No president, not even Lincoln, rose from lower depths of poverty and deprivation to reach the height of that office than did Johnson. He was born on 29 December 1808 in a two-room shack in Raleigh, North Carolina; his parents were illiterate tavern servants; and he never attended school. In 1822 he became a tailor's apprentice, learned that trade, and managed to acquire a rudimentary knowledge of reading. At the age of seventeen he moved to east Tennessee, where in 1827 he opened a tailor shop in Greeneville and married Eliza McCardle, a shoe-maker's daughter who taught him to write and cipher.
His business prospered, but as soon as he was old enough to vote, he became active in politics, first as an alderman and mayor in Greeneville, then as a state legislator, and next as a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives from 1843 to 1853. In 1853 and again in 1855 he won election as governor of Tennessee, and in 1857 he went to the United States Senate. By then he was a well-todo man, owned a few household slaves, and entertained presidential aspirations.
A tireless campaigner, an unsurpassed stump speaker, and a man both shrewd and courageous, Johnson was a staunch advocate of Jacksonian democracy and the champion of the "plebeians" (the small farmers and tradesmen of Tennessee) against the "stuck-up aristocrats" (the wealthy, slaveholding planter class). He also possessed, in the words of a fellow Tennessean who knew him well, a "deep-seated, burning hatred of all men who stood in his way." For him political combat was personal combat, and he engaged in it with uncompromising ferocity.
During the winter of 1860–1861, Johnson strongly opposed secession, both by the South as a whole and by Tennessee. Although he believed in states' rights and defended the right of slavery, he placed preservation of the Union above all else, argued that slavery could be best protected within the Union, and denounced the Confederacy as a conspiracy by the planter aristocracy. For a while he succeeded in keeping Tennessee in the Union, but following the outbreak of war in April 1861, the state seceded and Johnson had to flee for his life to the North. His valiant struggle against secession made him the leading Unionist of the South, won him the acclaim of the North, and caused the South to condemn him as a renegade.
In March 1862, after federal forces captured Nashville, Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of Tennessee. During the next three years he strove against great obstacles to establish a pro-Union civil government, a goal that was finally achieved early in 1865, when a new state constitution abolishing slavery went into effect. Realizing that the war doomed slavery, Johnson supported Lincoln's emancipation policy and told the blacks of Tennessee that he would be the Moses who led them into the promised land of freedom.
Meanwhile, Lincoln, hoping to attract support from northern prowar Democrats and border-state Unionists, arranged for Johnson to be his running mate in the 1864 presidential election. Hence, Johnson returned to Washington, where on 4 March 1865 he was inaugurated as vice president. Unhappily, prior to the ceremony Johnson, who recently had been ill and was feeling faint, drank some whiskey and then delivered a rambling, maudlin, almost incoherent inaugural address. Later on, enemies would seize upon this incident to denounce Johnson as "the drunken tailor," but there is no evidence that he habitually overindulged. As it was, he realized that he had disgraced himself and that there was little chance he would ever again play an important role in national affairs. Then came Lincoln's assassination, and suddenly he was the most important man in the nation.