The Same, But Different

On a cable news program a while back a guest argued that the impeachment of Donald Trump resembled that of 19th Century President, Andrew Johnson. Though the position may be true to the extent that Johnson was under attack from the opposition party, the events that brought about the trial did not center on presidential corruption.

Abraham Lincoln had invited Tennessee Democrat, Andrew Johnson, onto his 1864 ticket as a conciliatory gesture toward the South. As Senator, Johnson had remained staunchly loyal to the Union, though Tennessee had been the final state to secede in 1861. Lincoln made clear with this VP choice that he intended to deal judicially with erring brothers below the Mason-Dixon Line.

During the final year of the war, a philosophical rift widened between President Lincoln and the Radicals in his party. Lincoln believed that Southern States had only attempted to secede, but had failed in that effort, and General Lee’s surrender put paid to the attempt. Since secession had been thwarted, Lincoln argued his pardoning power gave him authority to deal with Confederate leaders.

Countering that argument were Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House, and Charles Sumner in the Senate. This faction insisted that when Southern states seceded, they had, indeed, committed political suicide. This, Congress insisted, granted them the power to shape post-war policy.

Per the Constitution, Article One admitted new states.

The mounting dispute between the Executive and Legislative branches erupted in mid-April of 1865, when Abraham Lincoln died at the hands of an assassin. Andrew Johnson inherited the power struggle between the Presidency, and the Congress.

When it came to interpreting the Constitution, Johnson not only agreed with Lincoln over Reconstruction policy, but was also a traditional ‘strict-constructionist’. In other words, Johnson’s understanding of the law did not reach past the Twelfth Amendment. Johnson viewed the 14th and 15th Amendments as beyond Congress’ legal authority.

Vetoing many Radical bills, including legislation for the new Freedmen’s Bureau, Johnson refused to enforce civil rights for freed slaves. Still, as fast as Johnson vetoed such Republican bills, Congress overrode him.

Born in poverty, and illiterate most of his life, Johnson’s malice also included the Planter aristocracy. Keeping somewhat to Lincoln’s view, Johnson enjoyed nothing better than reading letters from Southern leaders pleading for his pardon.

Rubbing nearly everyone the wrong way, Andrew Johnson plainly was not a savvy politician, and became an ever increasing nuisance to the Radical majority. The Republican Party fully intended to punish the white South, and protect the lives of Freedmen.

The inevitable clash came when Congress passed the “Tenure of Office Act” in 1867. This legislation aimed to tie the President’s hands by prohibiting the removal of any members of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. Armed with his own knowledge of the Constitution, Johnson knew this bill didn’t pass legal scrutiny, and promptly fired Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.

The House immediately fired back with eleven articles of impeachment.

Once the inevitable impeachment reached the Senate for trial, equivocating Senators felt the heat from their Radical colleagues. Various hold-outs, uncomfortable with the flimsy case, proved difficult to sway. The central sticking point was that the Act was no more than a trap for a President who refused get out of the Radical’s way. To one Kansas Senator, Edmund Ross, the whole episode was an undeniable setup. Ross believed that there was too much noise, too much turmoil, and not enough evidence.

Sensing reluctance in the ranks, the Republican majority bought more time by taking a ten-day delay on the vote. Members like Ross and other hesitant Senators, were threatened with investigations for bribery if they didn’t toe the line. However, neither stalling, nor threats changed any minds. In the end the vote to convict failed, 35-19, not the 2/3 majority required by law.

Andrew Johnson was broken by the ordeal. He quietly waited out the remainder of his term, replaced by Ulysses S Grant in 1869. (Johnson had been correct. The Tenure of Office Act was found unconstitutional in 1926).

That Andrew Johnson proved unequal to the task of governing goes without question. He was bigoted, petty, and stubborn. But this man was not corrupt, and his impeachment was more a product of tragedy, turmoil, and a power struggle. No overseas hotels, no bowing to foreign dictators, no obstruction of subpoenas. No armed invasion of the Capitol.

Update: Never before has a president been impeached twice. This time Republican obstructionists claim no moral high ground at all, just a gutless blind allegiance to a flawed cult figure.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Books are available at and on Kindle. For more email Gail at

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