This week in history: President Andrew Johnson survives impeachment

By Cody K. Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, May 14 2014 4:29 p.m. MDT

On May 16, 1868, President Andrew Johnson was acquitted of all charges during his impeachment trial in the Senate. Johnson's impeachment was unprecedented and stemmed from the various political disagreements over Reconstruction policy in the wake of the Civil War.

During the 1864 presidential election, with the war still raging, incumbent Abraham Lincoln wanted to demonstrate the principle of American unity in his administration if re-elected, going so far as to re-brand the Republican Party the National Union Party. To this end, Lincoln selected Andrew Johnson to be his running mate. A Tennessee Democrat, Johnson had been the only Southern senator to remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War.

After Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Johnson was sworn in as president. Initially, many were convinced that Johnson's plans for the reconstruction of the Union would echo Lincoln's. The new president, however, had his own views on Reconstruction. Where Lincoln forbade former Confederate officials from holding office in reconstructed states, Johnson felt that the states themselves should have the power to select their leaders. The result of Johnson's policy was that many former Confederate military and civilian leaders now held power once again.

Johnson continued to believe in the Southern states' rights arguments that had flourished in the years leading up to the Civil War, and he refused to admit what the war itself had evidenced — that the federal government did indeed have the power to compel Southern states to accept certain laws. This put Johnson at odds with the radical faction of the Republican Party.

With the 1861 secession of 11 Southern states, the bulk of Democratic support in the Union disappeared, leading to an ascendant Republican Party. The party itself was divided between a moderate faction, which Lincoln had led, and the radicals. (This factionalism within the Republican Party was explored brilliantly in Steven Spielberg's 2012 film “Lincoln.”) The radicals called for a more punitive form of Reconstruction against the South, as well as using the machinery of the federal government to make certain that the institution of slavery was dead in the South and to improve the standard of living for former slaves.

The next few years saw a virtual state of war between Johnson and the radical Republicans. In 1866, the radicals in Congress passed a Civil Rights Act that ensured African-Americans would be guaranteed the same rights as white citizens throughout the country. Johnson vetoed the legislation, but the radicals and their allies were able to overturn the veto and pass the law anyway.

That same year, Congress voted to create an expanded Freedman's Bureau Bill (the first was created under Lincoln), which would allow the federal government to actively aid former slaves in matters such as employment, health care and education. Again Johnson vetoed the bill, and again Congress overturned the veto.

It quickly became apparent that Congress had the power and the will to run Reconstruction policy. Adopting the more punitive tone it had always wanted, Congress empowered the Army and its ranking general, Ulysses S. Grant, to carry out its polices. As commander-in-chief of the Army, however, Johnson could still theoretically thwart Congress' plans.

In order to rein in the power of the president, in 1867 Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, a piece of legislation that stated that no official, Cabinet member or general Army officer who had been approved by the Senate could be dismissed without the Senate's approval. This was passed in order to make sure that Johnson could not replace Grant's subordinates and transmit orders contrary to Congress' will. It also set Johnson on a collision course with his secretary of war, the Lincoln-appointed Edwin M. Stanton.

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