The Same, But Different

On a cable news program, author, Brenda Wineapple argued that the impeachment of Donald Trump resembles that of 19th Century President, Andrew Johnson. Applewine’s position may be true, to the extent that Johnson was under attack from the opposition party, however, the events that brought about the trial of Johnson were not centered 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, despite Tennessee becoming the final state to secede in 1861. Lincoln made clear with his VP choice that he intended to deal judicially with erring brothers below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Throughout the final year of the war, a philosophical rift had been growing between President Lincoln and the Radicals in his party, over post-war policy. Lincoln believed that Southern States had only attempted to secede, but had failed in that effort; General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox snuffing out the attempt. Since secession had been foiled, Lincoln maintained that his pardoning power provided him the authority to deal perpetrators of the rebellion.

Countering that argument were the Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House, and Charles Sumner in the Senate. This faction insisted that when the Southern states seceded, they had, indeed, committed political suicide. This, Congress maintained, gave them the authority to shape post-war policy, for, per the Constitution, they were the body that admitted new states, .

The conflict between the Executive and Legislative branches grew fierce in mid-April of 1865, when Abraham Lincoln was murdered by an assassin, elevating Andrew Johnson to the Presidency.

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, his understanding of the law did not go much past the Twelfth Amendment.

Vetoing many Republican bills, including legislation creating the Freedmen’s Bureau, Johnson, refused to support civil rights of any kind for the newly emancipated. However, as fast as Johnson vetoed bills, Congress overrode his vetoes.

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

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

Animosity came to a head when Congress passed the “Tenure of Office Act” in 1867. This legislation aimed to tie the President’s hands by stating Johnson could not remove any members of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, without the approval of the Senate. Knowing his Constitution well, 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 intense 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 would not get out of the way. To one Kansas Senator, Edmund Ross, the whole episode was a flagrant setup. Ross believed that there was too much noise, too much turmoil, and not enough real evidence of wrongdoing.

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 positions. 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, finally to be replaced by the Ulysses S Grant in 1869. (Now Grant’s terms witnessed a lion share of corruption!)

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 struggle for national power. No overseas hotels, no bowing to foreign dictators, no obstruction of subpoenas.

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