President Andrew Johnson Impeachment Trial: 1868

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President Andrew Johnson Impeachment
Trial: 1868

Defendant: President Andrew Johnson
Crime Charged: "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" within the meaning of Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution
Chief Defense Lawyers: William Maxwell Evarts and Benjamin R. Curtis
Chief Prosecutors: Seven "trial managers" from the House of Representatives
Judges: U.S. Senate, with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding
Place: Washington, D.C.
Dates of Trial: March 30-May 26, 1868
Verdict: No impeachment

SIGNIFICANCE: The U.S. Congress for the first time exercised its Constitutional prerogative to try a president of the United States for impeachable offenses. Johnson survived the Senate impeachment trial by one vote, but his hopes for re-election in 1868 were destroyed. Johnson was succeeded by the corrupt administration of Ulysses S. Grant.

After five years of bloody Civil War, the Union emerged victorious. President Abraham Lincoln and his Republican administration were vindicated. On April 14, 1865, to the shock and horror of the Union, while attending a performance at Ford's Theatre, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. The next day, Vice President Andrew Johnson was sworn in as president of the United States. Ironically, the man who would lead the United States into the Reconstruction era was a Southerner.

Born in North Carolina and raised in Tennessee, Johnson entered into politics and had enjoyed a successful career with the Democratic Party. He was chosen to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate. When the Southern states left the Union to form the Confederacy, Johnson was widely admired in the North for being the only Southern senator to remain loyal while his state seceded.

Johnson's loyalty and newfound fame caught the attention of President Abraham Lincoln. First, Lincoln appointed Johnson the Union's military governor of Tennessee. When Lincoln was up for re-election in 1864 against General George McClellan, Lincoln chose Johnson as his running mate. As a Southern Democrat and loyalist, Johnson would attract moderate voters in addition to the abolitionist and radical Republican forces already in Lincoln's camp.

Lincoln won the election of 1864. Although his assassination makes it impossible to know for certain how his Reconstruction administration would have proceeded, he had chosen Johnson as vice-president and had used the phrase "with malice toward none, with charity for all" in advocating leniency toward the South. Thus, many historians have concluded that Lincoln would have pursued a moderate and conciliatory approach toward the reunited Confederate states.

Johnson Becomes an Unpopular President

Johnson lacked the stature that Lincoln had gained as the president who held the Union together. Although Lincoln would probably have approved of Johnson's moderate policies toward Reconstruction, Johnson did not have the prestige necessary to convince Congress or the American people that he was suited to the job. The electorate of the victorious Union, having undergone the bloodiest war in American history, sent mostly Republicans to Congress because the Republicans had been Lincoln's party. Within Congress, the Republican majority became Johnson's enemy.

The political antagonism between Johnson and Congress was further aggravated by Johnson's opposition to the Fourteenth Amendment, which expanded Constitutional protection of basic civil liberties, and such Congressional initiatives as establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau to assist freed slaves. Johnson went on a nationwide speaking tour, known as the "Swing Around the Circle," in which he made a series of abrasive and blunt speeches full of accusations against his political enemies in Congress. The Swing Around the Circle only served to erode further Johnson's public support.

Sensing vulnerability, Congress moved against Johnson by passing the Tenure of Office Act, which limited Johnson's ability to remove cabinet officials without Congressional approval. Predictably, Johnson fought the act, particularly because he wished to rid his cabinet of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who was now allied with the opposition. When Johnson attempted to fire Stanton, Congress retaliated. Thaddeus Stevens, a Representative from Pennsylvania who spoke for radical Republicans in favor of harsh treatment for the South as "conquered territory," led the House of Representatives to a 126-47 vote in favor of a short but historic resolution: "Resolved, that Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, be impeached of high crimes and misdemeanors in office."

Senate Tries President Johnson

Although the House of Representatives had adopted the resolution to impeach Johnson, Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution mandates that the Senate must conduct the impeachment trial. This provision further states that at least two-thirds of the Senate must vote in favor of impeachment and, because a presidential impeachment was at issue, that Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase of the Supreme Court must preside.

Therefore, the House appointed seven congressmen as "trial managers," or prosecutors for the impeachment. These congressmen were John A. Bingham, George Boutwell, Benjamin F. Butler, John A. Logan, Thaddeus Stevens, Thomas Williams and James F. Wilson. Although Stevens had been the House leader, illness forced him to relinquish most of his authority to Benjamin Butler.

Butler was a colorful character. A general in the Union army during the Civil War, he was the military governor of New Orleans after the city was taken. During his governorship, he tolerated no pro-Southern dissent. One day when Butler perceived that he had been slighted by a group of New Orleans women, he issued an order that any woman showing "contempt for a United States officer" should be considered a "woman of the town plying her avocation" and thus implicitly subject to prosecution for prostitution. After the war, Butler returned to Massachusetts and was elected to the House. Butler lost no time in launching the House's case against Johnson. From the beginning, however, it was clear that the proceedings would be dominated by the political struggle between Johnson and Butler. Legal niceties were secondary.

Under Butler's direction, the trial managers presented the House's articles of impeachment. These eleven articles consisted of various nonspecific charges of "high crimes and misdemeanors" against Johnson. For example, Johnson was accused of making "intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues" against Congress during the Swing Around the Circle. Johnson's response to these vague charges was quick and furious:

Impeach me for violating the Constitution! Damn them! I have been struggling and working ever since I have been in this chair to uphold the Constitution they trample underfoot! I don't care what becomes of me, but I'll fight them until they rot! I shall not allow the Constitution of the United States to be destroyed by evil men who are trying to ruin this government and this nation!

The trial began March 30, 1868. After some initial confusion, the trial managers decided to pursue a two-pronged attack. They would attempt to prove that Johnson's opposition to the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional and that Johnson had flagrantly abused his office with his comments about Congress. The testimony of witnesses the trial managers produced was not limited to these issues, however. There was testimony on practically any matter that could serve to discredit Johnson, such as Johnson's alleged excessive drinking habits.

Johnson's defense rested with William Maxwell Evarts, a New York attorney highly regarded throughout the North, and Benjamin R. Curtis, a former Supreme Court justice. Other lawyers, such as former Attorney General Henry Stanbery, assisted with the defense. All of Johnson's counsel felt strongly enough about the importance of the case that they worked free of charge.

Senate Republicans Thwart Johnson's Defense

Johnson's lawyers attempted to introduce evidence showing that Johnson's opposition to the Tenure of Office Act was no more than a legitimate desire to test the constitutional validity of the act in the federal courts. The defense offered to produce witnesses who could testify that Johnson's opposition to the act on constitutional grounds had long preceded his quarrel with Secretary of War Stanton. Chief Justice Chase ruled that this evidence was admissible. Although a two-thirds vote of the Senate was necessary for a conviction of impeachment, it took only a simple majority vote to decide procedural matters. Therefore, despite Chase's rulings, the Senate repeatedly voted to prevent the defense from producing its witnesses concerning Johnson's legitimate opposition to the act.

The second prong of the trial managers' attack concerned Johnson's public statements. But the defense argued that the Senate could hardly impeach Johnson for exercising the right of freedom of speech that the Constitution gave to every American. Butler's retort made little legal sense but was good rhetoric and played well with the anti-Johnson public of the North:

Is it, indeed, to be seriously argued here that there is a constitutional right in the President of the United States, who, during his official life, can never lay aside his official life, can never lay aside his official character, to denounce, malign, abuse, ridicule, and condemn, openly and publicly, the Congress of the United States: a coordinate branch of the government?

Consciences of Seven Republicans Save Johnson

Throughout the two-month-long trial, Johnson's defense lawyers repeatedly saw their sound legal arguments thwarted by purely political forces. However, seven Republican senators were disturbed by how the proceedings had been manipulated to permit a one-sided presentation of the evidence. Senators William Pitt Fessenden, Joseph S. Fowler, James W. Grimes, John B. Henderson, Edmund G. Ross, Lyman Trumbull, and Peter G. Van Winkle defied their party and public opinion and voted against impeachment.

The Senate met on May 26, 1868, for the final vote. The shift by the seven Republicans proved critical: the tally was 35 to 19 in favor of impeachment, one vote short of the two-thirds majority necessary to impeach Johnson. Johnson was acquitted. But his political career never recovered. Later in 1868 the war hero General Ulysses S. Grant was elected the next president of the United States.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Aymar, Brandt and Edward Sagarin. Laws and Trials That Created History. New York: Crown Publishers, 1974.

Dorris, Jonathan Truman. Pardon and Amnesty Under Lincoln and Johnson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953.

Gerson, Noel B. The Trial of Andrew Johnson. Nashville and New York: Thomas Nelson, 1977.

Paul, M. "Was Andrew Johnson Right?" Senior Scholastic (Teachers' Edition). (November 1982): 26.

Simpson, Brooks D., Leroy F. Graf, and John Muldowny. Advice After Appomattox: Letters to Andrew Johnson. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.

Smith, Gene. High Crimes & Misdemeanors: The Impeachment and Trial of Andresw Johnson. New York:William Morrow & Co., 1977.

Strong, George Templeton. Diary. New York: Macmillan Co., 1952.

Trefousse, Hans L. Andrew Johnson, a Biograpkv. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989.

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President Andrew Johnson Impeachment Trial: 1868

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President Andrew Johnson Impeachment Trial: 1868