by David O. Stewart
If anyone thinks partisanship is out of control today, read David O. Stewart’s, “Impeached.” One hundred and fifty years after seven telegraph wires were installed “to ensure speedy transmission of press reports” to the millions of Americans eagerly awaiting news of the fate of their president, and–perhaps–of the presidency itself; Andrew Johnson’s impeachment began in the House chamber in March of 1868. Half a million soldiers and one American president had already died on account of the great cause to rid America of the sin of slavery. Yet, the vestiges of the Civil War “lived” in the tense division between Lincoln’s successor, and a Republican-dominated Congress that was conflicted over Reconstruction.
Johnson’s impeachment was the culmination of a bloodless battle between two branches of government over the future of the country, and the Constitution. It is upon this perilous epoch that David O. Stewart centers his incisive historical focus. Stewart re-animates America’s first presidential impeachment through a detailed account of the events and figures that led to the great test of American democracy. His extensively-detailed account of the process–and its implications–brings this epic saga into new light.
Stewart opens with the second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln selected Johnson, a Democrat who sided with the Union when his native Tennessee seceded, to moderate the 1864 ticket in his bid for re-election. And, Stewart wastes no time bringing Johnson to life.
From the very beginning, Johnson had a tenuous relationship with the Senate. During his brief vice-presidency, he barely showed up to preside, and later–according to an observer–he “was drunk” at his inauguration.
Stewart deftly contextualizes the coming crisis, explaining the ideological rift between the “most adamant [Radical Republican] opponents of slavery” in the Senate, who “insisted that the leaders of the rebellion should be disqualified from the new governments,” and Johnson, who viewed “black political power in the South …. [as] a greater evil than the Civil War.” Racial anxiety overlaid this constitutional crisis, and Stewart does not ignore it. He enumerates Johnson’s actions of permitting Confederate states to form new all-white governments, pardoning ex-Confederates, and ignoring terrorist attacks against freedmen and the Freedmen’s Bureau thru slow response.
This gentility toward the former rebel states, Johnson’s veto (and the Congress’s veto override) of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Reconstruction Acts, convinced the Radical Republicans in Congress that Johnson intended to thwart their plans to rebuild the South by protecting the freedmen and punishing the ex-rebels. Sharing their fear, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton prevailed upon Congress to pass legislation making it a crime for the president to issue military orders that did not pass through the General of the Army–then Ulysses S. Grant–another character whose complicated relationship with Johnson Stewart details. Fearing for Stanton’s job because he would not promote Johnson’s reconciliatory agenda–Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical leader in the Senate, led passage of the Tenure of Office Act, which made it a crime for the president to fire a member of his cabinet without the consent of the Senate. These two bills reigned in presidential power, and were the central components of Steven’s plan to “save the nation from the policies of Andrew Johnson” by excluding the ex-rebels from political power and defending the freedmen.
Stewart discusses two earlier failed impeachment attempts by the House, which had been based on unfounded corruption claims that brought America, as Johnson put it, to the brink of “simply civil war.” But, those missteps Stewart argues, may have been as important as the House’s successful vote for Johnson’s impeachment, because they ensured that “never again would a serious presidential impeachment proceed on the sole basis that the incumbent was not fit for the office.” Still, after Johnson fired Stanton, a constitutional crisis erupted. Stanton barricaded himself in the War Department and Congress prepared articles of impeachment.
Stewart, drawing upon primary source accounts so the reader experiences the tension as if they were receiving the news live, contends that America returned to the precipice of civil war as the Senate prepared for the trial of President Johnson following his impeachment:
The most pressing question was whether this was the beginning of another civil war. News reports were panicky. They accused Johnson of ‘Thunderbolt’ action representing a ‘coup d’état.” ….With tumult came fears of military conflict … The Grand Army of the Republic [GAR], the leading veterans’ organization, urged Congress to stand firm…. Organized into battalions, the GAR veterans formed a private security force throughout Washington City … Johnson worried about the loyalty of the army, and of General Grant (Stewart, pp. 140-142).
Stewart also recalls how Stanton, closed off in the War Department–and refusing to vacate his post–endured his wife’s wrath as she rode in a carriage screaming—about her husband for his long absence. It is through details like these that Stewart makes the reader feel as if he has been transported to a distant time of political turmoil, which is eerily similar to today’s extreme partisanship.
Stewart, also an attorney, illustrates the peculiar aspects of the impeachment process: how Senators themselves formed both the prosecution and defense, and how the trial process is not exactly clear from the Constitution or from precedent:
Equally challenging was how to frame Chief Justice Salmon Chases’s role at the trial. The Constitution directs that the Chief Justice preside over a presidential impeachment trial but offers no further enlightenment on the subject … Chase took an expansive view of his authority, but the Senate did not (Stewart, p. 177).
Of course, Stewart makes clear that Johnson’s trial in the Senate ultimately came down to votes. Both sides pursued them anyway they could – whether it was how “Senator Howard of Michigan arrived on a stretcher….[or how] the partially paralyzed Senator James Wilson Grimes of Iowa appeared at another door.” As expected, when politicians policed other politicians, conflicts of interest and corruption abounded.
Stewart’s most novel assessment may be how Johnson survived the trial. Stewart rejects conventional wisdom–exemplified in President John Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage”–that Senators Edmund Ross and John Henderson voted to acquit Johnson in an act of unequivocal moral courage that, along with other Republicans who voted to acquit, condemned them to a painful exit from the halls of power. Ross’s vote was nothing less than the results of intense political lobbying and promises of patronage, which was widespread on both sides up to voting day at Johnson’s trial.
To Stewart, impeachment was like “the emergency lever on a train”–a mechanism of the Constitution to resolve deep disputes before they bled into civil war. In his view, the impeachment clause worked because it prevented another one. More dangerous than the political use of impeachment when different parties control the executive and legislative branches was how Congress first sought to constrain the president’s power through legislation. Although the presidency remained powerful, he believes such action could risk destroying the constitutional separation of powers. Thus, impeachment–though imperfect–is a vital mechanism of the Constitution to Stewart, because it allows each side to air their grievances and achieve finality in the dispute without violence.
Quentin Levin is a college student majoring in Communications, Law, Economics and Government and is passionate about history.