Andrew Johnson: The First Presidential Impeachment in US History

The bloody American Civil War ended in 1865 with the surrender of the rebellious southern states. Leaders next debated how to proceed with unifying the nation in the subsequent period of Reconstruction, and divisions over policy would eventually lead to the first presidential impeachment.

The beginning of Reconstruction was overseen by the 17th President of the United States, Andrew Johnson. 

Johnson favored a lenient approach towards the southern states and preferred them admitted back into the Union as quickly as possible. This included granting amnesty to former Confederate leaders and allowing the states to operate relatively unregulated.

Andrew Johnson

This approach was increasingly at odds with the majority Republicans in Congress and amongst Northerners in general. These groups favored more repercussions towards the former Confederate states and tougher requirements for readmission to the Union.

Northerners argued that lenient policies towards the south would eventually reignite the Civil War and the hard fought victory would be wasted.

The Presidency of Andrew Johnson would ultimately be extremely unpopular and he was known to be difficult to work with. After Republicans gained a veto-proof majority in Congress, they passed laws limiting the powers of Johnson and enacting stricter Reconstruction policies.

This all came to a head in 1868 when Johnson defied the terms of an ambiguously written law, the Tenure of Office Act. Congress immediately began the process of the first presidential impeachment.

Johnson would ultimately be impeached, though the Senate failed by one vote in their attempt to remove him from office.

The aftermath of the impeachment trial set important precedents for the future of the unified nation. It would also lead to a period called “Congressional Government” where Congress played a more significant role than is currently known in determining US policy.

How Andrew Johnson became President

Like John Tyler, Andrew Johnson was the President that was never meant to be.

When the Civil War broke out, Johnson was actually a sitting US Senator for Tennessee, a state which seceded from the Union. Unlike his peers, Johnson did not break his loyalty to the Union and was the only Senator from a Confederate state that did not resign his seat.

Then-President Abraham Lincoln subsequently named him the military Governor of Tennessee for the duration of the Civil War. Johnson was a southern Democrat and before the war spoke out against the power of the white planter aristocracy. The rhetoric and his self-made persona (he was self-educated) made him a populist leader.

When Abraham Lincoln sought reelection in 1864 he faced a stringent challenge from former Union General George McClellan. Lincoln needed the support of so called “Union Democrats” and thus chose Johnson to be his running mate and Vice President.

Campaign banner for the Republican ticket of the 1864 presidential election via Library of Congress

Lincoln would cruise to a victory in his reelection campaign, though at the cost of a Democrat as second in command should anything happen to Lincoln.

In early 1865 there was optimism for an impending conclusion of the Civil War. Lincoln and the Republican majority in Congress were eager to begin stitching the nation back together and began determining policies of how to do that.

Lincoln favored a more lenient approach towards the south that at times left even him at odds with the more Radical Republican members of Congress.

Unfortunately, just six days after the surrender of Robert E Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, Lincoln was assassinated. Johnson escaped his own assassination attempt as his would-be killer got cold feet.

Just hours later, Andrew Johnson was sworn in by Chief Justice Salmon Chase. Reconstruction was now Johnson’s problem to navigate.

Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction

While early indications pointed towards cooperation with Reconstruction policy between Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans in Congress, relations quickly soured. Johnson’s policies were far too lenient in the eyes of the Republicans in Congress and public opinion.

Johnson favored bringing the southern states back into the Union as quickly as possible and was less concerned with the political and economic rights of the newly-freed slaves.

Nearly all southern states in 1865 recreated their own state legislatures and passed discriminatory acts known as the “Black Codes” to relegate the freed slaves to a status just above their old position.

They further incensed northern states when they reapplied for admission into the Union. The representatives they elected for Congress were many of the same leaders of the Confederacy, including their former Vice President Alexander H Stephens. Congress refused to seat these representatives.

The southern states were defiant and unwilling to accept the terms of their new reality. Radical Republicans argued that Johnson’s lenient policies were the source of this defiance.

Johnson’s unskilled political maneuvering and inability to read public opinion led him to be constantly at odds with Congress. During the midterm election cycle the Radical Republicans secured a massive victory in a show of Northern displeasure of Johnson’s policies.

As a result Johnson actively vetoed many Republican-crafted Reconstruction bills, including the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1866 giving formerly enslaved people more equality. Republicans would amass a veto-proof majority in Congress and go on to pass several monumental bills during his tenure.

US Presidents by Vetoes Overridden in Order chart

In a show of how unpopular Johnson was, Congress overrode his veto 15 separate times, the most times any President has had vetoes overridden.

The combination of unending conflict with Congress and Johnson’s massive unpopularity would directly lead to his impending impeachment.

The First Presidential Impeachment

Recognizing they had an enemy in Andrew Johnson, Congress sought to limit some of his presidential powers. In 1867 they passed the Tenure of Office Act forcing Johnson to seek Congressional approval if removing any cabinet members.

The Act was ambiguously worded and Johnson believed it to be unconstitutional. Knowing he was risking the first presidential impeachment, Johnson deliberately removed Secretary of War Edward Stanton from office in February 1868 without Congressional approval.

This action set up a showdown between Johnson and the Radical Republicans. Just days after Stanton’s removal the House of Representatives would file 11 articles of impeachment resulting in the first presidential impeachment in history. The House would vote 126 to 47 in favor of impeachment.

The trial would last from March-May 1868 and was a sensation in the public. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presided over a packed gallery that was open to the public. Tickets were available and highly sought after for the trial.

Illustration of the Johnson Impeachment trial

Johnson’s defense case rested on the fact that Johnson had a right to test the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act before the Supreme Court. Misconstruing his rights should not lead to removal from office. In addition, they argued that since former President Lincoln had appointed Stanton and the ambiguously worded law was unclear, Stanton’s removal was not even in violation of the law.

The prosecution focused their trial on 3 of the 11 impeachment articles (2, 3, and 11) as they believed they had the best shot at conviction with these.

The Senate first voted on article 11 with the dramatic roll-call vote ending 35 to 19 in favor of Johnson’s removal. Despite the overwhelming majority in favor of removal, the Republicans fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority required to remove a president from office.

10 days later a second and third vote occurred on articles 2 and 3 ending in the same manner. Afterwards the Senate adjourned the court and officially acquitted Andrew Johnson.

The Aftermath of the First Presidential Impeachment

Notable among the impeachment vote were seven Republicans that defied their party in voting to acquit President Johnson. Though nearly all Republicans disagreed with Johnson in principle, these seven voted to acquit for various reasons.

Some believed themselves that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional; it was later repealed in 1887 and then confirmed unconstitutional in the 1926 Supreme Court ruling Myers v. United States.

Other unconfirmed reports suggest that some Senators received discreet bribes for the acquittal votes. Still others were concerned that if Johnson was impeached, next in line for office would be Senate president pro tempore, Benjamin Wade.

There were concerns that Wade would ensnare the Republican party and block the rising political ambitions of war hero Ulysses S. Grant.

Whatever the reasons, the failure to remove Andrew Johnson from office set a precedent. Historians surmise that the ultimate reason for acquittal was the general understanding that impeachment should be used for specific abuses of power, not simply because one party disagrees with the policies of a president from a different party.

Though Johnson escaped with his job intact he was essentially a figurehead for the remainder of his term. With a unified veto-proof majority, Congressional Republicans determined the path forward for Reconstruction.

Johnson’s weakness in office would lead to a period from the mid-1860s to early 1880s Woodrow Wilson would call “Congressional Government.” This starkly contrasts from the existing presidential powers of the modern day.

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of Johnson’s presidency came in the foreign policy arena with the purchase of Alaska.

Andrew Johnson’s failure to provide cohesive direction during the initial period of Reconstruction is why he is often regarded as one of the worst US presidents in history.

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