When the 17th president was accused of high crimes and misdemeanors in 1868, the wild trial nearly reignited the Civil War.
By Lorraine Boissoneault
The scene in the U.S. House of Representatives on February 24, 1868 was an unusually raucous one. Although the congressmen were seated in their normal positions, going about much of their normal work, the room was also crammed full of onlookers and reporters, all agitating to witness the events about to unfold. “The only class that seemed to be excluded was the negroes,” reported the Public Ledger of Memphis, Tennessee, two days later. “The Anglo Saxons stole a march upon them this morning, and occupied their seats, pushing them off the seats upon the steps. The consequence was that there was but a small sprinkling of black faces among the hosts that looked down from the galleries upon the legislators below.”
It wasn’t a controversial bill or a heated debate that drew such an audience. On this February day, the crowds came to watch members of the House vote to impeach President Andrew Johnson, the first time such an event had ever occurred in U.S. history. Led by firebrand Republican senator Thaddeus Stevens, the congressmen voted 126 to 47 in favor of impeaching Johnson, charging him with high crimes and misdemeanors.
The dramatic roll call of House members was only the first stage of the impeachment trial, but confrontations between Congress and the president had begun far earlier. Johnson ascended to the presidency following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, having been selected for the vice presidency for Johnson’s status as a stalwart Southerner who nevertheless was committed to the Union. But since replacing Lincoln, Andrew Johnson had repeatedly drawn the ire of the legislators. In the aftermath of the war, Johnson undermined the Republican Reconstruction effort by pardoning more than 7,000 Confederates and vetoing 29 legislative bills in a single term (for comparison, all the presidents combined up to that point had only vetoed 59 acts).
“Johnson embarked on a policy designed to restore the former Confederate states to civil government with maximum speed and a minimum disturbance of Southern institutions beyond the abolition of slavery itself,” writes historian Michael Les Benedict. “His policy placed former rebels in political control of nearly every Southern state and left Southern blacks to the mercies of the men who had fought so desperately to keep them in bondage.”
Congress, controlled by northern Republicans, fought back with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, protecting the rights to citizenship and the vote for people born in the U.S. and African-American men. They also attempted to preserve Lincoln’s cabinet appointees by passing the Tenure of Office Act in March 1867. Already required to receive Congressional approval in appointing new staff to the cabinet, the law also forced Johnson to get approval for dismissals as well. That law would set the stage for Johnson’s ultimate showdown with Congress later in 1867 and early 1868.
Throughout 1867, the House Judiciary Committee—a coalition of Republican and Democratic representatives—was tasked with evaluating Johnson’s conduct for the possibility of impeachment. By November 1867 they concluded his conduct did indeed justify impeachment, but the conclusion was only supported by five of the nine members. Republicans decided the less-than-resounding report wasn’t enough to move forward with impeachment for the moment—until Johnson took much more drastic measures to stymie Reconstruction.
In August, President Johnson suspended Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Appointed by Lincoln, Stanton was a staunch ally of the “Radical Republicans” (so called because of their commitment to full emancipation and the establishment of civil rights for formerly enslaved persons) and clashed repeatedly with Johnson. When Johnson suspended Stanton and named a reluctant Ulysses Grant the interim Secretary of War, Congress was not in session and couldn’t immediately respond. But by early January 1868, Congress had written their disapproval of the maneuver, Grant had offered his resignation, and Stanton re-occupied the office.
Johnson, unwilling to accept that the Tenure of Office Act was constitutional, appointed Major General Lorenzo Thomas to the position and fired Stanton on February 21. The latter refused to accept the demission and barricaded himself in his office, then called for Thomas to be arrested. Tensions between the executive office and Congress had been rising for years; this incident would prove to be the breaking point. “With two war secretaries and fears of bloodshed in the streets, the House came to see things as Thaddeus Stevens did, supporting impeachment,” writes historian R. Owen Williams.
On March 4, the House of Representatives delivered 11 articles of impeachment to the Senate in a display of solemn theatricality that would define the upcoming trial. “Down the aisles, by twos, arm in arm, the committee came,” recounted a writer for the Evansville Journal of Indiana. “Silence followed so perfectly and promptly that the low, modulated voice of Judge Bingham was heard, as if reading a burial service. He stood, lean and short and gray, looking through silver spectacles, a printed copy of the Impeachment Articles in his hands, and hearkened the Senate to hear the articles, if it so pleased them.”
Congressman Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts opened the impeachment trial on March 5, with Salmon Chase, the Chief Justice of the United States, presiding. Butler’s opening speech was full of high-flown rhetoric, praising the Founding Fathers for their wisdom in creating the possibility of impeachment. “In other times, and in other lands, it has been found that despotisms could only be tempered by assassination, and nations living under constitutional governments even, have found no mode by which to rid themselves of a tyrannical, imbecile, or faithless ruler, save by overturning the very foundation and framework of the government itself,” he proclaimed. Butler laid out the charges against Johnson, and in the coming weeks would lead the prosecution against him.
Even before the trial began, the nation was riveted by the dispute between the separate branches of the government. Now, impassioned citizens and reporters fought to witness the trial and speculate as to its outcome. Would it lead to a second Civil War? Would Johnson be replaced by Benjamin Wade, the Senate president and a Radical Republican (at that point, the Constitution didn’t specify the line of succession after Vice President)? The crowds clamoring to view the trial grew so large that the Senate employed a ticket system. Each day, the Senate printed 1,000 tickets and divided between government employees, the press, and the public, with the majority going to the first group.
“It was a gay and brilliant scene,” reported the New York Herald on March 14. “All were there to take part in a show such as never yet in the history of any nation calling itself civilized was exhibited to the world.”
After the prosecutors made their case against Johnson, the President’s team of lawyers, including former Attorney General Henry Stanbery who resigned to lead the defense, sought to poke holes in the testimony, hoping to cast doubt on the nature of Johnson’s intent. Perhaps Johnson had mistakenly interpreted the law, they argued, and had merely been trying to keep the War Department staffed as was necessary.
In the end, senators were forced to grapple with more than just the relatively simple matter of whether or not Johnson had broken the law. They had to consider whether Johnson’s replacement would be a worse option as leader, and what it would mean to the still-recovering country if the office of president were dismantled. As Senator James Grimes of Iowa said, “I cannot agree to destroy the harmonious working of the Constitution for the sake of getting rid of an unacceptable president.” By May 26, 1868, the Senate had voted on all the articles of impeachment: 35 voted guilty and 19 not guilty, just one vote short of the necessary two-thirds to convict the president.
Johnson finished out his term as president, leaving office in March 4, 1869. Hopes for a better future, freedom from oppression and violence for African-Americans, and a true reconciliation between North and South faded, and soon gave way to Black Codes and Jim Crow segregation that continued well into the 20th century.