Andrew Johnson Impeachment

First presidential impeachment arose from an epic political feud

Impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868
The impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson in the U.S. Senate, 1868.

 Library of Congress

Andrew Johnson was the first American president to be impeached, and his 1868 trial in the U.S. Senate, which stretched on for weeks and featured 41 witnesses, ended in his narrow acquittal. Johnson remained in office, but would soon be replaced by Ulysses S. Grant, who was elected later that year.

The impeachment of Johnson was enormously controversial, as it took place in the volatile political atmosphere which followed the Civil War. The main political issue of the day was Reconstruction, the government's plan to rebuild the defeated South and bring the former slave states back into the Union.

Key Takeaways: Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

  • Johnson was regarded as an accidental president, and his crude hostility toward Congress made him appear unfit for the post.
  • The apparent legal reason for impeachment was Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act, though his feud with Congress was the underlying reason.
  • Congress made three separate attempts to impeach Johnson; the third attempt passed the House of Representatives and was presented to the Senate, which held a trial.
  • The impeachment trial began on March 5, 1868 and featured 41 witnesses.
  • Johnson was acquitted by a narrow margin of one vote on May 26, 1868. The Senator who cast that vote has been portrayed as heroic, though he may have been bribed for his vote.

Johnson, a native of Tennessee who seemed to openly sympathize with the defeated South, persistently tried to block Congressional policies related to Reconstruction. His main opponents on Capitol Hill were known as the Radical Republicans, for their devotion to Reconstruction policies which favored the former slaves and were viewed as punishing to former Confederates.

When articles of impeachment were finally approved by the House of Representatives (following two failed attempts), the central issue was Johnson's violation of a specific law passed a year earlier. But it was obvious to everyone involved that Johnson's endless and bitter feud with Congress was the real issue.

Background

Andrew Johnson was viewed by many as an accidental president. Abraham Lincoln made him his running mate in the election of 1864 purely as an act of political strategy. When Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson became president. Filling Lincoln's shoes would have been difficult enough, but Johnson was uniquely unsuited to the task.

Johnson overcame extreme poverty in his childhood, trained as a tailor and, with the help of the woman he married, taught himself to read and write. He entered politics by gaining some local note as a stump speaker, in an era when campaign speeches were raucous performances.

As a political follower of Andrew Jackson, Johnson became a Tennessee Democrat and moved up through a series of local offices. In 1857, he was elected as a U.S. Senator from Tennessee. When the slave states began leaving the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Tennessee seceded, but Johnson remained loyal to the Union. He was the only member of Congress from the Confederate states to remain in Congress.

When Tennessee was partly occupied by Union troops, President Lincoln appointed Johnson as the state's military governor. Johnson implemented federal policy in Tennessee, and came around to an anti-slavery position himself. Years earlier, Johnson had owned slaves.

In 1864, Lincoln was worried that he would not be elected to a second term. The Civil War was costly and not going well, and he feared that if he ran again with his original running mate, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, he would lose. In a strategic gamble, Lincoln chose Andrew Johnson as his running mate, despite Johnson's history of loyalty to the opposing party.

Union victories helped carry Lincoln to a successful election in 1864. And on March 4, 1865, just before Lincoln delivered his classic second inaugural address, Johnson was sworn in as vice president. He appeared to be drunk, rambled incoherently, and alarmed members of Congress who witnessed the odd spectacle.

After Lincoln's murder, Johnson assumed the presidency. For most of 1865, he presided over the country virtually alone, as Congress was out of session. But when Congress returned late in the year, tensions immediately appeared. The Republican majority in Congress had its own ideas on how to handle the defeated South, and Johnson's sympathy for his fellow southerners became a problem.

The tensions between the president and the Congress became very public when Johnson vetoed two major pieces of legislation. The Freedman's Bill was vetoed on February 19, 1866, and the Civil Rights Bill was vetoed on March 27, 1866. Both bills would help to secure the rights of African Americans, and Johnson's vetoes made it clear that he was not at all interested in the welfare of the former slaves.

Versions of both bills eventually became law over Johnson's vetoes, but the president had staked out his territory. Making matters worse, Johnson's peculiarly belligerent behavior was put on public display in February 1866 during a Washington's Birthday celebration. In the 19th century, the birthday of the first president was often marked with public events, and in 1866, a crowd which had attended an event at a theater marched to the White House on the night of February 22.

President Johnson came out on the White House portico, welcomed the crowd, and then embarked on a bizarre speech marked with hostile rhetoric punctuated by self-pity. Less than a year after the bloodshed of the Civil War and his predecessor's murder, Johnson asked the crowd, "Who, I ask, has suffered more for the Union than I have?"

Johnson's speech was widely reported. Members of Congress who were already skeptical of him were becoming convinced he was simply unfit to be president.

First Attempt at Impeachment

Skirmishing between Johnson and Congress continued throughout 1866. Prior to the midterm elections that year, Johnson embarked on a speaking tour by railroad which became notorious for peculiar orations by the president. He was often accused of being drunk while ranting before crowds, and he regularly denounced Congress and its actions, particularly in connection to Reconstruction policies.

The Congress made its first move to impeach Andrew Johnson in early 1867. There had been unsubstantiated rumors that Johnson had somehow been involved in the assassination of Lincoln. Some members of Congress chose to entertain the rumors. What started as an effort to impeach Johnson for overstepping his authority in blocking aspects of Reconstruction veered into an investigation of Johnson's purported involvement in Lincoln's murder.

Notable members of Congress, including Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the Radical Republicans, believed any serious impeachment effort would only be undermined by reckless accusations about Johnson. That first effort at impeachment died when the House Judiciary Committee, by a 5-4 vote on June 3, 1867, voted against recommending impeachment.

Second Attempt at Impeachment

Despite that misfire, the Judiciary Committee continued to explore how Congress could rid itself of a president considered utterly unfit. Hearings were held in the fall of 1867, touching upon issues that included Johnson's pardon of Union deserters and an apparent scandal involving government printing contracts (a large source of federal patronage in the 19th century).

On November 25, 1867, the committee approved an impeachment resolution, which was forwarded to the full House of Representatives.

This second attempt at impeachment stalled on December 7, 1867, when the entire House of Representatives failed to support the impeachment resolution. Too many members of Congress believed the impeachment resolution was simply too general. It didn't identify any particular acts that would reach the Constitutional threshold for impeachment.

House impeachment managers, 1868
The House Impeachment Managers, 1868. Corbis via Getty Images

Third Attempt at Impeachment

The Radical Republicans were still not done with trying to get rid of Andrew Johnson. Thaddeus Stevens in particular was fixated on removing Johnson, and in early February 1868, he had the impeachment files transferred to a Congressional committee he controlled, the Committee on Reconstruction.

Stevens sought to pass a new impeachment resolution based on President Johnson having violated the Tenure of Office Act, a law passed the previous year. The law essentially mandated that the president had to get congressional approval to dismiss cabinet officers. The Tenure of Office Act had been written, of course, with Johnson in mind. And Stevens was convinced the president had violated it by trying to fire Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war.

Stanton had served in the Lincoln cabinet, and his administration of the War Department during the Civil War made him a prominent figure. Johnson preferred to move him aside as the military would be the prime tool to enforce Reconstruction, and Johnson didn't trust Stanton to follow his orders.

Thaddeus Stevens was frustrated once again when his impeachment resolution was tabled by his own committee in a 6-3 vote. The Radical Republicans had gotten wary of trying to impeach the president.

However, events surrounding the president's fixation on firing the secretary of war soon revived the march toward impeachment. In late February, Stanton essentially barricaded himself in his office at the War Department. He refused to vacate the office for Lorenzo Thomas, a general President Johnson had appointed to replace him as acting secretary of war.

With Stanton living in his office 24 hours a day, members of a veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, stood guard to prevent federal authorities from trying to evict him. The standoff at the War Department became a spectacle which played out in the newspapers. To members of Congress who despised Johnson anyway, it was time to strike.

On Monday, February 24, 1868, Thaddeus Stevens called for the impeachment of the president in the House of Representatives for the violation of the Tenure of Office Act. The measure passed overwhelmingly, 126 to 47 (17 did not vote). No articles of impeachment had yet been written, but the decision had been made.

Ticket to Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial
A ticket for Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. David J. & Janice L. Frent/Corbis via Getty Images

Johnson's Trial in the U.S. Senate

A committee in the House of Representatives wrote articles of impeachment. The committee process resulted in nine articles, most of which dealt with Johnson's alleged violations of the Tenure of Office Act. Some of the articles seemed redundant or confusing.

During debates in the full House of Representatives, the articles were changed and two were added, bringing the total to 11. The tenth article dealt with Johnson's hostile behavior and his speeches denouncing Congress. It said the president "did attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States." A final article was something of an omnibus measure, as it included various complaints about Johnson's violation of the Tenure of Office Act.

Preparations for the nation's first impeachment trial took several weeks. The House of Representatives named managers who would essentially act as prosecutors. The team included Thaddeus Stevens and Benjamin Butler, both of whom had decades of courtroom experience. Butler, who was from Massachusetts, had served as a Union general during the Civil War and became a despised figure in the South for his administration of New Orleans after its surrender to Union troops.

President Johnson also had a team of lawyers, who met with him frequently in the White House library. Johnson's team included William Evarts, a respected Republican lawyer from New York who would later serve as secretary of state to two Republican presidents.

The Chief Justice of the United States, Salmon Chase, took the oath to preside over the impeachment trial. Chase had been a very ambitious Republican politician who tried to run for president in 1860 but fell far short of getting the party's nomination. The winner that year, Abraham Lincoln, appointed Chase as his secretary of the treasury. He did a capable job of keeping the Union solvent during the war. But in 1864, Lincoln feared Chase would again run for president. Lincoln solved the problem by taking him out of politics by appointing him chief justice following the death of Roger Taney.

The testimony in Johnson's trial began on March 30, 1868. For days, a parade of witnesses passed through the Senate chamber, examined by House managers and then cross-examined by defense counsel. The galleries in the Senate chamber were packed, with tickets to witness the unusual event difficult to obtain.

The first day of testimony focused on Johnson's attempt to replace Stanton as secretary of war. Subsequent days featured other aspects of the various articles of impeachment. For instance, on the fourth day of the trial evidence was introduced about Johnson's inflammatory speeches to support accusations that he had denounced Congress. Stenographers who had written down Johnson's speeches for newspapers were tediously examined and cross-examined to verify that they had indeed recorded Johnson's peculiar rants accurately.

Though the galleries were packed and newspaper readers were treated to page-one accounts of the trial, much of the testimony was hard to follow. And the impeachment case seemed to many to be unfocused.

The Verdict

The House managers concluded their case on April 5, 1868, and the following week the president's defense team presented their case. The first witness was Lorenzo Thomas, the general Johnson had ordered to replace Stanton as secretary of war.

The second witness was General William Tecumseh Sherman, a very famous hero of the Civil War. After objections to his testimony from the House managers, Sherman testified that Johnson had offered to appoint him as secretary of war, replacing Stanton, as the president was legitimately concerned that the department would be administered properly in the interests of the Army.

In total, the House Managers presented 25 prosecution witnesses, and the president's lawyers presented 16 defense witnesses.

Closing arguments began in late April. The House managers denounced Johnson repeatedly, often engaging in exaggerated prose. The president's counsel, William Evarts, gave a closing argument that amounted to a four-day speech.

After the closing arguments, rumors circulated in Washington that bribes were being paid, on both sides, to ensure a favorable verdict. Congressman Butler, convinced that Johnson supporters were running a bribery ring, tried and failed to find witnesses that would substantiate the rumors.

There were also reports that various backroom deals were being offered to members of the Senate to get them to vote to acquit Johnson.

The verdict on the impeachment trial was finally decided by a vote in the Senate on May 16, 1868. It was known that a number of Republicans would split from their party and vote to acquit Johnson. Despite that, there was a good chance that Johnson would be convicted and removed from office.

The 11th article of impeachment was believed to have the best chance of leading to Johnson's conviction, and the vote was held on that first. The clerk began calling the names of the 54 Senators.

The voting went as expected until the name was called of Senator Ross of Kansas, a Republican who would normally be expected to vote for conviction. Ross rose and said, "Not guilty." His vote would be decisive. Johnson was acquitted by a single vote.

Over the decades, Ross was often portrayed as a heroic figure who rebelled against his party for the best of intentions. However, it was also always suspected that he had accepted bribes for his vote. And it was documented that the Johnson administration had given him political patronage favors while he was making up his mind.

A few months after Johnson was impeached, his longtime party nominated Horatio Seymour as the Democratic Party's candidate for the 1868 presidential election. Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant was elected that fall.

After leaving the White House, Johnson returned to Tennessee. In 1875, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee, and became the only former president to serve in the Senate. He only served a few months during his second time as a senator, as he died on July 31, 1875.

Sources:

  • "Johnson, Andrew." Reconstruction Era Reference Library, edited by Lawrence W. Baker, et al., vol. 3: Primary Sources, UXL, 2005, pp. 77-86. Gale eBooks.
  • Castel, Albert. "Johnson, Andrew." Presidents: A Reference History, edited by Henry F. Graff, 3rd ed., Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002, pp. 225-239. Gale eBooks.
  • "Andrew Johnson." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 8, Gale, 2004, pp. 294-295. Gale eBooks.