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Johnson's Early Career
Born into poverty in North Carolina in 1808, Andrew Johnson became an apprentice to a tailor as a young man. His father found little value in formal education, and as a result, Andrew received little. Through sheer force of will, hard work, and a wife who tutored him, he became a self-educated man. He settled his family near Greenville, Tennessee, and there he improved his social status and became active in politics. What he lacked in formal education, he made up for with skill as a debater and orator. He rose through the political ranks from town alderman, to mayor, to state legislator, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843.
After serving twice as governor of Tennessee, he became the state’s U.S. Senator. Johnson proved to be an independent thinker, which became evident when hostilities broke out at the start of the Civil War, states began to secede from the Union, and Johnson proclaimed his loyalty to the Union at great personal cost. Though the state became part of the Confederacy, Johnson remained true to the Union.
Republican President Lincoln rewarded Johnson’s loyalty with an appointment as the military governor of Tennessee in 1862. When Lincoln ran for his second term in office and needed a Southern “Union Democrat” on his ticket, Johnson was an obvious choice. Choosing a vice president from an opposing political party was an unusual move for Lincoln, a move that had not been seen since the Federalist president John Adams and his Democratic-Republican vice president Thomas Jefferson held office.
Less than two months after becoming the vice president, Johnson was sworn in as the 17th president of the United States. At first, Johnson was welcomed by the radical Republican faction within Congress with open arms—then the trouble began.
The Accidental President
Just as John Tyler became president upon the untimely death of William Henry Harrison, so did Andrew Johnson replace Abraham Lincoln after Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth in April 1865. Once Johnson became president, he kept all of Lincoln’s cabinet and pledged to continue his policies. Even the so-called radical Republicans were initially happy with Johnson; however, in three years this same party would seek his impeachment.
With the bloody Civil War finally over, the president and Congress turned to the arduous task of rebuilding the shattered nation. Johnson’s views on Reconstruction turned out to be very different from those of members of Congress, leading to much friction between the executive and legislative branches of the government. Johnson’s approach to Reconstruction was to restore the Southern states to the Union with generous amnesty and pardons for former Confederates as soon as possible. His plan was not favorable for nearly four million slaves who were freed by the war. In addition, Johnson suspended some of the laws enacted by Congress during the war, deeming them inappropriate during peacetime. Without the approval of Congress, he reinstated state governments in the South and insisted that Congress recognize the rights of these states within the Union.
Conflict With Congress
The Republicans demanded more significant changes in the Southern states to prevent future insurrections, protect the rights of Southerners who had been loyal to the Union during the war, and ensure rights and protections were in place for the freed African Americans. Congress blocked Johnson’s reconstruction plans and after a year of conflict voted in a Reconstruction Act that began rebuilding the South under military control.
During Johnson’s battle with Congress, he vetoed every piece of Reconstruction legislation that reached his desk. He supported former Confederates in struggles with Southern Unionists and African Americans. His aggressive policies fostered a climate that led to several race riots. He questioned the legitimacy of Congress, calling it a “Rump Congress” because they failed to seat the delegates for the Southern states that he had reinstated. To bolster his hand, he started replacing Southern government officials with those who were more sympathetic to his approach. This combative stance with Congress resulted in the passage of the Tenure of Office Act over his veto.
The Tenure of Office Act
The carefully crafted Tenure of Office Act of 1867 would later become key to Johnson’s impeachment. The act was designed to restrict the president’s power to approve and remove government officials. It stated that no government official who had been approved by the Senate could not be removed from office until the Senate confirmed the replacement. Cabinet members were specifically included in the act, but with the stipulation—which would later become controversial—that they should “hold their offices respectively for and during the term of the president by whom they may have been appointed and for one month thereafter, subject to removal” with consent of the Senate.
Johnson continued to struggle with Congress and his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, a radical Republican, over the path to reconstruction. Johnson asked Stanton to resign and when he refused, he replaced Stanton with General Ulysses S. Grant as the interim secretary of war. Johnson followed a provision in the Tenure of Office Act that allowed the president to suspend officials when the Senate was not in session, subject to approval by the Senate when they reconvened. Johnson proceeded to replace government officials who were too zealous in their implementation of the Reconstruction Act. Johnson thwarted much of the Congress’s actions to implement their policies regarding reconstruction.
With battle lines drawn between Johnson and the radical Republicans in Congress, calls for impeachment began as early as mid-1867 by Johnson’s enemies. The representative from Ohio, James M. Ashley, moved an impeachment resolution that was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary. The committee began to investigate charges that Johnson had used his powers corruptly. The committee was divided over whether Johnson’s actions warranted impeachment. The House Judiciary Committee sent the first impeachment report to the full House on November 25, 1867.
Johnson became frustrated when the Senate refused to agree to Stanton’s removal and Grant relinquished the office back to Stanton. In late February 1868, the president formally removed Stanton and handed control of the War Department to General Lorenzo Thomas. Stanton refused to follow Johnson’s order and barracked himself in his cabinet office for nearly two months. Johnson’s actions were taken as a clear violation of the Tenure of Office Act, and this launched the impeachment crisis. On February 24, 1868, the House of Representatives voted along party lines to impeach President Johnson for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The House then appointed a committee to draw up the articles of impeachment.
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I have known Andy for many years... he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared. Andy ain't a drunkard
— Abraham Lincoln
The Impeachment Trial in the Senate
The House committee wasted no time and drafted eleven articles of impeachment centered around the removal of Stanton as a violation of the Tenure of Office Act. The tenth article accused Johnson of attempting to stir hatred and contempt of Congress with the intent of subverting its power. The 11th, and final, article of impeachment restated all the charges in the general context regarding the struggle over the reconstruction of post-Civil War America.
The Senate chose seven members as managers, led by John A. Bingham of Ohio, to act as prosecutors in the impeachment trial. Defending Johnson was a team of lawyers led by Attorney General Henry Stanberry, who resigned his position to devote his full attention to the trial. Shortly after the House approved the articles of impeachment, the trial in the Senate began on the afternoon of March 5.
As required by the U.S. Constitution, the trial was presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase, who stressed the legal aspects of the trial, over the objections of the radical Republicans who believed the proceeding were essentially political. Chase’s approach to emphasize the legal, rather than political, aspects of the trial benefitted the president’s lawyers, allowing them to demand that all charges be proven as would be required in a regular trial. The Senate managers who supported the political context appeared to be purely partisan and out of place in the trial.
The trial was very popular with the public. To handle the overflow crowds in the visitor’s gallery of the Senate chamber, each day 1,000 tickets were printed, allowing admission for a single day. The sensational trial brought hundreds of requests per day to the senators for a ticket to attend the trial.
As the trial dragged on for weeks with testimony from numerous witnesses and endless arguments, the sense of crisis faded, as did the public’s interest. Johnson helped his own case by ending his interference in the reconstruction of the South. His lawyers argued that he had removed Stanton to challenge the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act. In addition, even if the Tenure of Office Act was constitutional, the act did not cover Stanton because his term had ended one month after the death of Lincoln.
Grounds for Impeachment
The argument presented by the impeachment managers was that the president had clearly intended to violate the Tenure of Office Act and the constitutionality of the act was not in question. The managers argued that Stanton was protected from removal by the law, either because he was still serving his term as appointed by President Lincoln, or if that wasn’t the case, because his position fell under the general category of government officers who were subject to Senate approval for appointment or removal.
The managers insisted that Johnson’s intent was irrelevant; he had clearly broken the law. The constitution, according to the managers, barred the appointment of a government officer without confirmation of the Senate. The temporary appointment, such as Johnson had done when he removed Stanton and put in General Grant, was valid only when the position became vacant due to death, illness, or resignation. In May the trial was drawing to a close and it was becoming apparent that Johnson might escape impeachment. Several of the Republican senators sided with the Democrats and supported the president’s position of procedural issues and on testimony.
The Verdict of the Impeachment Trial
The Republicans realized their case was weak and decided to maximize their chances of a conviction by voting on the 11th article of impeachment first. The vote came on May 16, with 35 senators in favor of impeachment and 19 opposed. The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote to convict in an impeachment trial, which left the Republicans one vote short.
A ten-day recess was called by the majority to allow them time to pressure the seven Republicans who had voted to acquit. When the Senate reconvened, they reached the same result on the second and third articles. The last deciding vote for acquittal came from the first time senator from Kansas, Edmond Ross, who later wrote of that fateful day, “I almost literally looked down into my open grave…Friendships, position, fortune, everything that makes life desirable to an ambitious man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever.” Those seeking impeachment realized that the cause was lost, gave up, and a motion for adjournment carried. Thus ended the first trial for impeachment of a U.S. president.
Andrew Johnson: The impeached president
Aftermath of the Impeachment Trial
The acquittal saved Johnson’s presidency, though it was a hollow victory as he effectively became a lame-duck president during the last few months of his term in office. He continued to veto legislation that landed on his desk, and Congress continued to override his vetoes. Embittered, Johnson left the office criticizing Congressional Republicans in his final annual address and in his farewell address. The Tenure of Office Act didn’t fare well either; in 1869, it was partially repealed and then entirely repealed in 1887. The United States Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 1926.
Senator Ross, the deciding vote in the trial, like the other six Republicans who broke ranks with the party, wasn’t re-elected to the Senate. He was shunned back home in Kansas and left the state for New Mexico, where he switched to the Democratic Party. He remained politically active and served a four-year term as governor of the territory of New Mexico. Ross’s bravery was not forgotten. In 1955, future president John F. Kennedy wrote about Ross in his bestselling book Profiles in Courage, stating that his vote “may well have preserved for ourselves and posterity constitutional government in the United States.”
Though Andrew Johnson was the first president to be impeached, he was not the last. Bill Clinton became the second president to be impeached in late 1998, when the House Judiciary Committee agreed to send three articles of impeachment to the full House for consideration. Although the House voted to impeach, Clinton was not convicted by the Senate and was able to finish his term in office. The most recent president to be impeached is Donald Trump. He holds the distinction of being impeached twice, once in 2019 for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, and a second time in 2021 on charges of incitement of insurrection. President Trump was acquitted by the Senate both times.
- Gordon-Reed, Annette. Andrew Johnson. Times Books. 2011.
- Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage. Harper & Brothers. 1956.
- Kutler, Stanley I (editor in chief). Dictionary of American History, Third Edition. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 2003.
- Malone, Dumas (editor). Dictionary of American Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1934.
- “The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson (1868) President of the United States.” Accessed October 9, 2019. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/Impeachment_Johnson.htm
© 2019 Doug West