Warp and Weft (#17)

Warp and Weft (#17)

At a point—some night, most likely, the day’s cutting and sewing and stitching done, tomorrow’s work ahead of him—the idea becomes clear, snaps into focus in front of the young tailor’s eyes. A moment, when in the light of a candle, his wife over his shoulder guiding him, he looks at the scratchings in front of him, lines like jagged stitches:


He is a tailor, he is good at putting things together, and he recognizes—he reads—a word in all of that mess. Perhaps a simple word like the, he, or she, or perhaps his name. Perhaps he points to the word, sounds out its phonemes, looks up to his wife, who smiles at him, saying yes, Andy, that is your name, Andy.

In that moment, Andrew Johnson, illiterate tailor of rural Tennessee, looks at the page beneath him, and confirms that yes, he is emerging from the page:


He is a tailor, a good one. Years from now, when others could do it for him, he mends his own clothing. He looks at a bolt of cloth and sees it unfurling into shirts, dresses, a coat here and a pair of pants there. He sees patterns, where to cut or to stitch, where to bind, or where to rip a seam apart. He has not needed to read for this, but when his wife teaches him, he understands both that the marks on the paper mean something, and that whatever they mean, they mean a station beyond a tailor’s.

vintage-sewing-machine He reads. The world opens to him. What had been XXXXXX, he now recognizes Eliza, his wife, his teacher. He had known his state’s name but now he sees written Tennessee, the pattern of repeated letters, the way a pen moves when writing it. He reads everything, books, newspapers, the Constitution, whose XX XXX XXXXXX becomes WO LKU RUQRIU and finally resolves into We the People, and where he encounters another word, potentially for the first time, emerging from the shadows: impeachment.

Because of the customers who come into his shop, he has learned to speak well, and he begins his ascent—alderman, mayor, the state house and senate, US Congress. He buys a slave, his Constitutional right. He believes in the Constitution, believes in how these words, when read, form a more perfect union, the threads that stitch together the pieces of the union.

When it unravels, he holds fast the whole cloth. He can look at the jumble and make sense of it. Before the war, he had been governor; his successor cut the threads binding it to the Union, to Andy’s beloved Constitution. When Grant and Pope and Buell tear much of Tennessee bloodily from the rebels, Lincoln names him military governor of his state, and then names him vice-president for the ’64 election, thinking already about Reconstruction.

But if we pull this ascending thread of his career, it takes all the stitches with it. He is likely drunk when he takes the oath as vice-president, and a month later, he becomes president when his own assassin loses his nerve while Booth leaps from the box. The task of binding up a nation’s wounds falls to him, a tailor.

And yet: the Constitution’s friend would leave this to the states. The North sees him giving away the victory; the South sees him as hands-off, and they cut the patterns of Jim Crow from the cloth he gives them.

Andrew Johnson is buried in his Tennessee—stitched into an American flag, his head resting on a copy of the Constitution, his legacy a reminder that this country’s lie—anyone can be president—means that the wrong person can become president, and that these ideas—all men are created equal; by the people, of the people, for the people; and that they shall not have died in vain—do vanish from the earth, and we forget how to read them, they fade from ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL to ALM MON ATE CLEVTEV EMUAL to TLR VXA ATR MNEBCZ JLPQT to finally simple lines at which we stare, uncomprehending.

razor iconColin Rafferty teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Mary Washington and is the author of Hallow This Ground, a collection of essays on monuments and memorials, published by Break Away Books/Indiana University Press. “Warp and Weft (#17)” one of a series of 45 essays on the presidents, some of which can be found at www.colinrafferty.com. He thanks Joni Tevis for letting him borrow the title from her.

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