Impeachment: Andrew Johnson Edition
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The Sense trial of Andrew Johnson (fragment, Harper’s Weekly/Wikimedia Commons)

Trump critics increasingly compare him to Andrew Johnson, who, in 1868, was the first president to face impeachment. Like Trump, Johnson was easily provoked into unruly speech and considered morally inferior by his opponents, who regarded themselves to be sincere champions of racial justice. Although some historians lament that Johnson survived impeachment in his Senate trial, the prosecution’s conduct reveals a cesspool of unethical conduct and constitutional abrogation.

On February 25, 1868, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted 126-to-47 to impeach Johnson but neglected to draw up charges. Not until March 4 was the House prosecution ready with 11 impeachment articles. Eight involved the since-discredited Tenure of Office Act, passed a year earlier; one pointlessly accused the president of sometimes speaking “intemperately”; another wildly accused Johnson of seeking a coup d’état, a claim that collapsed during testimony; and the last was an omnibus article that encompassed any, or all, of the others. It was the easiest path to conviction. The Tenure Act overstepped executive powers by preventing any president from removing a cabinet member unless the Senate approved. It was so preposterous that Johnson’s successor, Republican Ulysses Grant, demanded that it be repealed before he took office. Congress was too embarrassed for an about-face but took the teeth out of it. The act was repealed altogether in 1887 and ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 1926.

The trial began with Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding as a constitutional representative of the government’s third branch. The chief prosecutor was Massachusetts Rep. Benjamin Butler, who had amassed a fortune by secretly trading with the enemy during the Civil War. When he became the general in charge at Union-occupied New Orleans in 1862, his wealth totaled $150,000 but was at $3 million during the impeachment trial six years later. Although the lawyer-general was too shrewd to incriminate himself, there is little doubt that the gain was primary achieved by trading with the enemy. Since impeachment conviction required a two-thirds majority vote among the senators, Johnson had to hold all the Democrats on his side and gather seven Republican votes. Shenanigans began immediately.

Since Democrat Johnson became president in 1865 by having been the martyred Lincoln’s vice president, in 1868 there was no vice president. If convicted, Johnson would be replaced by Ohio’s Republican Sen. Ben Wade, who was pro tem of the Senate. A week earlier, Wade had used his position to try to stack the impeachment court with more Republicans by demanding a vote on Colorado statehood, which would add two new Republican senators. He could not, however, get enough votes to override an expected presidential veto. When Democrats moved that he recuse himself from the trial due to his conflict of interest, the Republican-controlled Senate voted them down. Before the acquittal vote in May, however, Wade had already prepared a list of cabinet members that included Ben Butler as secretary of state.

Butler’s opening statement began by rationalizing impeachment as the only way America could rid herself of “a tyrannical imbecile or faithless ruler.” He then cryptically alluded to discredited testimony during an earlier Senate committee hearing alleging that Johnson had planned Lincoln’s assassination: “By murder most foul he succeeded to the presidency and is the elect of an assassin to that high office.” Next he uselessly complained that Johnson sometimes used “intemperate” language. Finally, Butler paid spies to search the wastebaskets of the president’s defense attorneys.

After convincing the president to stop speaking publicly, the chief defense attorney argued that Johnson’s impeachment was merely a preemptive strike by Congress to keep Johnson from proving the illegitimacy of the Tenure Act in court. When he offered two cabinet members as witnesses to verify Johnson’s intent, Republicans objected. When Chief Justice Chase overruled the objection, the senators voted to reject Chase’s decision thereby illegally transforming themselves into both judge and jury.

Gradually six Republican senators concluded the trial was merely a political trap that would forever cripple the executive office. Consequently, they all indicated that they would vote for acquittal. Knowing that the vote would be close, Republicans tried to get Arkansas’s carpetbag regime admitted to the Union in order to gain two more conviction votes, but this failed just like the Colorado statehood attempt. The scenario pressured Kansas Republican Sen. Edmund Ross, who remained uncommitted until the May 16 judgment day, when the chamber voted 35-to-19 for conviction on the omnibus article. Ross had voted with the minority, thereby blocking, by a single vote, the two-thirds majority required for conviction.

Next Butler got a 10-day recess, during which he tried to change Ross’s vote. When someone speculated that Ross had been bribed, Butler responded, “Tell the damned scoundrel that if he wants money, there’s a bushel of it here to be had!” He next had the investigators look for bribery evidence. To his surprise, however, they learned that the other Republican Kansas senator, Samuel Pomeroy, offered to sell his vote to Johnson for $40,000 — an amount that he indicated would enable him to bring along three or four more acquittal votes. Johnson had turned it down.

Republicans also discovered that Ross lived in a boarding house where the landlord had a 22-year-old unmarried daughter, Vinnie Ream. Since Ream had been urging Ross to vote for acquittal, the Republicans convinced themselves that she and Ross had an improper relationship. One congressman met with Ream to tell her that she would regret it if she continued to urge Ross to vote for acquittal.

Butler tried for a conviction on two different impeachment articles on May 26 but again failed to get the needed two-thirds majority. Consequently, the Senate dissolved the court, and Johnson finished his presidential term. A number of impeachers, such as Ohio Sen. John Sherman, later admitted they had been swept up with emotion and had voted the wrong way.

Some historians argue that the Republican impeachment objective was intended to prevent Johnson from blocking the congressional plans for racial justice, especially black suffrage. In reality, Republicans only urged mandatory voting for blacks in the South, not the North. The inconsistency reflected doubts that Northerners would vote the party ticket if its platform required black suffrage in all states. At the end of the war only five New England states with miniscule black populations permitted blacks to vote. Six additional Northern states rejected black suffrage between 1865 and 1868. Connecticut, Minnesota, and Wisconsin did so in 1865, while Kansas and Ohio followed in 1867, as did Michigan in April 1868.

The true objective of Johnson’s impeachment was to ensure that the Southern carpetbag regimes would be readmitted to the Union in time to vote the Republican ticket in the autumn of 1868. When the Civil War ended, the party was barely 10 years old. It might have been strangled in its cradle if the readmittance of Southern states failed to be managed in a way to prevent Southerners from allying with Northern Democrats to regain control of the federal government.

Republican Reconstruction was more about political power than racial equality. Despite his unrivaled popularity after the Civil War, Republican Ulysses Grant won the presidency by a popular vote margin of only 53 percent to 47 percent. But he would have lost the popular vote without the ex-slave voting bloc. Eight years later, the party no longer needed black votes. The Northern states were growing faster and gaining electoral votes while every state on the frontier that entered the Union after the Civil War joined with two Republican senators until Oklahoma was admitted in 1907. Republican racial justice rhetoric was mostly a smokescreen under which the party hid its lust for power.

Philip Leigh has written six books on Reconstruction and the Civil War, including Southern Reconstruction and U.S. Grant’s Failed Presidency.

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