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.
Johnson decided to call Congress' bluff, and in the summer of 1867, while Congress was in recess, he suspended Stanton, allowing him to sideline the Tenure of Office Act while still upholding it. Congress did not accept the nebulous position of Stanton, however, and the secretary continued much as he had before, to Johnson's annoyance. On Feb. 21, 1868, Johnson decided he had had enough with Congress and appointed a new secretary of war. His choice for replacement was Maj. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas.
In his biography of the 18th president of the United States, “Grant,” Jean Edward Smith wrote:
“That afternoon, Thomas delivered the president’s letter to Stanton. Grant was with the secretary at the time, and Stanton, in Grant's presence, asked Thomas for time to consider whether he would obey. Thomas left the room briefly, Grant urged Stanton to stick to his post, and the secretary, fortified by the general in chief's presence, subsequently advised Thomas he would not yield. News of the encounter flashed through Washington like wildfire. Republicans in Congress rushed to the War Department to urge Stanton to resist.”
Three days later, the House of Representatives passed a resolution by a vote of 128-47 to impeach Johnson for violating the law. Section 4 of the Constitution provides for the president to be removed if he is found guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The mechanism to remove a sitting president, impeachment, means a trial in the Senate to determine the president's guilt or innocence. If found guilty, the president may be removed from office. Specific charges were soon drawn up by a special congressional committee.
In his book “A Short History of Reconstruction,” historian Eric Foner wrote: “Yet from the outset, the case against the president was beset with weaknesses. Of the 11 articles of impeachment, nine hinged on either the removal of Stanton or an alleged attempt to induce (Thomas) to accept orders not channeled through Grant. Nowhere were the real reasons the Republicans wished to dispose of Johnson mentioned — his political outlook, the way he had administered the Reconstruction Acts and his sheer incompetence.”
Impeaching a sitting president was an unprecedented move and brought with it several unique challenges. For instance, Johnson himself had been a vice president elevated to the presidency, and currently no one held the title of vice president. That meant that if Johnson were removed from office, the presidency would fall upon the Senate pro tem, Benjamin Wade, who had made his own share of political enemies.
Johnson's lawyers argued that the Tenure of Office Act didn't apply to Stanton, a Lincoln holdover, though in that case were hard pressed to explain why Johnson had suspended him in accordance with the act the previous summer. Contradictorily, his lawyers argued that he had violated the act in order for its constitutionality to be decided by the Supreme Court.
Though many radicals wanted Johnson gone, a coalition formed among more moderate Republicans and the few Senate Democrats remaining. Many feared the repercussions of a Wade presidency while many simply objected to the removal of a president on political grounds — an action setting a precedent that would have far-reaching consequences and cut right to the heart of the principle of separation of powers. At the same time, intermediaries let Congress know that Johnson, should he survive the trial, would not interfere with Republican Reconstruction polices. On May 16, the senators voted.
Smith wrote: “Johnson survived impeachment by one vote. Thirty-five senators voted to convict and 19 to acquit: one short of the constitutional two-thirds required to remove the president from office. Seven Republicans joined the Senate's 12 Democrats in voting to dismiss the charges.”
Though Johnson was acquitted, he found himself virtually powerless during the last few months of his presidency. In November, Grant was elected president and enjoyed a much smoother working relationship with Congress. The Tenure of Office Act was repealed by Congress in 1887, and similar laws were later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, perhaps vindicating Johnson's actions in the eyes of history.
In February 1999, 131 years after Johnson's ordeal, President Bill Clinton would face trial in the Senate under very different circumstances. Like his predecessor, Clinton was acquitted.
Cody K. Carlson holds an MA in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, you can check out his blog at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org