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Eliza Johnson, Martha’s mother, was the wife of Andrew Johnson, America’s 17th president (1865-1869), who achieved the presidency upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Mrs. Johnson was enfeebled by tuberculosis, and as first lady, according to one report, “spent most of he time in her room, where she read, embroidered, sewed and knitted. She almost entirely relinquished her social and ceremonial responsibilities; her daughter, Martha Johnson, was the official White House hostess.”

Eliza Johnson remained ill after the White House, and died in January 1876 at age 65. The illness was tuberculosis; she became symptomatic when she was forty-seven.
Her physical condition was the most important factor determining her reduced public role.

Mrs. Johnson played a limited public role in the White House, restricting it to that of hostess at formal dinners and the visits of heads of state. Privately, Eliza Johnson still oversaw the menus for both the family’s private meals and those served to guests, making a morning ritual of visiting the kitchens and interacting with the staff.
Characteristically unpredictable, Eliza Johnson’s tuberculosis waxed and waned during her tenure as First Lady, and as it gradually worsened, she became sedentary and lived a more confined life towards the Administration’s end.

Martha Johnson (1828-1901) was the oldest of the Johnsons’ five children (two daughters, three sons) and the longest-lived. She was 24 years older than her youngest sibling.
Martha decided as a young woman to marry a man who was not only interested in politics but also had the potential to rise to the high regard she held for her father. At age twenty-three, she met law clerk David Patterson. Despite his being ten years her senior, they were a strong match in their love of politics; Martha half-joked that she would not marry him until he could prove his ability to rise in elective office. They wed in 1855 and had two children. Patterson fulfilled his wife’s expectations. He was elected senator from Tennessee and served contemporaneously while his father-in-law was president.

Before leaving their Nashville home for the White House, Eliza Johnson conferred with her younger and more passive daughter Mary Stover and her older, efficient one, Martha Patterson, who had years of experience in Washington life, in deciding the part each would play in the presidential household.

Martha Johnson Patterson took on the task of hostess who appeared in the receiving line at the large open-house receptions to which the general public was admitted to meet the President. Mary Johnson Stover was to assist her sister at these public receptions, Patterson also assumed responsibility for determining how to restore some of the mansion’s glory on a limited federal budget. The family had inherited a post-war mansion, the appearance of which denigrated the presidency. As Surrogate First Lady, she used considerable skill in assuming the personal management of an April 1866 $30,000 congressional redecorating appropriation.

A third important role was the comfort provided her father as President, whether seated directly across the table from him or standing alongside him. The value of her presence relieved him of much of the necessity of entertaining hostile politicians. Such wariness was based on the acrimony felt towards him and his policies by the “Radical Republicans” who held dominant power in Congress and his inherited Cabinet, and who led the move to impeach and remove him from the presidency.
Two interesting addenda to Martha Johnson Patterson’ biography:

Rather than return home to Tennessee from her Washington school during the breaks between semesters or taken out of school when her father was on congressional break, Martha lived as a long-term guest during those times in the White House, as the guest of the President and Mrs. Polk, Tennessee natives and political allies of her father.

Her husband Tennessee Senator Patterson served during the Impeachment trial of her father, President Andrew Johnson. While the husband was sitting in judgment of her father, Martha Patterson publicly maintained the impression that as a Senate wife she played no political role as a Presidential daughter. When asked about the impeachment trial, she responded with bland caution, “I have so much to do, that I have no time to discuss the subject, and I suppose my private opinion is not worth much. Andrew Johnson survived impeachment by a single senate vote, 35 for impeachment, 19 for acquittal. Senator Patterson unsurprisingly voted or acquittal. A two thirds-vote of senators was required for conviction and removal from office.

The author is indebted to the National First Ladies Library for much of the above information.

Lud Historian
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