Eliza McCardle Johnson
October 4, 1810, in Leesburg, Tennessee
January 15, 1876, in Green County, Tennessee
When Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency following President Lincoln’s assassination, his 54-year-old wife Eliza Johnson had been weakened by tuberculosis and was too sickly to perform the social duties required of a first lady. The Johnson’s married daughter, Martha Johnson Patterson, stepped up to the role required of a first lady and managed all of the social responsibilities.
Eliza was well educated for a young woman of her time, and yet her husband had never even attended school. Johnson’s family was very poor and sent him and his brother to apprentice with a tailor. When Johnson married Eliza, she taught him how to write and how to do arithmetic. With Eliza’s assistance, Johnson was able to overcome poverty and succeed in politics. Once Johnson became president, Eliza continued to assist her husband by reading the newspapers and government reports and marking items she felt were important for him to review. However, Eliza was not at all inclined, nor healthy enough, to perform the social duties required of a first lady. She delegated those duties to her daughter, Martha Johnson Patterson. Martha was somewhat prepared for the task as she had spent a number of holidays as a guest of the White House while she was a student in Washington and her father was a congressman. Eliza subsequently remained in the private family quarters of the White House and managed the household from there. Like First Lady Jane Pierce, her reclusive nature prompted many rumors, and, in fact, Eliza was so rarely seen that one newspaper had reported that she was “almost a myth.”
When Johnson was elected to Congress, Eliza stayed behind in Tennessee to raise and care for their five children. She explained, “[I] remained at home caring for the children and practicing economy.”
Following the assassination of Lincoln and the realization that her father was now president, Martha Johnson Patterson noted, “We are plain people from the mountains of Tennessee, called here by a national calamity. I trust too much will not be expected of us.”