The congressional effort to remove President Johnson from office was based largely on politics, and had it succeeded, it would have set a very dangerous precedent.
After the Confederacy was defeated to end the Civil War, there were many questions regarding how to restore the United States. President Abraham Lincoln had begun implementing a lenient restoration policy whereby southern citizens could reform their state governments if they swore allegiance to the Union, denounced secession, and recognized the abolition of slavery.
Radicals Oppose Johnson
When Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, he was succeeded by Vice President Andrew Johnson, who attempted to continue Lincoln’s benevolent restoration policies. However Johnson was opposed by extremists, or Radicals, in the Republican Party who wished to punish the South.
The Radical majority in Congress passed a series of laws intended to subjugate the southern states by placing them under direct federal control. Johnson vetoed much of this legislation, but his vetoes were often overridden by two-thirds majorities. Even so, many Radicals came to believe that Johnson was obstructing their political agenda, and they set out to remove this impediment.
In 1867, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act. This prohibited the president from removing executive appointees (including cabinet members) without Senate approval. The law was a clear violation of the separation of powers as proscribed in the Constitution, and Johnson sought to challenge the legislation by firing his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.
The House Impeaches Johnson
In firing Stanton, Johnson played right into the Radicals’ hands because they now had a reason to impeach Johnson and remove him from office. Three days after Stanton was relieved, the House of Representatives voted 126 to 47 in favor of impeaching Johnson for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The House adopted 11 articles of impeachment, nine of which related to Stanton’s firing. The tenth concerned Johnson’s incendiary speeches about the Radicals, and the eleventh was a summary of charges, or a safety net designed to convict Johnson in case the first 10 articles failed.
Even before the House voted on impeachment, the Radicals had planned to install Senate president pro tempore, Benjamin Wade, in the White House. Wade was so confident that Johnson would be removed that he had selected his cabinet members before the impeachment trial even began.
The Senate Trial
Once the House voted to impeach, the trial moved to the Senate, where Chief Justice Salmon Chase presided and a two-thirds majority vote was required for conviction. If two-thirds (that is, 36) or more of the senators voted for conviction, then Johnson would be removed from office.
The Radicals dominated the prosecution team. Senator Benjamin Butler railed against southern atrocities, waving a bloody nightshirt and claiming that it belonged to an Ohio man who had moved south and was flogged by Mississippi “ruffians.” This practice of “waving the bloody shirt” helped Republicans win many future elections, but it had nothing to do with Johnson. In fact, even some of Butler’s fellow Radicals were embarrassed by the display.
Other prosecutors tried to portray Johnson as a dictator plotting to overthrow the government. Witnesses were bribed to testify against Johnson, and those supporting the president were denied testimony. The Radicals overrode several rulings by Chief Justice Chase, and to many it seemed that the trial was rigged against the president.
Meanwhile Johnson’s defense attorneys argued that only the articles regarding Stanton’s firing had legal merit. Of those, Johnson could not have violated the Tenure of Office Act because the law included the words “during the term of the President by whom he was appointed.” And Stanton had been appointed to his position by Lincoln, not Johnson. As the trial went on, it became clear that there was no evidence of criminal intent by Johnson.
When the vote came, the result was 35 to 19 in favor of conviction. This fell one vote shy of the necessary two-thirds majority needed to convict. Seven Republicans defied their party and voted for acquittal, mainly because they felt that the Radicals had overstepped their constitutional bounds. As a result, Johnson was acquitted of all charges.
The Precedent of the Impeachment
Andrew Johnson had broken no laws, and in fact had more closely adhered to the Constitution than the Republicans in Congress. Johnson was further vindicated in 1926 when the Supreme Court finally ruled that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional.
Had Johnson been convicted, it would have set a very dangerous precedent in American history by showing that Congress could violate the separation of powers and remove a president from office for purely political reasons.
- Bowers, Claude G.: The Tragic Era (Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1929)
- Richardson, Heather Cox: West from Appomattox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007)
- Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael: A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc., 2004)
- Wallechinsky, David and Wallace, Irving: The People’s Almanac (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1975)