Sumner, Charles

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11 Charles Sumner

Excerpt from "Argument for the Impeachment of President Johnson"

Delivered in May 1868; reprinted on From Revolution to Reconstruction … and What Happened Afterwards (Web site)

A fierce enemy of Andrew Johnson tells why the president should be impeached

"Slavery has been our worst enemy, assailing all, murdering our children, filling our homes with mourning, and darkening the land with tragedy; and now it rears its crest anew, with Andrew Johnson as its representative."

When the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) in April 1865 propelled Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69) to the presidency, Northerners thought they had a strong ally in the man who once declared that "treason must be made infamous, and traitors must be impoverished." During the American Civil War (1861–65), Johnson had been the only Southern member of Congress to keep his seat while his colleagues left for the Confederacy. When Union troops took control of the Tennessee capital of Nashville in 1862, Lincoln sent Johnson to serve as military governor of his home state, which remained under Confederate attack. Johnson's Southern ties and Democratic Party roots made him a logical running mate in 1864 for Lincoln, a Northern Republican president who sought to reunite a deeply divided nation.

Lincoln's death came just a week after the Confederate troops surrendered at the Appomattox, Virginia, courthouse, leaving Johnson with the monumental task of rebuilding the country after the Civil War. Many in the North wanted to punish the South, whom they blamed for starting the bloody conflict. Johnson also wanted to punish the traitors, but he did not see all of his fellow Southerners as the enemy.

Johnson was a tailor by trade, a self-taught man who grew up too poor to attend school. His wife, Eliza, taught him how to read. Throughout his life, he was suspicious of the rich upper class. He blamed the Southern plantation owners—many of them arrogant and dependent on slave labor—for starting the Civil War. He saw the vast majority of Southerners, working men like him, as good people who were dragged into a horrible conflict.

Johnson's sympathy for most Southerners and his racist attitude toward the African American slaves freed by the war were at odds with Congress's postwar plans for the South. The "Radical Republicans" who controlled Congress wanted to take land, voting rights, and elected offices away from the white men who participated in the "rebellion" against the North and give those rights and privileges to the newly freed slaves. Johnson objected: That would unfairly punish the Southern working families while placing democracy in the hands of African Americans who, Johnson believed, were intellectually unfit for the task. The Republicans grew angry when Johnson allowed former Confederates to return to elected office in the Southern states.

Within a year of taking office, the president was on a collision course with Congress. He vetoed a bill extending the life of the Freedmen's Bureau, the agency that provided assistance and education to the freed slaves (see Chapter 4). He vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866, a measure allowing African Americans the same basic rights as whites to buy and sell land, enter into contracts, file lawsuits, and conduct other business (see Chapter 8). He vetoed the Reconstruction Acts that carved the South into five military districts, each one monitored by a commanding officer who could get involved with local issues (see Chapter 10). But in all three cases, Congress gathered a two-thirds majority to override Johnson's vetoes, allowing these measures to become law.

A fiery man with strong convictions and a stronger sense of pride, Johnson took his frustrations to the people. As described in High Crimes & Misdemeanors: The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson, Johnson was solid in his belief that they would back him against a "factious [divided], domineering tyrannical [authoritarian] Congress." He toured the country by train and gave harshly worded speeches at every stop. To a crowd in Cleveland, Ohio, Johnson called Congress a "common gang of cormorants [vicious sea birds] and bloodsuckers (who) have been fattening upon the country for the past four or five years." The speaking tour, known as the "Swing Around the Circle," drew hecklers and embarrassing newspaper accounts at nearly every stop. The Republican governors in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois did not even greet the president as he passed through their states.

Johnson further stunned his friends and enemies alike with his unscripted remarks in February 1866 to a group of Democratic supporters gathered at the White House. The president called his opponents "traitors" and compared himself to the persecuted Jesus Christ, as noted in The Struggle for Equality. Johnson even suggested his leading enemies—U.S. representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868) of Pennsylvania, U.S. senator Charles Sumner (1811–1874) of Massachusetts, and antislavery advocate Wendell Phillips (1811–1884)—were planning to assassinate him. "If my blood is to be shed because I vindicate [defend] the Union and the preservation of this government in its original purity and character, let it be shed," Johnson told the crowd.

As relations between Johnson and Congress grew more hostile, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814–1869) became a central figure. A holdover from Lincoln's administration, Stanton supported Congress's military Reconstruction plan for the South. He stayed in close contact with Johnson's enemies in Congress, even though he answered to the president as a member of the Cabinet (the president's inner circle of advisors).

Members of Congress knew Stanton had become a threat to Johnson, and they feared the president would try to remove him. To protect their ally Stanton, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act in March 1867. The measure barred the president from removing anyone in his cabinet without the Senate's approval. Predictably, Johnson vetoed the bill, and Congress overrode his veto.

Johnson believed the act was unconstitutional. It gave Congress too much power over the workings of the executive (presidential) branch of government, he thought. He was confident the U.S. Supreme Court would strike it down, but Johnson would have to challenge the law in order to get the issue to court. As a more practical matter, the president could not function with a Cabinet member who challenged his policies and conspired with his congressional foes.

In August 1867, Johnson sent a memo asking Stanton to resign, but Stanton refused. The president suspended Stanton, then tried to replace him with General Lorenzo Thomas (1804–1875), but Stanton refused to leave his office. In the meantime, Johnson also replaced three commanding officers in the Southern military districts (the areas where Union forces enforced Congress's Reconstruction plans) with more laid-back officers who would not interfere as local whites mistreated African Americans.

Congress was alarmed by Johnson's juggling of key officials. The president was undermining Congress's Reconstruction efforts by trying to place more lenient men in power. Congress began to discuss impeachment, a two-step process outlined in the Constitution to remove the president from office (see box). The process starts in the House of Representatives, where members vote on whether to formally charge the president with misconduct. If the president is formally accused, or impeached, by the House, the Senate holds a trial to decide whether to vote him out of office.

What Is Impeachment?

The authors of the Constitution outlined a course of action for removing the president, vice president, or other officials who are guilty of "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors," as stated in Article 2, section 4, of the Constitution. The process starts in the House of Representatives with a majority vote to formally accuse, or "impeach," an official of some offense. The matter goes to trial in the Senate, where the senators serve as jurors. If at least two-thirds of the senators vote for conviction, the official is removed from office.

Congress has fleshed out the process over the years. The House Judiciary Committee starts by holding hearings, taking testimony, and drafting possible charges. The committee then makes a recommendation to the full House of Representatives. If the House votes to impeach, several of its members serve as prosecutors, or "managers," when the case goes to the Senate. Defense attorneys represent the accused official.

Andrew Johnson was the first of two presidents to be impeached; Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) was the second. He was impeached in 1998 on charges that he lied under oath about having a relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky (1973–). Like Johnson, Clinton was a Southern Democrat at odds with a Republican Congress, and many questioned whether the charges were politically motivated. As with Johnson, Clinton was acquitted in the Senate.

Experts still debate what qualifies as "high crimes and misdemeanors." The framers of the Constitution added the catch-all phrase to cover dangerous acts that might not involve treason or bribery. Some scholars take the phrase to literally mean criminal violations of the law, while others suggest a broader interpretation that covers an abuse of power. In reality, then–U.S. representative (and future president) Gerald Ford (1913–; served as president 1974–77) of Michigan noted in 1970, "An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history."

At the urging of Representative Stevens, one of the leading Radical Republicans, the House of Representatives voted in February 1868 to bring impeachment charges against Johnson. A committee then drafted the eleven specific charges. Nine of them stemmed from Johnson's alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act. The tenth charge accused the president of attacking the reputation of Congress in his speeches during the "Swing Around the Circle" tour by train. The eleventh charge summarized the other ones in more general terms. As noted in The Presidency of Andrew Johnson, the purpose of this last charge "was to induce senators who might have qualms about specific charges against Johnson to vote him guilty on general grounds."

The case presented to the Senate, which sits as the jury in an impeachment trial, did not focus on the details of the Tenure of Office Act. It became a debate over Johnson's performance as president. As quoted in High Crimes & Misdemeanors: The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson, U.S. representative John A. Logan (1826–1886) of Illinois, one of the officials acting as prosecutor in the case, told the Senate: Johnson's "great aim and purpose has been to subvert [over-throw] law, usurp [seize] authority, insult and outrage Congress, reconstruct the rebel states in the interests of treason, (and) insult the memories and resting places of our heroic dead."

As the six-week trial neared its end in May 1868, Senator Sumner rose to make his arguments for Johnson's removal from office. The powerful Radical Republican was one of Johnson's archrivals. He had been waiting for this day to come.

Things to remember while reading an excerpt from "Argument for the Impeachment of President Johnson":

  • Johnson was loyal to the North during the Civil War, and he spoke harshly about the "traitors" who created the Confederacy. But he was a Southerner, too, and he did not view all Southerners as the enemy. He blamed the rich plantation owners for starting the war. He opposed Congress's Reconstruction policies because he thought they were too harsh on everyday white Southerners. Unlike the Northerners who controlled Congress, Johnson did not support equal rights for African Americans.
  • Although the impeachment charges mainly revolved around Johnson's attempts to replace his secretary of war, the debate during the trial focused on Johnson's performance as president. He had angered most Republicans in Congress by opposing their Reconstruction efforts. By his actions, critics said, Johnson was supporting the rebels.
  • Sumner was one of the leading abolitionists (opponents of slavery) of his time. He viewed slavery as a great evil, and believed the work of the Civil War was not complete until African Americans were given equal footing with whites.

Excerpt from "Argument for the Impeachment of President Johnson"

This is one of the last great battles with slavery. Driven from these legislative chambers, driven from the field of war, thismonstrous power has found a refuge in theexecutive mansion, where, in utter disregard of the Constitution and laws, it seeks to exercise its ancient, far-reachingsway. All this is very plain. Nobody can question it. Andrew Johnson is theimpersonation of thetyrannical slave power.…

Not todislodge (him) is to leave the country aprey to one of the most hateful tyrannies of history. Especially is it to surrender the Unionists of the Rebel states to violence and bloodshed. Not a month, not a week, not a day should be lost. The safety of the republic requires action at once. The lives of innocent men must be rescued from sacrifice.…

Slavery has been our worst enemy,assailing all, murdering our children, filling our homes with mourning, and darkening the land with tragedy; and now it rears itscrest anew, with Andrew Johnson as its representative. Through him it assumes once more to rule the republic and to impose its cruel law.…

The formal accusation is founded on certain recenttransgressions, enumerated in articles of impeachment, but it is wrong to supposethat this is the whole case. It is very wrong to try this impeachment merely on these articles. It isunpardonable to haggle over words and phrases when, for more than two years, the tyrannicalpretensions of this offender, now in evidence before the Senate … have beenmanifest in their terrible,heartrending consequences.…

Thisusurpation, with its brutalities and indecencies, became manifest as long ago as the winter of 1866, when, being President, and bound by his oath of office to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, and to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, he took to himself legislative powers in the reconstruction of the Rebel states; and, in carrying forward this usurpation,nullified an act of Congress, intended as the cornerstone of Reconstruction, by virtue of which Rebels are excluded from office under the government of the United States; and, thereafter, invindication of this misconduct, uttered a scandalous speech in which he openly charged members of Congress with being assassins, and mentioned some by name. Plainly he should have been impeached and expelled at that early day. The case against him was complete.…

More than one person was appointedprovisional governor who could not take the oath of office required by act of Congress. Other persons in the samepredicament were appointed in the revenue service. The effect of these appointments was disastrous. They were in the nature of notice to Rebels everywhere, that participation in the rebellion was no bar to office. If one of their number could be appointed governor, if another could be appointed to a confidential position in the Treasury Department, then there was nobody on thelong list of blood who might not look forpreferment. And thus all offices from governor toconstable were handed over to a disloyalscramble.

Rebels crawled forth from their retreats. Men who had hardlyventured to expect their lives were now candidates for office, and the rebellion became strong again. The change was felt in all thegradations of government, whether in states, counties, towns, or villages. Rebels found themselves in places of trust, while the truehearted Unionists, who had watched for the coming of our flag and ought to have enjoyed its protecting power, were driven into hiding places. All this was under theauspices of Andrew Johnson. It was he whoanimated the wicked crew. He was at the head of the work. Loyalty everywhere waspersecuted. White and black, whose only offense was that they had been true to their country, were insulted, abused, murdered. There was no safety for the loyal man except within the flash of ourbayonets. The story is as authentic as hideous.…

Laws enacted by Congress for the benefit of the colored race, including that great statute for the establishment of the Freedman's Bureau, and that other great statute for the establishment of civil rights, were first attacked by his veto; and, when finally passed by the requisite majority over his veto, were treated by him as little better than dead letters, while he boldly attempted to prevent the adoption of a constitutional amendment by which the right of citizens and the national debt were placed under the guarantee ofirrepealable law.

During thesesuccessive assumptions, usurpations, and tyrannies, utterly withoutprecedent in our history, this deeply guilty man ventured upon public speeches, each an offense to good morals, where, lost to all shame, he appealed incoarse words to the coarse passions of the coarsest people, scatteringfirebrands ofsedition, inflaming anew the rebel spirit, insulting good citizens, and, with regard to officeholders, announcing in his own characteristic phrase that he would "kick them out"—the whole succession of speeches being from their brutalities and indecencies in the nature of a "criminal exposure of his person,"indictable at common law, for which no judgment can be too severe. But even this revolting transgression is aggravated when it is considered that through these utterances the cause of justice wasimperiled and theaccursed demon of civil feud waslashed again intovengeful fury.

All these things from beginning to end are plain facts, already recorded in history and known to all. And it is further recorded in history and known to all, that, through theseenormities, any one of which is enough for condemnation, while all together present anaggregation of crime, untoldcalamities have been brought upon our country; disturbing business and finance; diminishing the national revenues; postponingspecie payments; dishonoring the Declaration of Independence in its grandest truths;arresting the restoration of the Rebel states; reviving the dying rebellion, and instead of that peace and reconciliation so much longed for,sowing strife and wrong, whose natural fruit is violence and blood.

For all these, or any one of them, Andrew Johnson should have been impeached and expelled from office. The case required a statement only, not an argument. Unhappily this was not done. As apetty substitute for the judgment which should have been pronounced, and as abridle on presidential tyranny in "kicking out of office," Congress enacted a law known as the Tenure of Office Act, passed March 2, 1867, over his veto by the vote of two-thirds ofboth houses. And in order to prepare the way for impeachment, by removing certainscruples of technicality, its violation was expressly declared to be a high misdemeanor.

The President began at once tochafe under its restraint. Recognizing the act and following its terms, he first suspended Mr. Stanton from office, and then … made an attempt … to oust [Secretary of War Edwin] Stanton.… Meanwhile, [General Philip] Sheridan in Louisiana, [General John] Pope in Alabama, and [General Dan] Sickles in South Carolina, who, as military commanders, were carrying into thepacification of these states all the energies which had been so brilliantly displayed in the war, were pursued by the samevindictive spirit.

They were removed by the President, and rebellion throughout that whole region clapped its hands. This was done in the exercise of his power as commander in chief. At last, in hisunappeased rage, he openly violated the Tenure of Office Act so as to bring himself under its judgment by the defiant attempt to remove Mr. Stanton from the War Department, without the consent of the Senate, and the appointment of Lorenzo Thomas, adjutant general of the United States, as secretary of warad interim.

The Grand Inquest of the nation, which had slept on so many enormities, was awakened by this open defiance. Thegauntlet was flung into its very chamber, and there it lay on the floor. The President, who had already claimed everything for the executive withimpunity, now rushed into conflict with Congress on the very ground selected in advance by the latter. The field was narrow, but sufficient. There was but one thing for the House of Representatives to do. Andrew Johnson must be impeached, or the Tenure of Office Act would become a dead letter, while his tyranny would receive a letter oflicense, and impeachment as a remedy for wrongdoing would beblotted from the Constitution.

What happened next …

The Senate voted May 16, 1868, on the eleventh article of impeachment, the general summary of charges against Johnson. The senators voted thirty-five to nineteen in favor of conviction—one vote short of the two-thirds majority required to remove Johnson from office. After votes on two other impeachment charges on May 26 turned out the same way, the Senate ended the proceedings. Stanton resigned his post as secretary of war, finally allowing the president to replace him.

All of the Democrats in the Senate sided with Johnson, but the president could not have kept his seat without support from seven Republicans. He earned their backing, in part, by toning down his harsh comments about Congress and allowing General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) to oversee the military districts in the South without the president's interference. Several Republican senators, such as William Pitt Fessenden (1806–1869) of Maine and James W. Grimes (1816–1872) of Iowa, did not think Congress had valid legal reasons to remove Johnson. They feared removing him would place the country in upheaval, and they thought the next man in line for the presidency—U.S. senator Benjamin Wade (1800–1878) of Ohio, the president of the Senate—was too extreme (see box). "I cannot agree to destroy the harmonious working of the Constitution for the sake of getting rid of an unacceptable president," Grimes said.

Who's Next in Line?

The impeachment of President Andrew Johnson raised an interesting question: Who would take his place if he was removed from office? Johnson had no vice president. At that time, the U.S. Constitution did not provide a way for a new vice president to be appointed after the previous one became president. So when Johnson took office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, he had no back-up.

The Presidential Succession Act, passed by Congress in 1792, placed the Senate president and the speaker of the House of Representatives next in line for the presidency, after the vice president. That act almost came into play during Johnson's impeachment, as the presidency would have passed to Senate president Benjamin Wade of Ohio if Johnson was convicted. But that created a tremendous conflict, as senators vote on whether to remove an impeached president from office. By casting a vote to convict Johnson, Wade was essentially voting to put himself in the oval office. That situation prompted Congress to revisit the succession policy in 1886, with an act that removed members of Congress from the list of people in line for the White House. Instead, the presidency would pass to members of the cabinet (the secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, and so on) in the order those posts were created.

But that was not the last word. Congress passed a new succession act in 1947 that placed the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate back in line, after the vice president. The members of the cabinet followed. The Twenty-fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1967, allowed a president to appoint a new vice president, with the approval of both chambers of Congress. The measure got its first test a few years later. In October 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew (1918–1996) resigned amid accusations of wrongdoing as a Maryland county executive and governor, and President Richard Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) appointed U.S. representative Gerald Ford (1913–) of Michigan as Agnew's replacement. When the Watergate scandal prompted Nixon to resign ten months later, Ford became the nation's first fully appointed president.

But their votes came at a cost. None of the seven Republicans who sided with Johnson was reelected. One of them, U.S. senator Edmund G. Ross (1826–1907) of Kansas, was physically attacked by an angry mob when he returned home.

Although the trial did not remove Johnson from the White House, it left him powerless for the last nine-and-a-half months of his presidency. Congress continued to overturn his vetoes. His written messages to Congress, including his final State of the Union speech, were placed in the written record without being read aloud to a Senate that refused to listen. His hopes of running for reelection on the Democratic Party ticket were dead.

Did you know …

  • Sumner was brutally beaten in 1856 by U.S. representative Preston Brooks (1819–1857) of South Carolina, a slavery supporter who was insulted by one of Sumner's antislavery speeches, in which he mocked Brooks's uncle, proslavery U.S. senator Andrew Butler (1796–1857) of South Carolina, accusing him of taking "a mistress"—slavery. Brooks attacked Sumner on the Senate floor with a gold-handled cane. Sumner spent four years recovering in Europe.
  • Johnson returned to Washington, D.C., in March 1875 as a U.S. senator—the only former president to do so. (Former president John Quincy Adams [1767–1848] also returned to Congress, but as a U.S. representative.) By all accounts, it was an astonishing political comeback for the once-unpopular ex-president. But it was short-lived: Johnson died that July after suffering two strokes.
  • Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Johnson's administration was the $7.2 million purchase of Alaska, an area rich in gold and oil. The deal removed Russia from North America, and was the only time Russia voluntarily gave up land.
  • Recovering from a possible bout with typhoid, Johnson downed three glasses of whiskey before his 1865 inauguration as vice president under Lincoln. His speech turned into a drunken tirade, causing the New York World to lament "that one frail life stands between this insolent [disrespectful] clownish creature and the presidency!" When Lincoln's assassination made Johnson the president about a month later, his aides persuaded him not to hold another public inauguration ceremony.
  • One of the votes to convict Johnson in the impeachment trial came from U.S. senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, the man who would become president if Johnson was removed.
  • The Supreme Court ruled in 1926 that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional, as Johnson had argued decades earlier. Some of the Republicans who pushed for impeachment later admitted that their efforts were based more on anger toward Johnson than any notion that he had committed a crime.

Consider the following …

Do you think Johnson should have been removed from office?

Can you think of ways in which the president and Congress could have compromised?

What would the South be like today if Congress did not override Johnson's vetoes on key Reconstruction programs?

For More Information

Castel, Albert. The Presidency of Andrew Johnson. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1979.

"Charles Sumner: Opinion on the Trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868." From Revolution to Reconstruction … and What Happened Afterwards. (accessed on September 20, 2004).

"Finding Precedent: The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson." HarpWeek. (accessed on September 20, 2004).

McPherson, James M. The Struggle for Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Smith, Gene. High Crimes & Misdemeanors: The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.

Trefousse, Hans L. Andrew Johnson: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.

"The Trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868." EyeWitness to History. (accessed on September 20, 2004).

Monstrous power: Slavery.

Executive mansion: White House.

Sway: Influence.

Impersonation: Imitation.

Tyrannical: Oppressive.

Dislodge: Remove.

Prey: Victim.

Assailing: Attacking.

Crest: Head.

Transgressions: Violations.

Enumerated: Listed.

Unpardonable: Not excusable.

Pretensions: Claims.

Manifest: Apparent.

Heartrending: Heartbreaking.

Usurpation: Seizure of power.

Nullified: Made legally invalid.

Vindication: Defense.

Provisional: Temporary.

Predicament: Difficult situation.

Long list of blood: The group of Southern soldiers who killed Union troops during the war.

Preferment: Promotion.

Constable: Policeman.

Scramble: Climb for a prize.

Ventured: Acted in a risky way.

Gradations: Levels.

Auspices: Guidance.

Animated: Brought to life.

Persecuted: Punished.

Bayonets: Detachable blades used on rifles.

Irrepealable: Unable to be overturned.

Successive: Series of.

Precedent: Prior example.

Coarse: Harsh.

Firebrands: People who stir passions.

Sedition: Rebellion.

Indictable: Able to be accused of an offense.

Imperiled: Put in danger.

Accursed: Under a curse.

Lashed: Whipped.

Vengeful: Seeking revenge.

Enormities: Wicked acts.

Aggregation: Total sum.

Calamities: Disasters.

Specie: Coin money, such as gold.

Arresting: Stopping.

Sowing: Spreading.

Petty: Unimportant.

Bridle: Restraint.

Scruples: Doubts.

Chafe: Become irritated.

Pacification: Process of making peace.

Vindictive: In the spirit of revenge.

Unappeased: Not satisfied.

Ad interim: Interim.

Gauntlet: Challenge.

Impunity: Free from punishment.

License: Permission.

Blotted: Erased.

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Sumner, Charles

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