Nonfiction: The First Presidential Impeachment

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The reign of racist terror hardly troubled Johnson, for he was to his very bones a vicious racist. “This is a country for white men,” Johnson had been heard to say, “and by God, as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men.” He scoffed at the accounts of violence as Radical propaganda, the lurid fabrications of abolitionist fanatics. He hated the Freedmen’s Bureau and the radicals who supported it, even comparing it to slavery itself, and he loathed the idea of black suffrage. “Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people,” he proclaimed, and warned against efforts to “Africanize the half of our country.”

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Such views were not uncommon, of course, and in fact at the beginning of Johnson’s tenure, Northern white elites, not to mention the masses, had little or no enthusiasm for actual racial equality. But as the atrocities in the South got worse and the defeated traitors appeared to be snatching an improbable victory from the ashes of defeat, Northern politicians radicalized, and increasingly saw Johnson’s administration as a dangerous failure, his invective toward Congress and his constant vetoes of even modest legislation intolerable. After a supremely ill-fated midterm campaign in 1866, in which Johnson brayed before crowds like a self-pitying martyr, Republicans won landslide victories. Their overwhelming majorities empowered the so-called Radicals, men like Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and Wendell Phillips, who were not only abolitionists, but believed, in Phillips’s words, in “impartial justice to all races and people.”

Johnson was determined to make sure that never happened, and when Congress convened in 1867, impeachment became a possible course of action. But there were several hard questions. The problems with Johnson were obvious: He was a racist demagogue unfit for the office he held. But was that an impeachable offense? Had he committed a high crime or misdemeanor? Contemporaries wrestled with the question of whether a clear-cut legal infraction was necessary, and the most aggressive members of Congress (and some of the most self-serving) started several investigations to find some kind of smoking gun. They pursued unfounded rumors that he had invited prostitutes into the White House, and was even implicated in the assassination of Lincoln. When those expeditions came to nothing, the House Judiciary Committee originally voted in 1867 against impeaching the president.

But as Johnson vetoed bill after bill designed to protect black Southerners and white loyalists and strip former Confederates of power, tensions between Congress and the president mounted. Congressional Republicans, with huge majorities borne of the fact that the Southern states had still not been readmitted, took matters into their own hands. Using their veto-proof majorities, they began to institute their own vision of Reconstruction, partnering with two heroes of the war who still held positions in the executive branch, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Under congressional Reconstruction, the Southern states were divided into military zones to be occupied and administered by the armed forces while they rewrote their constitutions and rebuilt new biracial governments for all their citizens. Ratification of the 14th Amendment was made a condition of their readmittance to the Union. This made for some odd bedfellows. Even though the Department of War was constitutionally under the president, it operated as a kind of quasi-independent entity to administer Reconstruction against the wishes of the commander in chief. “It was Johnson who was defying the laws of Congress and, in turn, the Army was defying him,” says Wineapple, the author of several books on American history and American culture. “The situation was approaching mutiny on one side,” one of Grant’s aides wrote, “or else treason on the other.”

In order to safeguard this arrangement against an increasingly vindictive and erratic president, Congress used its veto-override to pass the constitutionally dubious Tenure in Office Act. It required the president to get Senate approval to remove his own cabinet officials. On Feb. 21, 1868, Johnson triggered the impeachment tripwire when he defied Congress and sacked Stanton. The House promptly impeached him on 11 articles, the bulk of which dealt with Stanton’s removal.

Though much anticipated, the actual trial of Johnson ended up being more than a bit anticlimactic. In Wineapple’s telling, it quickly descended into near-constant disputes over process and authority: Who gets to rule what will and won’t be admissible? What witnesses can be called? Did Johnson intend to violate the law or merely challenge its constitutionality? The question of conviction would turn largely on the president’s intent, and this proved a difficult thing to divine.

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