced Johnson's lenient Reconstruction policy regarding former soldiers and the Proclamation of Amnesty. In addition to being an important political adviser, Eliza was her husband's most staunch supporter. It was a quality extremely important to Andrew Johnson, particularly as he endured an impeachment trial. Eliza remained a positive influence during the ordeal, strongly believing that Johnson would be acquitted of all charges. She followed the proceedings in the newspapers and made clippings of everything -- a boon to historians -- showing encouraging reports to her husband at the end of the day. She insisted that the White House social calendar go on as usual, a decision which helped bolster the image of a presidency neither under siege nor in crisis. Frail in health but strong in the face of adversity, Eliza McCardle Johnson was an important presence behind the scenes of the Johnson White House, influencing both her daughter's and her husband's agendas. While she rarely performed the First Lady's public duties, Eliza steadfastly supported her husband at a time when his administration was under attack and no doubt served as a model and an inspiration to future First Ladies who found themselves in similar situations.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Elizabeth R. Varon

Professor Varon is the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. Her writings include:

Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (University of North Carolina Press, 2008)

Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (Oxford University Press, 2003)

We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 1998)