The Impeachment Of Andrew Johnson: Why His Impeachment Was Not That Different
No matter what side of the political aisle you fall on, an impeachment is never good news. In the four instances where impeachment has been levied against a president, however, Republicans and Democrats draw close to one another and little is accomplished. No president has ever been removed from office with a trial in the Senate, although Nixon cheated by resigning before they could. This goes back to the first impeachment trial, which began on February 24, 1868. At the time, President Andrew Johnson had taken over for Lincoln, and he wasn't doing a very good job thanks to infighting in his cabinet and some blustery public statements. Johnson's impeachment was convoluted, complicated, and it didn't do much. In some ways, it's comforting to know that little has changed in the world of politics since the Reconstruction era.
Andrew Johnson came into power after Lincoln's assassination
Source: History Net
Abraham Lincoln should have been the president to bring America together after the Civil War, but that's not what happened. Following Lincoln's assassination by John Wilkes Booth, it fell to Andrew Johnson to make peace with the South. Some members of Congress wanted to try high-ranking members of the Confederate Army for treason, but Johnson offered an olive branch to the men in an effort to keep the republic standing and create a more centrist government. At the same time, he also vetoed multiple Civil Rights acts as well as legislation extending the Freedmen's Bureau, a government agency that was set up to to direct "provisions, clothing, and fuel for the immediate and temporary shelter and supply of destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen and their wives and children." It wasn't a good look.
Johnson campaigned for turnover in Congress
Rather than work with the congressmen who didn't agree with his positions, Johnson went on the midterm campaign trail to stump for congress members who were more amenable to his political beliefs. It's not far off from what politicians do today, but by all accounts, Johnson was unhinged on the "Swing Around The Circle" campaign trail. He was undisciplined, and he argued with hecklers, often losing. The 1866 elections didn't go the way Johnson hoped, and the deck was stacked against him in Congress.
Johnson's ignorance of the Tenure of Office Act really did him in
President Johnson made a lot of bad decisions throughout his single term, but the way he handled the convoluted Tenure of Office Act not only gave Congress a reason to bring up impeachment charges, it helped elect the next president. It all came down to Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. When Johnson became president, he inherited the services of Stanton, a die-hard Republican who sided with Congress on pretty much everything, much to Johnson's chagrin. The recently passed Tenure of Office Act required the president to get the Senate's approval before firing a member of his cabinet, but Johnson never obtained Stanton's resignation or approval from the Senate before appointing General Ulysses S. Grant to the position. It was the most boring scandal ever.
The Senate announced a resolution of nonconcurrence with Johnson's choice, and Grant decided to resign. (He didn't want to make waves with the government when he was prepping his own run at the White House.) Johnson begged Grant to wait it out, so when Grant quit immediately, Johnson was apoplectic. If the fallout is any indication, he was right to be. Johnson ended up looking like a jerk who couldn't work with anyone while Grant came off like a million bucks in the press, securing his status as the choice candidate for the 1868 Republican presidential nomination.
Stanton was back on the job as Secretary of War for maybe a week before Johnson appointed Lorenzo Thomas to the position on February 21, 1868. This time around, Johnson informed the Senate of his plan, but Stanton barricaded himself inside his office and threatened to have Thomas arrested. The new Secretary of War was taken into custody and remained there for days. It was what we would describe today with a word that begins with "cluster," and Johnson's opponents in Congress saw it as the perfect opportunity to oust him from office.
Johnson's impeachment passed through Congress, obvi
The impeachment process against Johnson began on February 24, 1868. The main charges against the 17th president were "high crimes and misdemeanors," which comprised 11 articles of impeachment. Primarily, he was on trial for violating the Tenure of Office Act that had been passed less than a year prior.
Because this was the first impeachment of the republic, Congress was flying by the seat of their pants. Prior to the House vote against Johnson, U.S. Representatives said in a statement:
This is not to be the temporary triumph of a political party, but is to endure in its consequence until this whole continent shall be filled with a free and untrammeled people or shall be a nest of shrinking, cowardly slaves.
The House resolution passed 126–47. The impeachment proceedings were subsequently bounced to the Senate, where they played out similarly to the way that the following two impeachment trials would go.
Johnson escaped impeachment by one vote
Johnson entered the history books when he became the first United States President to be impeached on March 3, 1868. Three days later, his trial in the Senate began, overseen by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.
In an impeachment trial, a two-thirds vote is required to convict a president and kick him to the curb. On May 16, 1868, the 54-member Senate voted 35–19 in favor of conviction, missing a two-thirds majority by one vote. The trial was called off, and the final eight articles of impeachment were never tried.
Johnson survived his impeachment, but he never recovered from the trial. He remained in office until March 4, 1869, finishing out his presidency as a lame duck. He never influenced public policy in any meaningful way, and he's only remembered today as the first president to be impeached.
This impeachment set an odd precedent for future presidents
From Clinton's impeachment in 1998 to Trump's in 2020 to the threat of impeachment against Nixon in 1974, these kinds of proceedings have always been fraught. Votes come down on partisan lines, and the law is argued to within an inch of its life. At the time of Johnson's impeachment, Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, one of the 10 Republican senators who refused to vote against the president, warned that impeachment proceedings set a dangerous precedent:
Once set the example of impeaching a President for what, when the excitement of the hour shall have subsided, will be regarded as insufficient causes, as several of those now alleged against the President were decided to be by the House of Representatives only a few months since, and no future President will be safe who happens to differ with a majority of the House and two thirds of the Senate on any measure deemed by them important, particularly if of a political character. Blinded by partisan zeal, with such an example before them, they will not scruple to remove out of the way any obstacle to the accomplishment of their purposes, and what then becomes of the checks and balances of the Constitution, so carefully devised and so vital to its perpetuity? They are all gone.
Tags: American presidents | Andrew Johnson | crime
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