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 http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle. For more email Gail at gailchumbley@gmail.com

What If?

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My students loved to play “what if,” following lessons on monumental events in my history classes. For example; what if Washington had been captured–or worse–by the British Army during the Revolution? What if the Senate had ratified the “Treaty of Versailles” at the end of World War One? Would there have been a World War Two? Or what if FDR hadn’t contracted polio? Would a walking FDR been as affective? And so on. Following these bird walks into conjecture they would look to me for some definitive answer on alternate outcomes. But I wasn’t much help. Teaching what actually happened was tough enough for this history instructor,

Still, on the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s death, “what if’s” might have a place . . . might provide some insight into what might have been.

We all know the story. President Lincoln, in an especially festive mood, joined his wife at Ford’s Theater for a performance of “Our American Cousin.” The nightmare of Civil War had essentially been settled with General Lee’s surrender, a week before, at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The Union had been preserved, and the President had much to celebrate. Plus as many “Lincolnistas” know, our 16th president loved the theater. Stage productions became a place where a troubled Lincoln became so absorbed in performances, others couldn’t catch his attention. (As a Lincoln-lover myself, I hope “Our American Cousin” so captivated the President that he never felt a thing in his final hours).

Wilkes Booth, the pea-brained zealot who murdered Lincoln had no idea he had also killed the South’s best defender against a vengeful Congress. Had this lunatic-actor paid attention to anything besides the insanity in his head, Booth would have recognized the President as a moderate–a leader who yearned for true national unity with “Charity for all, Malice toward none.”

So, what if Lincoln, this moderate, had survived, or better yet, never been harmed? What would post-bellum America have looked like with President Lincoln at the helm? Tough to judge, but a closer look at the political situation on April 14, 1865, could provide some direction.

First of all, America would have been spared the accession of Andrew Johnson to the presidency. Bum luck for the nation to say the least. Johnson had been selected as Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 because he was a Southerner from TennesseeĀ  who had remained loyal to the Union. Essentially a small minded, white-trash bigot, Johnson despised both the rebellious planter-elite but also newly freed slaves. On the one hand, he wanted former masters to grovel at his feet for presidential pardons, and simultaneously opposed any law that provided aid to former slaves. Where most Americans had come to trust Lincoln in varying degrees, informed Southern leaders like Alexander Stephens, freed slaves, and reluctantly, the Republican leadership in Congress, Andrew Johnson in short order alienated the whole lot.

To be fair, Lincoln was in trouble himself, with his party by 1865. But he did have some momentum going his way after General Grant’s success in Virginia. And though he pocket-vetoed a bill backed by vindictive Radical Republicans in the House and Senate, Lincoln recognized he had some compromises ahead, to settle down his critics. But, of course Lincoln died at the hands of a Southerner, unleashing zealotry on all sides.

Had Lincoln lived, harsh avenging laws aimed at punishing the South, may have taken a lighter tone. The Military Reconstruction Act, that established a military occupation of the South, the 14th and 15th Amendments may have been less forceful and strident. As an astute politician, Lincoln certainly would have avoided the ordeal of impeachment endured by Johnson at the hands of the Radicals.

Yet, there is stillĀ  much to say about the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the “what if’s” of history. He died on Good Friday, as had Jesus, a point that wasn’t lost on the American public in 1865. Lincoln died for the cause of freedom. He died for the virtuous notion that “All Men are Created Equal.” Lincoln was crucified for the goodness in all of us, his “Better Angels of our Nature.” However, without Lincoln’s martyrdom later legislation may not have found a place in Constitutional law. The Radicals ran roughshod over Andrew Johnson’s stubborn resistance, overriding presidential vetoes that resulted in the 14th Amendment and it’s definition of citizenship with equal protection, and the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of male suffrage.

Unfortunately, these amendments and other less enduring pieces of legislation were often ignored by unrepentant rebels who exacted their own punishment on freedmen. Still the body of law existed and found enforcement one hundred years later. And this same body of law came into existence because Lincoln died on Good Friday, 1865.

So perhaps the “what if” game ought to be left alone. The course of events that actually transpired built an articulate foundation of freedom, premised on human rights, that could have been otherwise absent from our nation’s history. Much as President Garfield’s murder in 1881 brought about Civil Service Reform, and JFK’s murder brought about the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, Mr. Lincoln’s death truly gave America a “New Birth of Freedom.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January available at www.river-of-january.com