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Impeachment 1868/1999

by Eric Foner

With the U.S. Senate convening for the impeachment trial of William Jefferson Clinton, it seems useful to look back at the only other impeachment trial in U.S. history—that of Andrew Johnson in 1868. We present three pieces that reflect on the past and present of impeachment by the leading historian of that era, Eric Foner, the De Witt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and President elect of the American Historical Association. The first is an editorial that compares the politics of the two impeachment trials. The second provides background information on President Andrew Johnson’s opposition to civil rights legislation during Reconstruction and the third provides a more detailed look at the impeachment of President Johnson. We also present links to several websites that offer teaching resources on the current impeachment trial as well as impeachments of the past. (Posted January 1999)

Historical events, Karl Marx once observed, seem to occur twice—first as tragedy, the second time as farce. The impending impeachment of President Clinton is proof of Marx’s dictum.

Once before in American history, during the turbulent era of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, a president was impeached by the House of Representatives and tried before the Senate. This was Andrew Johnson, like Clinton a Southerner who had alienated a majority of Republicans in Congress. There, however, similarities between the two impeachments begin and end.

Unlike today, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment arose from differences over the most fundamental question of public policy — what kind of nation is the United States? How should the country be reunited; who was entitled to the rights of American citizens; what should be the status of the emancipated slaves? On these questions turned three years of increasingly bitter political warfare between Congress and the president.

Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat who remained loyal to the Union during the war, had been nominated for vice president by Republicans in 1864 as a symbol of the party’s desire to extend its influence into the South after the Civil War. But when he assumed the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson quickly demonstrated himself wholly unfit for the job.

Johnson’s Reconstruction policy is often described as one of “leniency” toward the South. It was lenient enough to white Southerners, whom Johnson quickly restored to control over local affairs. To the four million emancipated slaves, however, Johnson’s lily-white plan of Reconstruction was extremely punitive. Johnson ordered black families evicted from land on which they had been settled by the U. S. army, and through the notorious Black Codes, the southern governments he created attempted to reduce blacks back to the condition of dependent plantation laborers.

Between 1865 and 1867, Northern Republicans slowly became convinced that Reconstruction must recognize blacks as American citizens entitled to equality before the law and, for men, the right to vote. Johnson, a thoroughgoing racist, opposed these policies. The 1866 Congressional elections, a sweeping victory for the Republicans, demonstrated that unlike Clinton, Johnson had little popular support. Nonetheless, Johnson attempted to use the patronage and his command of the army to obstruct Congressional policies.

Although some Republicans had long called for Johnson’s removal, it was not until February 1868 that the House voted to impeach him. The catalyst was Johnson’s flouting of the Tenure of Office Act, which forbade the dismissal of certain federal officials without the approval of the Senate. Claiming the law was unconstitutional, Johnson removed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, an action that became the basis of the Articles of Impeachment.

In the end, even though Republicans commanded well above a two-thirds majority in the Senate, seven moderates voted to acquit, fearing the damage to the separation of powers if Johnson were removed, and assured by Johnson’s attorneys that he would stop obstructing Congressional policy. The final vote was 35–19, one short of the two-thirds needed for conviction.

Today, few historians have a good word to say for Andrew Johnson. But most consider his impeachment to have been a mistake. In our political system, impeachment is an extraordinary remedy, a means of protecting the political system and the people themselves against serious abuses of power. It is a blunt instrument, designed to be used only in extreme cases, not a judicial procedure to deal with every possible breach of the law. Johnson’s political crimes were legion. But both prosecution and defense accepted the premise that impeachment requires an unequivocal and serious violation of the law, not incompetence, disregard of the popular will, or even strenuous efforts to deny millions of black Americans their basic rights. If these did not justify Johnson’s impeachment, surely Clinton’s private behavior and efforts to conceal it do not meet the constitutional standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

No one ever voted for Andrew Johnson for president of the United States. Bill Clinton, by contrast, was twice elected by the American people. For a partisan majority in Congress to remove him from office in the absence of persuasive evidence that his actions have damaged the body politic would do far more harm to American democracy than Clinton’s own sordid deeds.

A version of this essay appeared in The Nation