Andrew Johnson's Impeachment
Jim Blair


The impeachment of Bill Clinton has associated with it a variety of ironic and bizarre things. The way the congressional Democrats fought to keep the Independent Counsel Act alive while the Republicans fought to kill it when it was up for renewal, etc.

But one of the strangest stems from the revival of interest in the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. As you recall, after the assassination of Lincoln, his Vice President Andrew Johnson became the new President. He, like Lincoln was a Republican, and the Republican Party had control of both houses of Congress. Johnson was a Southerner from Tennessee, and former Democrat, selected by Lincoln to balance the ticket.

But there was a sharp conflict between the new President and the Congress about the way that the South should be "re-constructed" in the wake of the just finished Civil War. This conflict lead eventually to the impeachment of Johnson by the House and to a very close vote in the Senate, where his removal from office failed by a single vote in on May 16, 1868. The vote to convict Johnson had the vote of a majority of the Senate, but at 35 to 19, fell one vote short of the 2/3 majority need. Johnson had been indicted by the House on 11 Articles of Impeachment, but the initial vote was on the one with the greatest support. When that failed, there were ten days of frantic lobbying to get a vote change, and even an effort to admit one or more Southern states back into to the Union with senators elected with Negro voters, but this could not be done in time, and Johnson was acquitted.

While there were 7 Republican senators who broke party ranks and voted to permit Johnson to remain in office, the "credit" for the decisive vote is generally given to freshman Kansas Senator Edmund Ross. All of the Senators were under intense pressure to vote their party line in the impeachment, and so Ross and the other 6 Republicans took a lot of criticism for their vote, and none of them were returned to office in their next election. Today they are viewed as examples of political courage for withstanding the political pressure of their party and of the voters.

John K. Kennedy even included the story of Edmond Ross (and the other 6) in his famous book Profiles in Courage, and recently singer Barbara Streisand referred favorably to Ross for his vote at an anti-impeachment rally (Clinton, not Johnson!) in West Hollywood California.

History revisited

The "standard" interpretation of this period of US history has been that Johnson was railroaded by "radical" Republicans and did not deserve to be impeached. That Johnson wanted a reconciliation with the former rebel states of the South, and that the "radical" Republicans were out to humiliate the South and force a "radical" reconstruction program on them.

Well yes, that was the situation. So what exactly lead to the impeachment? And what was it that the "radical" Republicans wanted to force on to the South? And what was it that President Johnson wanted for the South?

Who wanted what?

First, who wanted what? Different goals for the post- Civil War "reconstruction" of the South were the real cause of the conflict between the President and the Congress.

And then there is the question of in a conflict of goals, who rules the country, the Congress or the President?

The "radical" Republicans clearly wanted a New South where poor whites and (especially) former Negro slaves could vote and hold public office. They passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 over the veto of Johnson, but were not able to overcome his veto of the Freedmen's Bureau (an agency that did relief work among former slaves).

The bottom line was that the President wanted to give the South back to the white landowners that had ruled it before the Civil War, and the Republicans (especially the "radicals") did not.

The issue came to a head with the Tenure of Office Act, and Secretary of War, Edwin McMasters Stanton. Stanton was in charge of the military occupation of the South, and was willing to use the Federal troops to enforce the voting rights of the Negroes. President Johnson did not want this, and the Congress knew it. So in early 1867, Congress enacted (over a Presidential veto) the "Tenure of Office Act" which required that any official that the Senate must confirm (for example the Secretary of War) cannot be removed from office without the consent of the Senate.

So on August 5, 1867, President Johnson asked for the immediate resignation of Stanton. Stanton replied that he would not resign before the next meeting of Congress, so they could consider the situation, as the law required. The next week, Johnson fired Stanton and replaced him with U. S. Grant. On January 13, 1868 the Senate (now in session) notified the President and Grant that they did not concur in the change, and demanded that Stanton be returned to the office. He was, but Johnson would not let him attend Cabinet meetings, and on February 21 he again informed Stanton that he was removed from office.

This then was the showdown that resulted in the impeachment of Johnson. And the underlying issue was "does the President MAKE the policy, or does Congress MAKE policy, and the President's job is to enforce policy?" When the Senate failed to remove Johnson, Stanton was removed from office on May 26, 1868.

And in this case, the failure to convict and remove the President from office resulted in President Johnson's reconstruction policy of "black codes", "States Rights", segregation, and White Rule. The "radical Republican" agenda for the South, was set back for almost 100 years.

This makes Edmond Ross a strange hero for John Kennedy and Barbara Streisand. And for Clinton supporters today. But they say that politics makes strange partners.

And what ever happened to Edwin Stanton? He was popular with the "radical" Republicans and was confirmed to an appointment to the US Supreme Court on December 20, 1869. But he died four days later.

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