Study Guide

Andrew Johnson in Homestead Act

By Congress

Andrew Johnson

The only Southern Senator (D-TN) to keep his seat after Secession, Andrew Johnson wasn’t quite like the others. For one thing, he was absolutely gaga about the Homestead Act. We chalk that up to the fact that he was actually a time traveller, and had spent a happy ’90s childhood watching Animaniacs and playing Oregon Trail. What other reasons could there be?

Oh. As it turns out, plenty of other reasons.

His earlier days in Congress demonstrated his interest in aiding the poor, especially small farmers. He even tried to get an early form of the Homestead Act through Congress in the 1840s, but the political upheaval of the new abolitionist "Free Soil" party and the mostly pro-status-quo Democrat controlled House didn’t let him get anywhere.

Johnson was actually the one to spearhead the major push for the Homestead Act. Things got dicey, given that the bulk of his supporters were Northern Republicans, staunchly against expanding slavery into the western territories. This meant that Johnson’s own party, the pro-slavery Democrats, assumed homesteaders would mostly be Northern non-slaveholders, so they could only see an upcoming brawl over the slavery status of every single new state to be admitted…and fought every attempt at passing the dang thing.

Everyone—Democrat and Republican both—thought Johnson was full of BS about slavery not even being an issue in opening the West. He was so on the fence personally about slavery that he only saw the opportunities presented by settling the West…and not the seriously political problems.

That's admirable, but it's also a bit shortsighted of him.

Quick refresher on Johnson’s attempts at the Homestead Act:

1858: Homestead Act fails on the floor 30-22. Ouch.

1859: Homestead Act deadlocked in a tie, broken with a vote against by Democratic VP Breckenridge. Oof.

1860: Homestead Act passes—woo-hoo. Johnson must have been overjoyed, given how much campaigning for the presidency he gave up in favor of pushing the bill through. And then Democratic President Buchanan took it all away with a veto.

Burn.

1862: Homestead Act passes and signed into law by President Lincoln. We’re not quite sure how much Johnson actually had to do with the final iteration, given he was by then a Lincoln-appointee as military governor to the mostly reclaimed Tennessee.

Basically, no matter how you feel about Johnson’s presidency (he was impeached, mostly for firing the popular-but-shady Secretary of War Stanton and violating the Tenure of Office Act), he pretty much paved the way for the settlement of the West. Not to mention the United States as we know them.

So we have to tip our (ten-gallon) hat to Johnson. He's the reason the West was "won."

Johnson was the President during Reconstruction and his policies toward the South influenced how the country was put back together. Amnesty for Confederate soldiers was a huge deal that probably staved off any more rebellion or trouble and let the average Joe just get on with getting on (More on Johnson’s Reconstruction here.)

Good call, Jonso.

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