Sunday, December 1, 2013

Eliza Johnson

I finally got the book, Eliza Johnson in Perspective by Jean Choate! Happy birthday to me from my parents!

It was fun to hunt down a copy, though. I even emailed the author to see if she had any copies, but she had sold out last fall. It was interesting to find out when I googled the author that she is also a pastor’s wife! All along I have noticed how similar a position first ladies and pastor’s wives have so it is interesting to have an biographer have that perspective while writing.

As a pastor’s wife, one of my favorite opportunities is to do premarital counseling with couples before my husband marries them. We think it’s helpful to the couple to offer both a husband and wives’ perspective. And although we by no means have it all together, I like to pass along what I wish I had known before I got married.

If first ladies had to do premarital counseling, I would most like to see Eliza Johnson in that role. She seemed perhaps the most “normal” wife so far and in the little we know about her, she seemed to have been a down-to-earth, hard-working, loving, wife, mom, and grandmother.  From reading her biography, I can picture what advice she would pass on to a new bride.

Here is what I think Eliza Johnson would say:
  • “Believe in your husband. Be his biggest cheerleader.” When Eliza and Andrew were first married they were young and poor. They lived in Tennessee in a two room home. The front room was Andrew’s tailor shop and the back room was their living quarters. Eliza was the more educated and while Andrew sewed, she read to him so he could become an educated person.

Through talking politics with men who would hang out in his tailor shop, Andrew became interested in debating. Although he was not a student, he gained permission to join a debating club at nearby Greeneville College every Friday night which was a four mile walk. I’m sure that was a sacrifice for Eliza to be on her own with the kids in the evening after Andrew was working all day, but she supported her husband and encouraged him to grow as a person and develop his strengths. Later, as a political candidate, Andrew was known for his speaking ability.

Eliza was also Andrew’s cheerleader through his impeachment trial. When the news of his acquittal came to her, “tears welled in her eyes, but her voice did not tremble.” She cried “I knew he would be acquitted, I knew it.”

  • “Be frugal. Avoid debt. Work hard at home.” As Andrew’s political career grew, he was often absent from home. But Eliza was faithful at managing the family accounts in addition to her regular chores of sewing, cooking, gardening, raising the children, and also being in charge of their slaves (pre-Civil War). Through their hard work and frugality they were able to expand their property. Although they had started out married life with nothing, a little more than twenty years into their marriage, they had an estate worth $50,000.
Eliza must have been a good cook and taught her daughters and her slaves how to cook. Her daughters, Martha and Mary, served as White House hostesses and were known for their attention to food. (Eliza also put in her thoughts on what the White House staff should serve for dinner. The Johnsons were also the first to provide the White House staff with lunch.)

The first slave the Johnson’s bought was a 14 year old named Dolly. Eliza taught also taught her how to cook. After the Civil War, Dolly made her living by selling pies out of Andrew’s old tailor shop.

  • “Be respectful to your husband especially in public.” Andrew Johnson had a temper. He also had jobs that were beyond stressful.  It was said that the thing that could calm him down was Eliza gently laying her hand on his shoulder and quietly saying, “Andy.” She didn’t tear him to shreds in public like Mary Lincoln would to her husband, but just gently used her influence so he could continue to show his good side. We can also tell that she was respectful to Andrew because he relied on her to tear out newspaper clippings for him to keep him informed. This respect Andrew had for Eliza would not have been there if she did not respect him. This respect for each other also set the tone for the whole family. In the White House years, their daughters and their families also lived there and the three families lived together without friction!

Only one letter survives between Eliza and Andrew and it was written in 1863 when he was in Washington and she in Tennessee. He closes the letter by wishing Eliza will “accept for yourself the best wishes of a devoted husband’s heart.” Andrew’s devotion to her was developed over the years of their marriage in which Eliza encouraged him, worked hard at home, and gave him respect. All are lessons any wife could use to draw their husband close with a devoted heart.