Impeachment Trial of Andrew Johnson

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IMPEACHMENT TRIAL OF ANDREW JOHNSON. President Andrew Johnson had been elected vice president on the Union Party ticket and succeeded Abraham Lincoln upon his assassination in 1865, and his impeachment in 1868 grew out of the struggle over Reconstruction after the Civil War. Johnson insisted that, as commander in chief of the armed forces, he had final authority over Reconstruction. Congress insisted that Reconstruction required legislative action. This conflict over who had final authority was exacerbated by differences over the terms of Reconstruction. The president insisted upon a speedy restoration of the southern states with generous amnesty and pardons for former Confederates and no provision for protecting the rights of African Americans beyond their emancipation. As part of this policy, he suspended the operation of some of Congress's wartime laws, convinced they were inappropriate in a time of peace. Without congressional authority, he reestablished state governments in the South and insisted that Congress must recognize their rights in the Union. Most Republicans demanded more radical political, social, and economic change in the South to foreclose future challenges to the Union and to protect the rights of southern Unionists and African Americans. They denied that the president alone could enact a Reconstruction policy. After more than a year of conflict, Congress finally passed a Reconstruction Act to begin the process anew under military control.

In the course of this struggle, Johnson used every resource at his command to carry his policy and defeat that of Congress. He vetoed every piece of congressional Reconstruction legislation. He sustained former Confederates in political struggles with southern Unionists and African Americans, fostering a climate that led to several race riots. He bitterly assailed the policies of Congress, and even appeared to question its legitimacy, calling it a "rump Congress," because it refused to seat congressmen-elect from the states he had reestablished. He urged white southerners to refuse to cooperate with congressional Reconstruction legislation. He sustained officials of southern governments, which the Reconstruction Act had left in place provisionally, in conflicts with the military officers the law had put in charge. In the course of this struggle, Johnson began removing Republican government officials and replacing them with men who would support him, as was customary in those days. In response, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act over his veto.

The terms of this measure would prove crucial to the impeachment. It provided that no government officer could be removed until the Senate confirmed his replacement. However, the law created an exception to its general rule. It provided that the term of members of the cabinet would end one month after the end of the term of the president who appointed them. Before that time, the president had to secure the approval of the Senate to remove them.

In late summer of 1867, Johnson stepped up his campaign to defeat the operation of the Reconstruction Act. To gain complete control of the army, in August 1867 he suspended Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who had the confidence of Republicans, and named General Ulysses S. Grant secretary of war ad interim. In doing so, he followed the procedure of the Tenure of Office Act, which allowed the president to suspend officials when the Senate was adjourned, subject to ratification of the decision when it reconvened. Over Grant's protests, Johnson then replaced officers who carried out the Reconstruction Act with too much enthusiasm with those who opposed the measure. Johnson's aggressive course forced Congress to amend its Reconstruction laws several times, and by the winter of 1867–1868, it seemed that Johnson might succeed in preventing their successful execution.

Fearing his power of obstruction, the Radical Republicans had urged Johnson's removal as early as 7 January 1867, when the Ohio representative James M. Ashley moved an impeachment resolution. It was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary, which began to investigate charges that Johnson had used his presidential powers corruptly. After months of investigation, the committee divided over whether the president's actions constituted impeachable offenses. A narrow majority recommended impeachment to the House on 25 November 1867, over the objections of a minority, led by the committee chairman, James F. Wilson, who argued that impeachment lay only for an indictable violation of a specific law. Despite Johnson's aggressive course, on 7 December a majority of Republicans joined Democrats to defeat the resolution.

Emboldened by his victory, Johnson redoubled his efforts to disrupt the Reconstruction process, removing two more military commanders who enforced the law vigorously with more conservative replacements. However, he was frustrated when the Senate refused to agree to Stanton's removal and Grant returned the office of the secretary of war to him. Johnson was determined to force the issue, and on 21 February 1867 ordered Stanton's removal in apparent violation of the Tenure of Office Act; Stanton refused to give his office up to Johnson's temporary replacement. Faced now with what appeared to be a clear violation of law, on 24 February, the House passed an impeachment resolution without a dissenting Republican vote. On 2 March, it voted nine articles of impeachment and chose a committee to manage the impeachment before the Senate; it added two more articles the next day.

The Trial

Nearly all the articles of impeachment centered in one way or another on the removal of Stanton. Some impeached him for attempting to remove Stanton in violation of the Tenure of Office Act, others the attempt to name an ad interim replacement without first securing Senate confirmation as both the Constitution and the act required, and others repeated the same charges as part of a conspiracy to violate the Constitution and the act. The tenth article charged Johnson with attempting to stir hatred and contempt of Congress with the intent of setting aside its authority. The eleventh article restated all the charges in the general context of the struggle over Reconstruction. This was the only article that clearly placed Johnson's attempt to remove Stanton in the context of a general abuse of power rather than relying primarily on the violation of a specific statute.

The managers of impeachment were John A. Bingham and James F. Wilson, who had led the opposition to impeachment the previous December, and George S. Boutwell, Benjamin F. Butler, Thaddeus Stevens, Thomas Williams, and John A. Logan, with Bingham as chairman. President Johnson's lawyers included the former Supreme Court justice Benjamin R. Curtis; William M. Evarts, future attorney general, secretary of state, and U.S. senator from New York; the former attorney general Henry Stanbery; William S. Groesbeck of Ohio; and the Tennessee judge Thomas A. R. Nelson.

Despite the efforts of the managers and Radical Republicans in the Senate to speed the proceedings, the trial did not begin in earnest until 23 March. As the Constitution requires, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase, presided. Supported by Democratic and conservative Republican senators, Chase stressed the legal aspects of the proceedings, over the objections of more

Radical Republicans, who urged that the proceeding was essentially political. This stress on legalities aided the president's lawyers, enabling them to demand that all aspects of the charges be proven just as in an ordinary trial. By abstracting the charges from the political context, the president's counsel made them appear trivial and partisan. The managers' efforts to remind senators of the political context looked like appeals to partisanship that were out of place in a legal forum.

The Senate also rebuffed the managers' urgent requests to speed up the trial. As weeks of testimony and argument wore on, the sense of crisis receded, further helping the president's counsel to separate the articles from the bitter political and constitutional struggle of which they were a part. Johnson helped his cause by ending his interference in the South and proposing an acceptable replacement for Stanton as secretary of war. Public support for the impeachment began to wane.

The president's lawyers made somewhat inconsistent arguments, some of which could be persuasive only if one ignored the context in which he had tried to gain control of the army. They argued that the president had removed Stanton merely to create a court case in which he could challenge the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act. Even if the Tenure of Office Act was constitutional, which they denied, the president could not be removed merely for attempting to raise a court case on the question. On the other hand, Johnson's lawyers argued that the Tenure of Office Act did not cover Stanton because his term had ended one month after the death of Lincoln, the president who had appointed him. Even if Johnson had been wrong in this understanding, he could not be removed for a mere mistake. Johnson's lawyers never explained how the president could have intended to challenge the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act by removing an officer he did not believe was covered by it.

The impeachment managers argued that the president's intent to violate the law was clear and that the Senate had already decided it was constitutional by passing it. They argued that Stanton was protected from removal by the law, either because he was still serving the term to which Lincoln had appointed him, or if he were not, because he must then fall into the general category of government officers who could not be removed without Senate consent. Johnson's intent when he violated the act was irrelevant as long as he knowingly violated the law, the managers insisted. They also argued that the Constitution barred the appointment of a government officer without the confirmation of the Senate. The law permitted temporary appointments, such as Johnson had made when he attempted to remove Stanton, only when a position became vacant due to a death, illness, or resignation.

By May, as the trial wound to its conclusion, it was clear that Johnson might escape conviction. A number of Republican senators had joined Democrats to support the president's position on procedural issues and acceptance of testimony. Republican congressmen and constituents pressed wavering colleagues to vote to convict. To maximize the chances for conviction, the Senate voted first on the eleventh article, which had emerged as the strongest. On 16 May, senators divided 35 to 19 in favor of conviction, one vote short of the necessary two-thirds. The majority then forced an adjournment of ten days, during which the seven Republicans who had refused to convict came under renewed pressure. However, when the Senate resumed voting on 26 May, they reached the same result on the second and third articles. Knowing that there was even less support for conviction on the other articles, the Senate adjourned the entire proceeding.

Nearly all the Republicans who voted against conviction did so because they did not believe Stanton was within the terms of the Tenure of Office Act. It is also clear that they were worried about the effect of a conviction upon the future stability of the presidency as well as distrustful of Senator Benjamin F. Wade, who as Senate president pro tem would succeed Johnson as president. Although there were calls for retribution against the dissenters, no action was taken. Nonetheless, many of them later joined dissident Republican movements that challenged the party leadership.


Benedict, Michael Les. The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson. New York: Norton, 1973.

Rehnquist, William H. Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson. New York: Morrow, 1992.

Trefousse, Hans L. The Impeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.

Michael L.Benedict

See alsoImpeachment ; Reconstruction .