The Impeachment of
Andrew Johnson

From: Eric Foner, Reconstruction America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1988

To the many dramatic innovations Reconstruction brought to American politics, the spring of 1868 added yet another: the unprecedented spectacle of the President's trial before the Senate for "high crimes and misdemeanors.” The roots of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson lay not only in the increasingly hostile relations between himself and Congress, but in a peculiar feature of Republican Reconstruction policy itself. For Congress had enjoined the army to carry out a policy its commander-in-chief resolutely opposed. Even before 1867, a number of Radicals had called for Johnson’s removal, fearing that Reconstruction could never be successful so long as he remained in office. Ohio Congressman James M. Ashley became obsessed with the issue, attempting to prove that, like William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor (who, he contended, had been poisoned), Lincoln had been murdered to place his Vice President in the White House. Instead of following Ashley down the road to impeachment, however, Congress preferred to shield its policy, and the Republican party, against Presidential interference. In 1867, it required that all orders to subordinate army commanders pass through General Grant and, in the Tenure of Office Act, authorized officials appointed with the Senate's consent to remain in office until a successor had been approved. Intended primarily to protect lower level patronage functionaries, the law also barred the removal, without Senate approval, of Cabinet members during the term of the President who had appointed them. It remained uncertain, however, whether this applied to Secretary of War Stanton, who had been named to his post by Lincoln.

  Secretary of War Stanton resist
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Press, March 7, 1868

Some supporters urged the President to remove Stanton and declare the Reconstruction Act null and void. But while determined to obstruct the implementation of Congressional policy, Johnson did not covet the role of sacrificial lamb. Instead, he waited until midsummer to take advantage of a provision of the Tenure of Office Act allowing him to suspend Stanton while Congress was not in session, pending a vote on his permanent removal after the Senate reconvened. So long as Johnson remained within the law, impeachment got nowhere. Early in December, Ashley's motion from the previous winter finally came to the House floor, only to suffer an overwhelming defeat, with every Democrat and a majority of Republicans in opposition. Coming hard on the heels of the fall elections, the House vote convinced the President that the Northern public had at last rallied to his policies. He now set about actively encouraging Southern opponents of Reconstruction and ousted several military commanders in favor of more conservative replacements. And when the Senate refused to concur in Stanton's removal, Johnson, on February 21, 1868, ousted him from his office.

Having failed to "play the part of Moses for the colored people," commented The Nation, Johnson had succeeded in doing so "for the impeachers." A combination of motives and calculations shaped his course -- certainty of popular support, a desire to reassert the powers of the Presidency, even the hope of commending himself to the Democrats as their 1868 nominee. Yet, as so often in the past, Johnson had miscalculated. General Sherman, who mostly shared the President's views, found his actions indefensible: "He attempts to govern after he has lost the means to govern. He is like a General fighting without an army." With unanimous Republican support, the House voted to impeach the President. Although the decision represented, in part, a cathartic gesture, a determination to be rid once and for all of this irritating Chief Executive, Republicans also had practical reasons for desiring Johnson out of office, especially the growing conviction that his actions threatened the success of Reconstruction. Radicals, in particular, were daily receiving letters from the South

Congressional Impeachment Committee, 1868

In a Parliamentary system, Johnson would long since have departed, for nearly all Republicans by now agreed with Supreme Court justice David Davis, who described the President as "obstinate, self-willed, combative," and totally unfit for his office. But these, apparently, were not impeachable offenses. Despite the changes made by Butler and Stevens, the articles as a whole implicitly accepted what would become the central premise of Johnson’s defense: that only a clear violation of the law warranted a President's removal.

Other factors enhanced Johnson’s chances for retaining office. Since the Vice Presidency remained vacant, his successor would be Ben Wade, president pro tem of the Senate and a man disliked by moderates for his radical stance on Reconstruction, and by many businessmen and laissez-faire ideologues for his high tariff, soft-money, prolabor views. "All the great Northern capitalists,&qu "the present situation to the change proposed." Trumbull, Fessenden, and Grimes, who shared moderate views on Reconstruction and held free trade convictions, feared both the damage to the separation of powers that would result from conviction and the political and economic policies that might characterize a Wade Presidency. Moreover, the crisis atmosphere of February receded. Republicans triumphed in a string of Southern elections, and the Supreme Court acceded to a law rushed through Congress stripping it of jurisdiction in habeas corpus cases, thus rendering moot the appeal of an imprisoned Mississippi editor that might have raised the question of the constitutionality of Reconstruction. Meanwhile, Evarts quietly passed along assurances that Johnson, if acquitted, would cease his efforts to obstruct Republicans' Southern policy.

By April, Washington bookmakers' odds had shifted in favor of acquittal, and when the decision finally came in mid-May, only thirty-five Senators voted for conviction, one short of the required two thirds. The votes of seven Republicans supplied Johnson’s narrow margin of victory, although a number of others stood ready to support the President if necessary. Wade failed to disqualify himself, voting for a verdict that would have placed him in the White House. (Kansas Republican Sen. Edmund G. Ross, who voted for acquittal, also invited charges of impropriety, for he quickly cashed in on the President's gratitude by securing lucrative patronage posts for several friends.) Contrary to later myth, Republicans did not read the "seven martyrs" out of the party, and all campaigned for Grant that fall. It would be more accurate to suggest that the impeachment affair formed an important link in a chain of events that left the seven, and some who had voted for conviction, increasingly disillusioned with Reconstruction. All four who survived to 1872 would join the Liberal Republicans.

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