Andrew Johnson’s Dishonor: First Impeached President
A political drama unfolded in the U.S. Congress when, for the first time in American history, the Senate convened in a Court of Impeachment, on March 5, 1868, to try President Andrew Johnson. What the fight really concerned was Johnson’s policies of reconciliation towards the South (he was a former senator from Tennessee) versus the harsher demands made by the “Radical Republicans” who controlled Congress and wanted the Confederate states punished for their rebellion during the Civil War. Johnson was President Lincoln’s vice-president and assumed the presidency on April 15, 1865, following Lincoln’s assassination.
Technically, the dispute centered on Johnson’s desire to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and replace him with Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas. To defy Johnson, Congress had passed the Tenure of Office Act in March 1867 over Johnson’s veto, primarily to protect Stanton’s job. When Johnson went ahead and removed Stanton anyway, the House of Representatives impeached him on Feb. 24, 1868, on eleven articles involving his “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
His trial began in the U.S. Senate on March 5 and lasted nearly three months. Johnson was acquitted when the final vote against him was 35 to 19, one vote short of the required two-thirds necessary for conviction.
The venom of the political atmosphere surrounding Johnson’s impeachment is reflected in newspaper editorials published at that time. This editorial was published by the Daily State Register (Des Moines, Iowa) on March 5, 1868:
Court of Impeachment
The House of Representatives—the National Grand Jury—has impeached Andrew Johnson at the bar of the Senate—the Constitutional High Court of Impeachment. Upon the articles of impeachment thus presented, the fifty-three Senators will sit as judges. The question is being continually asked: “Now that the House of Representatives has impeached the national offender, will the Senate try and determine the impeachment, and determine that it shall be sustained, and the criminal punished?” The very heart of the nation throbs in inquiry for the response. Through their Representatives they have indicted the violator of the law, and have sent him to trial at the bar of the national Court; and in arraigning him before it, have an abiding faith that the judgment will quickly come and that the sentence will be as sweeping as his crimes shall be proven to warrant.
Their faith is well founded. The crime of the Indicted President is so clearly written in the stark letters of truth, so well substantiated, so clearly established, so widely recognized, that the sentence must surely fall, and fall promptly, boldly, mightily.
The Senate is composed of fifty-three members. Forty-two of these Senators are Republicans—only eleven Democrats. The Constitution declares that “a two-thirds vote of the members present” shall be necessary to convict. Therefore, if all the members sit during the trial, thirty-six will be the number required to punish Andrew Johnson as the infamy which, his own arm has so basely wooed, deserves.
Will Thirty-Six Senators prove true to the country, and let their lips voice forth the verdict that the guilty prisoner cowering before them so richly, truly deserves? There is not, cannot, be any doubt that more than that number will so decide. A large majority of the Judges are loyal in thought, word and action; and with the proof so plainly written before them, cannot hesitate or palter in their judgment.
Another anti-Johnson editorial was published by the Annapolis Gazette (Annapolis, Maryland) on March 5, 1868:
Oh! For a Fight!
Certain Democratic papers since the House of Representatives have seen fit to impeach Andrew Johnson for violating the laws of Congress, which he took an oath to enforce, accused the Republican majority in Congress of incendiary and revolutionary action. One of these journals, whose editor is in for a fight, although during the last rebellion, while Jeff Davis was calling for such brave men, might have got enough fighting if he had taken the trouble to have gone South and aided his rebel friends to obtain their rights, calls upon poor, forsaken Andy “to demur to the jurisdiction of the Senate, and issue a proclamation, giving Congress and all the world notice, that while he, Andrew Johnson, held himself impeachable for misdemeanors in office before the constitutional tribunal, he never would subject the office he holds in trust for the people to the irregular, unconstitutional, fragmentary bodies who proposed to strip him of it. Such a proclamation, with the army and navy on hand to sustain it, would meet a popular response that would make an end of impeachment and impeachers.”
In the language here used, this democratic editor invites Andrew Johnson to seize the army and navy to depose or overawe Congress and defy the representatives of the people. We imagine that if Andy would issue his proclamation, that these democratic editors who are now loudest in proclaiming in favor of dispersing Congress, would be the last to enlist, and if drafted, the first to desert. We are opposed to fighting, and we do not believe that if Andrew Johnson is found guilty that we are going to have any now. Some few Democrats are spoiling for a fight, provided they can remain home, and let others go and do all the fighting.
An example of the “Democratic papers” the Annapolis Gazette scorned was the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio), which published this editorial on March 5, 1868:
Latest by Telegraph.
Special Dispatches to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Presenting the Impeachment Articles to the Senate.
How They Were Received.
Protests of the Chief Justice.
How the Radicals Regard It.
The Political Reaction Still Going On.
Washington, D.C., March 4, 1868.
Presenting the Impeachment Articles to the Senate.
The Radicals have passed the Rubicon. Their impeachment articles are before the Senate. They are committed to the measure beyond recall, and they must now justify their extraordinary proceeding to the country as prudent and patriotic, or stand condemned for their reckless and audacious acts. The articles as amended yesterday were formally presented today to the Senate. The sworn managers were announced, followed by the members of the House. The Democratic members properly declined to participate in the mockery of justice.
How They Were Received.
Mr. Bingham, Chairman, read the articles, but notwithstanding their importance and the solemnity of the occasion, it made no more impression on the Senators, members or crowded galleries than any ordinary event. At the beginning, Mr. Hendricks reminded Mr. Wade of the courtesy due the Speaker of the House, whereupon o’d Ben took the hint and invited Mr. Colfax to a seat beside him. Senators Sprague, and Patterson, of Tennessee, slept sweetly during the reading. Thad Stevens stood erect for a while with his colleague, but became so exhausted he dropped into his seat. Mr. Butler clutched his felt hat convulsively, and squinted more rascally than ever, if that was possible.
Pomeroy took his newspaper; Conkling, who prides himself on his manly beauty, read a book attentively; Fessenden chewed bits of paper; and Boutwell, another manager, who had taken a fresh quid before entering, was more intent on extracting its juice than hearing the articles in question; Howard seemed to be studying the communication from the Chief Justice, which was a delicate rebuke of his officious conduct in preparing prematurely rules for the Court of Impeachment; Chandler chuckled now and then; Reverdy Johnson yawned; while Sumner looked positively happy, as though negro suffrage was a law of the land, and as if there never had been a certain Prussian Baron in the Legation at Washington.
Ashley and Schenck were there too, and exchanged approving winks occasionally; sad[ly] this is no burlesque of the scene in the Senate Chamber.
Departure of the Impeachment Managers.
The reading of the articles having been concluded, Mr. Wade informed them the Senate would take due action, whereupon Mr. Colfax rose, and with one or two extra winks, put himself at the head of his Radical cohorts and marched back to the House.
One of Thad’s Funny Remarks.
On the way there, Thad Stevens said to some members who were carrying him in his chair, “Boys, what in the hell will I do when you are dead? I won’t have anybody to carry me,” and his friends laughed because it was so funny.
Tomorrow, as agreed on, the Senate will constitute itself as a Court of Impeachment, and the President will be summoned to appear to answer the charges of justice.