Impeachment is all over the news lately, and the media refers to two other cases in US history of impeachment – presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Most people know of the Watergate scandal and how Nixon resigned before he could be impeached and of Monica Lewinsky, Clinton lying, and ultimately Clinton being impeached by the House of Representatives and acquitted by the Senate. What most people don’t talk about is the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, the successor to Abraham Lincoln after his assassination. So I thought I’d do a post covering some history on his presidency and his impeachment situation.
Politics and Vice-Presidency
What sticks out to me about Andrew Johnson comes from the book Grant by Ron Chenrow (a very detailed book, but very, very dry). Andrew Johnson got trashed at Lincoln’s second inauguration. He drank the night before because he had typhoid fever (I don’t understand the connection) and was hungover the morning of the inauguration so he drank more whiskey. Then he gave a drunk, rambling speech about his humble origins and “rising above” the “rebel aristocracy.” Johnson was so drunk that he could not perform his duty of swearing in the new senators. It wasn’t a great start to his vice presidency.
Johnson was born in North Carolina, but rose to political fame in Tennessee. He fought to keep Tennessee in the Union and was against secession. Notably, he put the Union before his political party (something that seems forgotten on both sides of the aisle at times today!) The role of vice-president on Lincoln’s second term ticket was sought after, and Johnson ultimately won.
Andrew Johnson only served as vice-president for 42 days before he was thrust into the presidency due to Lincoln’s assassination. At first, people thought that Johnson’s fiery, stern spirit would be good for the country at the end of the Civil War, and people applauded Johnson for accommodating Mrs. Lincoln on extended time to move out of the White House due to her grief. But the feel-good didn’t last long.
One thing Johnson was quickly known for was his stubbornness. Members of Congress were disappointed when Johnson proved to have a more lenient attitude toward Reconstruction and when he pardoned Confederate leaders. Some thought he enjoyed the former aristocrats begging for a paradon. Johnson also received outrage from Congress when he supported regulating the rights of freed, former slaves. While he was a Republican, some Democrats thought he could be converted.
Near the end of his term, it seemed unlikely that either party would nominate him for a second term. Throughout his presidency, Johnson had opposed multiple actions taken by Radical Republicans concerning the rights of freed slaves and Reconstruction of the South. More than once, Congress overruled his vetoes.
Johnson’s impeachment began when he tried firing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Stanton, a Lincoln appointee, opposed Johnson’s views towards Reconstruction. Stanton was fired when Congress was in recess and replaced with Ulysses S. Grant. When Congress returned, Stanton was reinstated and Grant resigned – he didn’t want to mar his own political ambitions, specifically the presidency.
Johnson fired Stanton again and appointed Major General Lorenzo Thomas as interim Secretary of War. In response, Stanton had Thomas arrested for illegally seizing the office of Secretary of War. It was a merry-go-round of Secretary of War. Congress believed that Johnson was violating the Tenure of Office Act and began pursuing impeachment.
Impeachment and Trial
Ultimately, the House of Representatives produced eleven articles of impeachment, some arguably petty. These included Johnson intending to violate the Tenure of Office Act when firing Stanton, appointing Thomas without the advice and approval of the Senate, conspiring with Thomas to remove Stanton, bypassing Stanton by diverting military orders and instructions directly, conspiring to deprive Stanton of his rightful possessions, making speeches “with a loud voice, certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues” with the intent to disgrace Congress (that’s petty), and finally, Johnson was accused of “declaring the 39th Congress unconstitutional, since it was a Congress of only part of the states, and therefore did not have legislative powers nor the power to propose constitutional amendments,” violating his presidential oath to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
It took two days for the House of Representatives to approve the eleven articles of impeachment, then moving to the Senate.
The Senate provided an updated set of 25 impeachment rules, and thus the trial began. Johnson did not attend the trial but was available to the press for interviews. His defense was primarily focused on the misinterpretation of law, to test the constitutionality of the law, and to keep the War Department running. The trial was very popular among the public, resulting in the need for a ticket system to limit the amount of spectators and prevent overflow and also considered a constitutional crisis. Only three of the impeachment articles ended up voted upon. Ultimately, the vote on each article fell one short of the two-thirds majority required to impeach. Seven Republicans did not vote to impeach as they felt it disrupt the Constitution. They felt it more necessary to preserve the Constitution rather than remove an “unacceptable” president. But Johnson was one vote away from being the first – and only – impeached president.
Johnson finished his term and ultimately resumed a role in the Senate before his death in 1875.
So that’s the story of President Andrew Johnson, his turbulent presidency, and merry-go-round of an impeachment. I enjoy learning history, especially involving American presidents, and I hope this is enjoyable to learn.
My sources included Grant by Ron Chenrow and The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson (1868) President of the United States.
The Senate website is a great resource, and the book is good but it is a difficult read. I thought Hamilton was hard, but I’m having more problems with this one, and I am an avid reader. But I have learned so much about President Grant, so it is worth a try. Chenrow has a wealth of knowledge.