Monday, January 15, 2007

January 15, 1876:

Eliza McCardle Johnson Dies

The "office" of first lady is often defined by the personality of the woman who "holds" it. Some first ladies are remembered for certain things, unfairly or not: Mary Todd Lincoln's extravagance, Eleanor Roosevelt's outspokenness, Jackie Kennedy's fashion sense. Others are as destined for obscurity as many of the presidents.

Such is the fate of Eliza McCardle Johnson, wife of President Andrew Johnson. Until recently he was assured a place in history as the only president to be impeached, and he's still the first, and has that cliff-hanger vote on conviction in the Senate to ensure an enduring memory. She, on the other hand, is not even a whisper in the historical imagination of this country. Even during her lifetime, she was rarely seen. "Aside from... two public appearances -- one at a reception for Queen Emma of the Sandwich Islands and other a birthday party for her husband -- Eliza Johnson remained totally out of the public eye," says "Part of this was due to her health and part of it was due to the excessive amount of criticism the former First Lady, Mary Lincoln, had received from the public."

Historians have little to work with when it comes to Eliza Johnson. "That Eliza helped her husband along when he was a struggling taylor is certain," wrote Hans L. Trefousse in Andrew Johnson (1989). "Although she did not teach him how to read -- he was already literate -- she did assist him in his further education... Supporting him during the trying days of the Civil War, she and her children, marked as the family of a man considered an arch-traitor by the Confederates, for a time stayed behind in enemy territory. Later on, she again faithfully stood by his side during the ordeal of impeachment. In many ways, however, because of the absence of papers and letters from her, Eliza remains an elusive person, hidden from the public and thorough historical inquiry."

She died this day in 1876, only about six months after her husband.

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