Briscoe Center Acquires Andrew Johnson Letter
The Briscoe Center has acquired a rare letter written by Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of the United States. Dated January 31, 1852, when Johnson was serving as a congressman from Tennessee, the letter is written to Sam Milligan, one of Johnson’s political confidants. The letter primarily discusses Milligan’s prospects for successfully opening a law firm in Texas, but also touches on the general state of affairs in the Lone Star State at the time and includes Johnson’s enthusiasm about the potential of Sam Houston making a run for the presidency.
Milligan’s close friendship to Johnson dated from their time together as students at Greenville College in Tennessee. Milligan’s law practice was later based in Greenville (for a time at Johnson’s tailor shop), and in the 1840s they both served in the Tennessee state legislature. Johnson engineered Milligan’s appointment to several key positions both as governor and president. At various times before Milligan’s death in 1874, the two corresponded frequently and candidly.
Johnson wrote to share his thoughts about Milligan’s proposed relocation of his law practice to Texas. After consulting with friends in Texas, Johnson concluded that there had previously existed “a much more favorable time than the present for obtaining business” there. While not dismissing the idea entirely, Johnson thought it best to pull no punches and “state the condition of the country as it is.” If, however, “a man of the proper habits would go there and could make out to support himself for a time, it would be a be a good change in the end” because Texas would, “in a few years be one of the richest States in the Union.” At the time he was writing, Texas was still reeling from the aftermath of the Mexican-American War. However, the area was also growing at a tremendous pace as planters migrated to the eastern portion of the state with their slaves in order to cultivate cash crops, most notably cotton.
Johnson goes on to endorse “old Sam” Houston for president. The presidential election of 1852 was “beginning to create some talk among the wise workers,” and Johnson believed Houston to be “the strong man for the democracy . . . if he could be nominated.” However, Johnson lamented that the press was “subsidized by the other candidates which operates against him [Houston].” Johnson also believed that Houston was “the only man that can beat [Winfield] Scott and Scott will be the candidate of the Whig Party unless things take another direction from the present.” It is worth noting that Johnson was wrong in his analysis. Scott indeed secured the Whig nomination but ran a lackluster campaign and failed to win the backing of senior figures in his own party, which was split over the issue of slavery. Scott lost the general election to the Democratic nominee, Franklin Pierce.
Within 18 months of writing the letter, Johnson was elected governor of Tennessee. In 1857 he was elected to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate. At best ambivalent about slavery, Johnson nevertheless opposed secession and the Civil War. He was appointed Tennessee’s military governor in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln and was selected as his running mate in 1864. Johnson became president after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and presided over the first phase of Reconstruction. He is considered by many historians to be one of America’s most ineffective and poorly skilled presidents. He narrowly escaped impeachment in 1868 and lost the Democratic nomination for president the same year. He returned to Washington in 1875, serving a second stint as a U.S. Senator from Tennessee. He died less than five months later.
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