Andrew Johnson's Impeachment Ordeal
by K. Daniel Glover
February 19, 1998


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A familiar presidential scenario?
A familiar
presidential scenario?
Partisan animosity reached a fever pitch the weekend of George Washington's birthday in mid-February. The majority Republicans in Congress had tolerated what they believed to be an abundance of questionable behavior on the part of the Democrat in the White House, and this time he had gone too far. He had to be stopped. All other means of checking the president's power had failed, so House Republicans availed themselves of their only remaining constitutional prerogative: They voted to impeach the president.

Sound familiar? Well, it should -- at least to Civil War buffs. No, this is not a prediction about the fate that awaits President Clinton; rather, it is the reality that President Andrew Johnson lived 130 years ago this month. Three days after Johnson dismissed Edwin M. Stanton as secretary of War on Feb. 21, 1868, the House voted to impeach Johnson and force the Senate to decide his fate in what remains the United States' only trial to remove a sitting president from office.

As the talk of impeachment reverberates again in 1998, on the heels of yet another allegation of misconduct lodged against Clinton, now seems an appropriate time to revisit the circumstances that nearly ended Johnson's reign as the nation's 17th president.

From Reconstruction to impeachment

Unlike Clinton, who was elected by the people, Johnson ascended to the presidency. A "War Democrat" and senator from Tennessee at the outbreak of the Civil War, Johnson was the only Southerner in Congress to vote against secession. President Abraham Lincoln rewarded that loyalty (and sought to bolster his own chances for re-election) by tapping Johnson in the place of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin as his running mate in 1864 on the National Union ticket. After the assassination of Lincoln, Johnson became president in April 1865 -- days after the official end of the war.

Although Lincoln already had begun to implement a Reconstruction policy, the task of rebuilding a nation divided by "that recent unpleasantness," as it was known by some in the South, fell to Johnson. Johnson told Lincoln's Cabinet officers that he would be true to Lincoln's policies, according to current Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's 1992 book Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson. But the Tennessean's pro-Southern sympathies quickly became apparent.

Radical Republicans like Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (PA) viewed the South as a "conquered province" and expected Johnson to treat the states as traitors by taking their land and granting it, and the right to vote, to the newly freed slaves. But Johnson, who had owned slaves and defended the states' rights to allow slavery before the war, recoiled at the idea of federal domination of the states that had seceded. He sought to reconcile North and South by making concessions to the Confederates, such as leaving to them alone the decision of how to implement emancipation of the slaves.

His moderate Reconstruction policies engendered great hostility in the Radical-dominated Congress. Under the leadership of, among others, Stevens in the House and Charles Sumner (R-MA) and Benjamin Wade (R-OH) in the Senate, congressional abolitionists pushed through their own, much stricter Reconstruction legislation. They gave blacks the right to buy land and testify against whites -- privileges that had been denied in the "Black Codes" enacted by lawmakers elected in the Southern states under Johnson's policies.

A determined Johnson repeatedly wielded his veto pen -- 29 times in less than four years, more than twice as often as any other president until that time -- but a Congress that had refused to seat Southern lawmakers easily overrode those vetoes. Johnson's efforts to overturn laws designed to protect the "unconstitutional" rights of ex-slaves failed, and his refusal to endorse the 14th Amendment, granting blacks the rights of citizenship, served only to embolden his congressional enemies.

A battle over presidential prerogative

Radical Republicans responded to Johnson's recalcitrance by passing laws designed to restrain his power. One of those, the Tenure of Office Act that required the president to first obtain the Senate's consent before removing any federal appointees from office, became the foundation of the effort to impeach Johnson.

Congress began to contemplate impeachment late in 1866, after Republicans had gained a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate in November. The debate began in the lame-duck session that December, even before the larger majority ascended to power. In January 1867, Rep. James Ashley (R-OH) moved an impeachment resolution.

By the summer of that year, Stevens had moved to the fore in the impeachment movement and War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton, who had been appointed by Lincoln in 1862, had begun to collaborate with Radical Republicans in Congress. Johnson sought Stanton's resignation on Aug. 5, 1867, but Stanton refused to relinquish his Cabinet post. Johnson forced him out and appointed Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in his stead.

That decision triggered an official impeachment probe by the House Judiciary Committee late that year, with Ashley going so far as to suggest, without any evidence, that Johnson may have played a role in Lincoln's assassination. Other Johnson enemies alleged, again without proof, that the president had sent letters to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The Judiciary panel voted 5-4 in favor of impeachment on Nov. 25, but after a two-day House floor debate in December, Johnson escaped impeachment on a 108-57 vote. In January 1868, though, the Senate invoked the Tenure of Office Act and reinstated Stanton as War secretary. Undeterred by the impeachment proceedings of a hostile Congress and confident of the unconstitutionality of the tenure statute, Johnson ousted Stanton again on Feb. 21, in effect daring his enemies to continue their vendetta.

'No future president will be safe...'

They gladly obliged. Rep. John Covode introduced a resolution to impeach Johnson for "high crimes and misdemeanors," and the House adopted the measure on a 126-47 vote Feb. 24, even before official articles of impeachment had been drafted.

The overtly political nature of the impeachment was apparent both in the content of the charges -- one of the 11 articles of impeachment charged Johnson with deriding his congressional foes on the campaign trail in 1866 -- and in the procedures of the Senate trial that began in early March. Johnson's lawyers objected to the rush to try the case, arguing that it was being "treated as if it were a case before a police court," and Sumner tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to have all of the evidence in the case submitted without argument and simply let the Senate rule.

The House managers who acted as prosecutors were confident of victory. Rep. John Logan closed the House's case this way: "We are not doubtful of your verdict. Andrew Johnson has long since been tried by the whole people and found guilty, and you can but confirm that judgment." Sumner said that the "tyrannical pretensions" displayed by Johnson over the previous two years justified conviction in what he called the "last great battle against slavery."

But the Senate did not believe the charges strong enough, or the motives of Johnson's accusers pure enough, to remove a president from office. "To depose the constitutional chief magistrate of a great nation, elected by the people, on grounds so slight, would ... be an abuse of power conferred upon the Senate," said Sen. William Pitt Fessenden (ME), one of the seven "Republican recusants" to vote against Johnson's conviction.

Lyman Trumbull (R-IL) explained his vote to acquit this way: "No future President will be safe who happens to differ with the majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate on any measure deemed by them important."

On May 16, the Senate took its first vote. The tally: 35-19, one short of the two-thirds needed for impeachment. Ten days later, after Republicans had nominated Grant as their 1868 presidential nominee, the Senate cast votes on two more impeachment articles and again fell one vote short on each. Republicans then abandoned their effort.

The lesson: Justice will be served

Although the attempt to replace Johnson as president failed, it did serve to cripple his already-weak presidency. Johnson served the remaining 10 months of his term but initiated no other clashes with Congress. He sought the Democratic presidential nomination but lost it to New York Gov. Horatio Seymour, who then lost to Grant. Johnson refused to attend Grant's inauguration.

In 1874, after failed bids for the Senate in 1869 and the House in 1872, Johnson won a measure of vindication with election to the Senate. He took the oath to great applause on March 5, 1875, and died a few months later.

Both Johnson and the nation survived one of the greatest constitutional crises in U.S. history, and perhaps President Clinton can take solace in Johnson's acquittal during such a tumultuous time. During his presidency, Johnson was widely despised by the public and the majority in Congress, yet he remained in office because he had the Constitution and the wisdom of the Founding Fathers on his side.

Today, Clinton still has the Constitution as a shield, and if polls can be trusted, he is an extremely popular president. If he is not guilty of "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors" -- the only grounds for impeachment allowed under the Constitution -- he has nothing to fear. Cooler heads will prevail, just as they did once before.

K. Daniel Glover, a former congressional correspondent, is the associate editor of IntellectualCapital.com. His e-mail address is danny@a2s2.com.

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A couple of additional points about Andrew Johnson that may interest IC readers: at first Congressional Radicals expected Johnson to be a much closer ally than Lincoln because of his outspoken views about the treasonous nature of secession. But the same Constitutional principles that led Johnson to call secession treason also led him to oppose Reconstuction: the belief that the Confederate states had never actually left the Union, and could thus not be denied immediate restoration of their voting rights in Congress once they had submitted to federal authority. Johnson's impeachment was the result of a constitutional crisis over separation of powers. So was Richard Nixon's near-impeachment, thanks to his expansive views of executive power, including impoundment of funds and use of executive privilege to block Congressional and judicial investigations of his Administration. The constitutional aspects of both cases are important to remember today, because so far no one claims President Clinton is defying Congressional or judicial authority. By the way, Andrew Johnson had his own problems with improprieties in personal behavior. He showed up drunk for his Inaugural Address as Vice President, and rambled incoherently until he was forced to stop. Interestingly enough, Congressional Republicans did not make an issue of this incident until Johnson began to defy them on Reconstruction.


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