On May 16, 1868, President Andrew Johnson was impeached but subsequently acquitted in the Senate by the single vote of Sen. Edmund G. Ross. Ultimately, Johnson could not be found guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The dramatic end to the trial was a bitter pill for the Radical Republicans that had impeached Johnson in the House of Representatives. Although Johnson escaped prosecution and removal from office, his reputation had been tarnished forever, and he is often placed in the bottom of presidential polls.
Following in the footsteps of President Abraham Lincoln was a tough act to follow, and given the bitter feelings lingering after the civil war and the deeply divided country, half of which had been conquered, President Johnson had a near impossible task put before him.
Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, but eventually made his way west to Tennessee. Born into poverty, Johnson was a self-made man who taught himself how to read and write, and also started a tailoring business. He joined the local militia, entered Tennessee politics, and made himself a powerful man in his state.
Johnson would eventually go on to be the governor of Tennessee as well as senator, but his big break politically came during the Civil War when Lincoln’s Radical Republican vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, was dropped from the 1864 presidential ticket and Johnson was brought aboard as a pro-Union, border-state Democrat.
Lincoln and Johnson ran together on the National Union Party ticket, briefly abandoning the name “Republican” for the sake of national unity. Together, Lincoln and Johnson defeated pro-peace Democrat and former Union general, George B. McClellan.. Lincoln and Johnson’s solid victory was a surprise at the time, as many believed that war weariness had set in after four years of fighting. However, the loyal Union states showed that they were willing to finish the war that had taken the lives of so many of its young men, and Lincoln received overwhelming electoral support from soldiers.
Just after Lincoln made his second inaugural address in which he delivered the famous line, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in,” Johnson ambled up to the front of the Senate chamber and gave an incoherent, and according to many sources, drunken speech.
Sen. Zachariah Chandler of Michigan said, “The inauguration went off very well except that the Vice President elect was too drunk to perform his duties and disgraced himself and the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech. I was never so mortified in my life, had I been able to find a hole I would have dropped through it out of sight.”
It was an inauspicious start to a vice presidency that was soon to become far more consequential.
Just over a month after being elected, Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth, and Andrew Johnson became the 17th president of the United States.
Johnson battled continuously with the Republican-controlled Congress over the correct path for Reconstruction and, unfortunately, spent much of his time making political appointments. Johnson is often considered the last “Jacksonian Democrat” president of the era for his constant use of the political spoils system.
Over President Johnson’s veto, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which made the removal of a Cabinet member without the Senate’s approval an impeachable offense. It was a partisan move to remove Johnson from office, deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court several decades later..
One appointment in particular got Johnson caught in the trap. Johnson tried to replace Secretary of War Edwin Stanton with a letter saying, “Public considerations of high character constrain me to say that your resignation as Secretary of War will be accepted.”
Stanton refused to resign or even leave his office, and his replacement, Ulysses S. Grant, was less than enthused to get caught up in the political scuff. But the Radical Republicans now had legal way to remove the president.
Although the House quickly voted for impeachment 126 to 47, the indictment hearings in the Senate dragged on for months.
A whole host of Johnson’s Congressional enemies were on the prosecutorial team trying to take whacks at the president, including perpetual party flip-flopper Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts and the skeletal Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, who practically climbed out of his deathbed to participate in the trial.
In the end, Johnson was acquitted, mostly because some Republicans flipped political sides and voted “not-guilty.”
In John F. Kennedy’s famous book, “Profiles in Courage,” which was probably written by Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, Kennedy listed Edmund G. Ross’s decisive vote against impeachment one of the most courageous moments in Senate history. However, according to recent research by David O. Stewart in “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy,” Ross and a number of other senators were bribed with patronage appointments by the president.
The political escape of Andrew Johnson is a lesson for today in that it demonstrates both how important selecting a vice president can be, and how near to impossible it is to impeach and indict a member of the federal government.
Schemes like bringing on a vice presidential candidate from an opposing party have not worked out well, which should have been a lesson for former Republican presidential candidate John McCain when he considered bringing Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman on board for his 2008 campaign.
Also, for those frustrated that Attorney General Eric Holder has still not been impeached for his involvement in Operation Fast and Furious, it should be noted that there must be enough hard evidence that “treason, bribery or high crimes and misdemeanors” have taken place. And even that may not be enough if political chicanery is involved.
Though most Americans today have no idea what Johnson was impeached for, they often blame him for the failure of Reconstruction in the South. However, it should be remembered that the task of rebuilding a country can be far more difficult than leveling it to the ground.
There was a tricky balance between acting punitively toward the South and losing important reform opportunities after the war. While touring the burned down Confederate capitol city of Richmond, Virginia, Abraham Lincoln said that in regards to the conquered South that he would, “Let ‘em up easy.” Perhaps the same should be said of Johnson as well.