Presidential Mothers: Andrew Johnson born into poverty in Raleigh

Published 1:22 pm Friday, February 10, 2023

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By  Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

Poverty stricken are the two words which probably best describe Mary (Polly) McDonough, who was born in 1782. Mary was of English and Scotch-Irish descent.  I

In 1801, she married Jacob Johnson, who was born in 1778. Mary was a laundress, which meant she took in dirty laundry that she washed, dried, and ironed before she returned it to its owner.

Mary’s husband, Jacob, was a porter at an inn. Both jobs paid so little that life was really hard for the Johnson family. They lived in a little ramshackle house in Raleigh, which has been restored and is still open to the public upon request.

Mary and Jacob Johnson had three children:  William, who was born in 1804; Andrew, who was born in 1808, and a little girl who died when she was a baby. Mary and Jacob had trouble even feeding their children because they had so little money.   When Andrew was just 3, his father died of a heart attack, and, that, of course, left Mary in even more dire straits.

When Andrew was 10, Mary had Andrew and his brother apprenticed to tailor, James Selby. They was legally bound to serve until they were 21. Andrew became unhappy after being apprenticed to Mr. Selby for about five years. Both he and his brother ran away.  Mr. Selby offered a reward to anyone who would find them and return them to him. They finally returned to Raleigh and tried to make a deal with Mr. Shelby, but they were unable to do so.

Andrew decided to escape by moving west. He took his mother with him west across the mountains of western North Carolina to Tennessee. They settled in Greeneville, Tenn., in the north-eastern part of the state not far from Johnson City. That must have been a horrendous trip because they either had to walk or ride in a little cart drawn by a pony or old horse the many miles from Raleigh.

Andrew had learned enough at Mr. Shelby’s traitor shop to set up his own shop in Greeneville. He was evidently a good tailor because he became successful. He then got interested in politics and was also successful in that area.  He was successful enough that Abraham Lincoln chose him to run with him as vice president.  The Lincoln/Johnson ticket won.  When Lincoln was gunned down by an assassin, Andrew Johnson became President of the United States.

Unfortunately, Mary, Andrew’s mother, had died on Feb. 13, 1856, nine years before her son was inaugurated as President.  The son of a poverty-stricken laundress, Mary Johnson, and Jacob Johnson, a porter at an inn, became the 17th President.

Andrew’s mother is buried in the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Greeneville, Tenn., which is where her son and other members of his family are buried. That cemetery was made a National Cemetery in 1906, and, in 1942, control of the cemetery went to the National Park Service which cares for the cemetery today.

Hannah Simpson Grant was a second-generation American of Scottish decent.  She was born on Nov. 23, 1798 near Philadelphia, Pa. Her parents were John Simpson Jr. and Rebecca Simpson. Her father was a farmer, evidently a successful farmer. Hannah’s mother died when she was 3, and she was raised by a stepmother.  When Hannah was about 19, her father sold his Pennsylvania farm, bought a farm near Mount Pleasant, Ohio, and moved his family there.

Some of the adjectives that are used in literature to describe Hannah Simpson Grant are intelligent, conscientious, quiet, unobtrusive, kind-hearted, very religious, calm, very reserved, and unpretentious.

It was the young lady with all of these attributes who married Jesse Root Grant on June 25, 1821.  Hannah and Jesse Grant lived in a small house at Mount Pleasant, near the Ohio River. It was there that their first-child was born.  There was a big family discussion when it was time to name that first-born son of the Grants. The name Ulysses was finally chosen when the suggested names were put in a hat and the name, Ulysses, was pulled out.  That seems like a strange way to choose a name, but it worked for the Grants and that is how the 18th President of the United States came to be named Ulysses. The house in Mount Pleasant where Ulysses Grant was born is open to the public.

Hannah Grant was a caring and supportive mother, who was concerned about the religious life of her family. She and her husband helped found the Georgetown Methodist and were always very active members.

When Grant was criticized for his handling of the Civil War, his mother was supportive and calm.  She believed that Ulysses would be protected by God because was trying to save the Union, a worthy cause.  One writer said that during the Civil War, Hannah went into a room at a certain hour each day to pray for her son.

Some people believe that there was some distance or disconnect between Ulysses and his mother. This idea seemed to come from the fact that Grant did not write about his mother in his autobiography. Anyone who had read that autobiography will also note that Grant also did not even write much about his wife, who he loved so dearly.  The fact that he did not write about his mother really did not prove anything because his writing was mainly about his day-to-day duties during the Civil War.

Some historians say that there was a strong and emotional bond between Ulysses and his mother.  Actually, Ulysses seemed to have inherited some of his mother’s character traits.  He, like his mother, was a bit reserved and some say shy.  Hannah Grant did not attend the inauguration when her son was sworn in as President obecause she did not like publicity and praise. She never visited the White House probably for the same reasons. She would not talk to reporters about her family. She just did not want to be in the limelight because of her retiring nature, not because she was in alienated from her son.

Hannah Simpson Grant died on May 11, 1798, at age 84.  She is not buried in the elaborate Grant Memorial Tomb in New York, but at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio, near her husband, Jesse Root Grant.