Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth president of the United States, is well-known as a native son of Raleigh despite the extreme animosity he experienced as the only southern senator who supported the Union during the Civil War. And though he eventually faced impeachment in the political arena, he was most deeply affected by those who questioned his birthright.
Throughout Johnson’s rise in politics–as a city alderman in Greeneville, Tennessee, then a state senator, a U.S. senator and finally as Lincoln’s vice-presidential pick in 1864–many felt (and openly stated) a person of Johnson’s background could never earn such accolades without a wealthy patron. The implication was Andrew was the bastard child of a man of great means.
The truth is that Andrew was the son of Raleigh’s forgotten hero, Jacob Johnson.
Jacob Johnson, in his time, was the most popular man in Raleigh. He worked at Casso’s Tavern, which was situated at the southeast corner of Union Square, where the present-day Justice Building sits. Jacob’s house (Andrew’s birthplace) was located behind the tavern near the stables that held 30-40 traveler’s horses.
Peter Casso’s place was the best-loved tavern in Raleigh, offering food, drink and lodging to members of the General Assembly from all over North Carolina. The tavern was also the site of auctions, cockfights, a Winter Ball and the annual Fourth of July feast for everyone in the city.
Outside of Casso’s, Jacob busied himself with the duties of a church sexton, a janitor at the bank, and captain of the local muster company. Jacob’s faithful work, as well as his talent for whole-pig roasting, made him a frequent hunting companion of the landed elite.
It was on such an outing, winter fishing, along with Colonel William Polk, Raleigh Star editor Thomas Henderson, Jr., and a Scottish merchant remembered only as Callum, that Jacob’s sense of duty made him heroic. By differing accounts, it was the winter of 1810 or 1811, when a canoe carrying Henderson and Callum toppled into the icy water of Walnut Creek. Jacob plunged in and saved both men from drowning, and soon afterword became very ill.
Jacob’s many friends called on him to wish him a speedy recovery. It was later, in early January 1812, when Jacob was attending to his duties as Raleigh’s bell-ringer, tolling for a funeral on a bitter cold day, that he collapsed from exhaustion and weakness.
On January 4, 1812, Jacob succumbed to his illness, and was buried in the Citizen’s Cemetery, now called Raleigh City Cemetery, with a marker inscribed simply “J.X.J.” Andy, his youngest son, had just turned four years old.
Thomas Henderson, Jr., Raleigh Star editor who Jacob had rescued from drowning, wrote his obituary, noting that he owed his life “on one particular occasion” to Jacob Johnson.
Although Colonel Polk provided the elder son Bill with an apprenticeship, Polk died not long after, and Jacob’s wife Polly was left to raise her boys alone. Eventually, the Johnsons moved to Tennessee, where Andrew experienced his meteoric rise as a politician of the people.
By the time Andrew Johnson became president, Raleigh had little memory of it’s native born son, and outsiders looking into his past were appalled by the shack that served as his birthplace. Raleigh Mayor William Harrison appealed to the local populace for donations for a monument to replace Jacob Johnson’s simple grave marker.
It was 1867 when Andrew Johnson, then President of the United States, returned to his native Raleigh. The presidential procession led to the cemetery, where Andrew erected a monument to his father. On Fayetteville Street, on the balcony of the Yarborough House Hotel, Andrew Johnson addressed a crowd comprised of the ancestors of family friends but devoid of any local elite. The President told his people that his father Jacob Johnson was an “honest and faithful friend, a character I prize higher than all the wordly fortunes that could have been left me.”