Andrew Johnson National Historic Site Greeneville, Tenn. Visited: October 29, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 275 of 353 NPS Website
WHAT IS IT? Longtime home and tailor shop of our 17th president, Andrew Johnson.
BEAUTY (5/10) Greeneville is a charming (meaning small) east Tennessee town. A tidy stream rushes passed the dozens of early 19th-century redbrick buildings. The presidentís final resting place and burial monument stand on a hill steadfastly overlooking the town.
The granite obelisk attests that Johnson died certain of his own righteousness; "His Belief in the People Never Wavered" is etched on his grave, above it a representation of a hand on the Bible and above the Bible: the U.S. Constitution.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10) Andrew Johnson is more infamous than famous. He was the first president to be impeached, and by most accounts was an irascible, bull-headed, hard drinking, power-mad politician whose defining characteristic was that he was completely unlikable.
Nobody could have presided successfully over post-Civil War reconstruction, not Lincoln and not Grant. But Johnsonís leadership style was worse than anyone could have imagined, despite the fact that many of his ideas were prudent, fair and justified. Johnson refused to agree with Congress about anything. He vetoed every bill that came his way, angering both parties and all people while simultaneously (and perhaps correctly) sheathing himself in the holy virtue of the U.S. Constitution.
How Johnson narrowly avoided removal, by one vote, is a miraculous story famously covered by John F. Kennedy in Profiles in Courage. Had Congress successfully removed President Johnson, our venerable governmentís delicate balance of power may have been toppled for good.
We learned from the Park Ranger that Johnson would be a much more sympathetic character had he not been such a scoundrel and that sometimes even the worst president at the worst time needs protection from the whims of an angry Congress and American population. For our country and its Constitutionís sake.
CROWDS (7/10) The Site was surprisingly crowded with a smattering of visitors of all ages, nationality and interest, all eager to get tickets for the free Andrew Johnson Homestead tour.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5) Andrew Johnson moved from Raleigh, N.C. to Greeneville, Tenn. in order to elude the tailor he had apprenticed under. Johnson still owed him a few years of work. It is no wonder why Andrew was never found; Greeneville is remote. Getting there today is easier than it was for Johnson.
From Interstate 81, take Exit 23. N.C. Route 34 goes straight into Greeneville. It is just a 15-mile drive.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) President #16: Abraham Lincoln; often called the most written about human being next to Jesus Christ. President #17: Andrew Johnson; perhaps the least written about U.S. president despite his fiery personality and unique (until Clinton) impeached situation.
The Siteís bookstore understandably has a sparse selection but we did expect to see Eric McKitrickís Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. There could have been more Reconstruction-related books in general. Even so, we were definitely impressed by the 16-volume hardcover The Papers of Andrew Johnson. That is 12,000+ pages of AJ talk, a veritable presidential library.
We apologize for undercutting the Siteís bookstore (and Amazon.com), but the UT Press is selling heavily discounted copies of the $65 per volume The Papers... If you are interested, check the UT Press website for the books at $16.25 each, a 75% savings.
COSTS (5/5) There is no entry fee AND seven scheduled free tours of Johnsonís Homestead every day.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5) Upon arrival, one Ranger led us into the theater and checked to see if the local coffee shop was still open for us while we watched the film. As we exited the theater, a different Ranger informed us the coffee shop was not open and asked if we wanted to take the next house tour.
We declined the house tour, wandered around the rest of the Siteís buildings, started towards the car, and then decided we had many unanswered questions about President Johnson. We returned to the VC and were engaged with the second Ranger in animated conversation for nearly an hour.
Once again, a Ranger made a visit to a decidedly mundane site wonderful. We learned so much from the second Ranger that we declined her second invitation for the house tour. We had asked every possible question and wanted to visit president Johnsonís grave before the sun retreated.
TOURS/CLASSES (8/10) The Siteís small Museum tells the Andrew Johnson story with extraordinary depth, probing panels and impressive original AJ possessions which include the Bible on which he took the Oath of Office. Amazingly, Johnsonís old wooden tailor shop currently stands on site as it did in 1830, now protected from the elements by a redbrick anteroom. The Museum implores you to cast a pro- or anti- impeachment ballot in a makeshift voting box. We said no.
The film is an adequate introduction to Johnsonís largely unknown saga but the Museum and the terrific Rangers are necessary to learn more. We did not take the house tour, but if the Rangers and the Museumís memorabilia are any indication, the tour is well worth its price.
FUN (4/10) Reconstruction has to be the ugliest, least fun (but incredibly vital) period of American history and Andrew Johnson is an accurate representative of the time.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (3/10) Greeneville, Tennessee is not far from a lot of cool places (Great Smoky Mountains NP, Asheville, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn.) but it is also not that close. If you are traveling southward down Interstate 81 through Tennessee, it could make for a nice short detour.
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