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Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew…

Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for… (original 2009; edition 2010)

by David O. Stewart

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Title:Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy
Authors:David O. Stewart
Info:Simon & Schuster (2010), Edition: 1 Reprint, Paperback, 464 pages
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Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy by David O. Stewart (2009)



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The ancient Athenian democracy featured a unique political safety valve known as ostracism that allowed for the ten-year exile of any citizen of the polis based solely upon the votes of his fellow citizens. Senators in ancient Rome could be impeached and expelled from the Senate for malfeasance, another kind of safety valve that unfortunately did not apply to the Emperor. It was to Rome that framer Benjamin Franklin looked during the 1787 Constitutional Convention when he observed that without the legal alternative to impeach the President “. . . in cases where the chief magistrate rendered himself obnoxious . . . [the only] … recourse was … assassination, in which he was not only deprived of his life, but of the opportunity of vindicating his character. It would be the best way, therefore, to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the executive, where his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal, where he should be unjustly accused.” Hotly debated, Franklin’s point of view nevertheless prevailed, although it was to be decidedly vague as articulated in Article II Section 4 of the Constitution: “The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
It has never really been clear what constitutes these “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” although in the current political climate it might be especially relevant to bone up on the concept. Gerald Ford once (1970) said that: “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” Most would agree with author David O. Stewart that the embarrassing 1999 Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton was little more than an example of “. . . House Republicans . . . throwing [a] . . . moralistic temper tantrum . . . [that sought to impeach] Clinton for actions totally unrelated to his official duties [p321] But in Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, Stewart reminds us that there are times when impeachment is a legitimate recourse. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 to avoid almost certain impeachment and conviction in the Watergate scandal, making Gerald Ford (with some irony given the comment above) President of the United States. In his 1868 Senate impeachment trial, Andrew Johnson avoided removal by only a single vote.
In this well-written narrative, Stewart looks beyond historiography and brings to bear his own experience as a constitutional lawyer who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Jr. and later served as principal defense counsel for U.S. District Judge Walter L. Nixon, Jr. in a 1989 impeachment trial before the United States Senate, to place impeachment in context and to bring a fresh perspective to the attempt to remove Johnson. Stewart recalls that it was President Jefferson who first attempted to utilize the impeachment statute for political purposes as he sought to remove unfriendly federal judges appointed by his Federalist predecessor. His efforts met with limited success and thus he abandoned them. The impeachment tool largely lay dormant until the Johnson era.
Tennessean Andrew Johnson was a staunch Unionist and the sole Senator from a southern state to not resign his seat during the secession crisis and the onset of the Civil War. In the 1864 national campaign to re-elect Lincoln (who himself believed he would likely not prevail), Johnson – a Democrat – was added to the VP spot of the “National Union Party” ticket to bolster Lincoln’s chances that November. Johnson, a somewhat vulgar character who was known to tip the bottle a bit too frequently, was drunk on Inauguration Day. Forty-two days later, as the Civil War drew to a close, Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson was President of the United States.
There was tension almost immediately with the simultaneous dawn of Reconstruction and Johnson’s accession to the Presidency. It at once became clear that Johnson was at odds with Congress on virtually every aspect of the process that would readmit the seceded states back into the union, punish or pardon former rebels, protect the millions of newly freed African-American former slaves, and the role that federal troops and the federal government would play in these sometimes-conflicting arenas. Lincoln died before his vision for Reconstruction could be fully shaped, but he was a political moderate who endorsed reconciliation and the speedy readmittance of the former Confederate states, yet certainly had concerns for the welfare of black freedmen. Congress was controlled by Radical Republicans, who largely sought to both punish the rebellious southern states and elevate African-Americans to some kind of relative equality. Johnson took a vastly different approach that was almost diametrically opposed in every case to that advocated by the Congressional majority. Johnson, an opponent of the Fourteenth Amendment, favored the immediate readmittance of the seceded states, a policy of unilateral forgiveness for the former rebels, and a strict constitutional view of states’ rights that afforded virtually no role for the federal government in protecting African-Americans from harsh and often brutal treatment by their former masters. Johnson went so far as to remove several generals commanding occupation forces in former Confederate states for the too diligent enforcement of Reconstruction policies and the active defense of the otherwise helpless population of recently freed blacks.
Before long, antagonism between the legislative and executive branches reached unprecedented levels of hostility that spawned multiple attempts at impeachment. Two of these failed before the third took hold. The critical issues were that the actions of the Johnson Administration seemed to negate the essence of the Union victory in the Civil War, further endangered the millions of freed African-Americans struggling in a hostile climate, and jeopardized the Lincoln legacy. General Ulysses Grant, the most admired man in America in the wake of Lincoln’s death and the presumptive Republican nominee in 1868, shared these concerns. Efforts to recruit the more conservative General William Tecumseh Sherman – perhaps the second most admired man in America – to Johnson’s cause failed because of the unshakeable loyalty between Grant and Sherman. Most of the cabinet officials Johnson inherited from Lincoln were on board with him, with the notable exception of the highly respected yet irascible War Secretary Edwin Stanton, who blocked Johnson at every turn. An attempt by Johnson to replace Stanton collided with the recently enacted “Tenure of Office Act” that sought legislative control over presidential appointments and led finally to an impeachment action.
Those familiar with the Civil War will recognize many of the characters who walk the stage in the detailed trial drama that unfolds, including Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, a weak and dying man who is nevertheless Johnson’s most potent adversary, mediocre general but fiery political chameleon Benjamin Butler, who leads the prosecution forces in the Senate trial, and Salmon P. Chase, once Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary kicked upstairs to the Supreme Court to avoid potential rivalry in the ’64 election, now presiding over the trial. There are many others.
Stewart takes a decidedly revisionist approach and argues with some conviction that the position underscored in traditional historiography, which perhaps received the most prominence in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage – that Johnson’s acquittal was a welcome victory for the Executive branch in the Constitutional separation of powers – is a flawed interpretation to the actual events and their aftermath. In fact, Stewart demonstrates in his well-reasoned study that impeachment, as Benjamin Franklin imagined it, was perfectly suited to the Johnson case. The problem, as the author underscores, was not the case against Johnson but the way Congress bungled it. As it turned out, the linchpin of the case, the Tenure of Office Act, was hardly a convincing ploy against Johnson in these circumstances. There were multiple other articles, all vague, none irrefutable. Butler, who could be a brilliant tactician, was also often all ego and bluster, and Stevens was too frail to take the kind of lead that might have produced an entirely different outcome. In a fascinating articulation of his deep research into the people and events of the trial, Stewart points to multiple backstories that traditional studies have overlooked. It was clear that Grant was not only the likely nominee in November of that year but also would soon be President; what difference would a few months make? And if Johnson was removed from office, under the rules of the day the new President would be none other than Benjamin Wade, president pro tempore of the Senate, a Radical Republican who was also seen as too radical by too many. (One newspaper wrote, "Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor.") Significantly, much patronage and graft was at stake if the President was removed and another took his place. Most prominent here was the massive corruption surrounding the tax and siphoning off of the tax dollars on whiskey, which contributed to funding the Union effort in the Civil War. There was also much wagering on the outcome of impeachment, and gambling bought or sold many votes. Finally, there were bribes, pure and simple, that put a Senator’s vote in one camp or another. Stewart concludes that his research points to the purchase of the decisive vote for acquittal by Senator Edmund G. Ross, long otherwise lionized for his courage of principle.
Whatever your opinion on the merits of impeachment, Stewart notes that the result of Johnson’s acquittal was clear. Prominent former confederates were seamlessly elected to Congressional seats in the newly readmitted former Confederate states, Johnson issue a blanket pardon to rebel political and military officials, and blacks were routinely repressed and terrorized throughout the south. African-Americans and the entire nation paid a century-long penalty for the failure to remove Johnson. Stewart notes that in 1868 alone:

Estimates of the election-year carnage in the South were staggering though often imprecise. The House Committee on Elections found that in Louisiana more than 1,000 blacks and white Unionists were killed and an equal number wounded, more than 600 killed in Kentucky, and dozens more in South Carolina. From August to October, the Freedman’s Bureau reported, Georgia saw 31 killings of blacks and white Unionists, 43 nonfatal shootings, 5 stabbings, and 63 beatings. A Republican Congressman from Arkansas was assassinated for political reasons. Fifty armed men attacked a plantation owned by a Unionist in Texas, killing seven freedmen. The Ku Klux Klan claimed credit for murdering leading Republicans in Alabama, in Georgia, in Texas, and in South Carolina . . . Many freedmen were blocked from voting. Others were compelled to vote for Democrats. Much of the worst violence continued to be in Texas. A former gov¬ernor reported in May 1868 that 250 “union men” had been murdered in the state in the preceding six months. For a price, gangs would kill blacks, Republicans, or federal soldiers. Efforts at self-defense by the poorly armed freedmen often brought catastrophe. Civil war broke out in Brazos County, with whites and blacks forming militias. Twenty-five freedmen died in a battle that drove most blacks and Union families from the area. [p302]

If there is a fault in this fine book it is that there is too much detail, too many characters, too much attention to the blow-by-blow of the trial outcome. But then, the author is a lawyer, so attention to detail is, I suppose, especially requisite. I did not pick this book up planning to learn as much as I did about the impeachment process, but I closed the cover firmly convinced that Benjamin Franklin was on to something most significant when he noted that there needed to be an avenue to remove a Chief Executive who has “rendered himself obnoxious.” Perhaps this will be a road that beckons travel yet again soon.

Review of “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy" by David O. Stewart, is live on the book blog https://regarp.com/2017/02/19/review-of-impeached-the-trial-of-president-andrew-johnson-and-the-fight-for-lincolns-legacy-by-david-o-stewart/ ( )
  Garp83 | Feb 19, 2017 |
Most books on the reconstruction era blow by the impeachment and trial of Andrew Johnson in a few pages. Few that I have read have gone into depth on it other than to note he was impeached based on something called the Tenure of Office Act, note that the impeachment had a high degree of politics attached to it, and that Johnson was acquitted by one vote. There have been some good books written on the trial, most notably The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson by Michael Les Benedict which argues Johnson's impeachment was justified. Stewart tries very hard to treat both sides of that argument with equal seriousness. He mostly succeeds, though at times it seems strained. That being said said, Stewart’s opinion of Johnson is very clear as is his opinion of the later attempt to oust President Clinton.

After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination Johnson moved quickly to bring the former Confederate states back into the union fold. In doing so he enabled those in the south that had initiated secession and war to regain the power they had before it began. Elite white rule was reestablished and blacks were returned to a form of defacto slavery. This understandably angered northern leaders as it appeared those who had caused so much pain and suffering would again wield enormous power in Washington. Because the 3/5 compromise was no longer in force former slave states could no longer count their "property" in calculations of their population. However, and more perversely, former slaves, now counted as full citizens for purposes of representation, were not being allowed to vote, potentially giving former Confederate states more power than they had before the war.

In order to counter this, Radical Republicans initiated an era of congressional reconstruction that attempted to supersede what Johnson was doing. This included keeping newly elected southern Congressmen and Senators from being seated, passing laws that required all orders to army commanders go through the General in Chief (Ulysses S. Grant), that required former Confederate states to pass new constitutions that among other things guaranteed suffrage for former slaves, and included passage of the "Tenure of Office Act" which required the President get approval from Congress before appointees that required Senate conformation could be terminated. It was this last law that became the flashpoint for impeachment.

Fed up with attempts by congress to supersede what he believed was presidential prerogative, Johnson moved forward with efforts to oust Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. This initiated a months long standoff between Stanton who refused to give up his post citing the "Tenure of Office Act" as his justification, and Johnson who refused to treat Stanton as though he was still a member of the cabinet. This gave Congress, led by Thaddeus Stevens the excuse they needed to do what they had wanted to do since Johnson was elevated to the Presidency – initiate Impeachment. This was finally done and in the end Johnson was acquitted by one vote. It is this process that is the focus of Stewart’s account.

The impeachment and trial brought into stark relief the underbelly that was (and is) the American political system. It is clear that Republicans were impeaching Johnson not because he had committed a crime (except the vague "Tenure of Office Act"), but because they could not figure another way to get rid of a man they believed was squandering all that had been won in the war. Johnson’s supporters, not sure they could keep Johnson from being ousted began a campaign of outright bribery to try and corral enough Republican support in the Senate to keep Johnson in office. It worked. Even by the lax standards of the 19th century the amount of corruption was stunning. In the end neither side had anything to be proud of.

Stewart’s account of this is very readable and thorough. He is treading previously trod ground, but does so in a way that is clear and concise. Stewart comes away with a low opinion of many of the actors in the drama, though does note Thaddeus Stevens, despite his over zealous pursuit of Johnson, should have a more prominent place in our history as a staunch advocate for the rights of freedmen, and as the author of the 14th amendment to the Constitution which made possible future civil rights victories. His opinion of Johnson is just the opposite. While he does seem to believe impeachment was probably unjustified, it is clear he has a low opinion of Johnson who even for the day was a vicious racist, was unconcerned with anything but his own opinion, had a vindictive personality that required him to get even for every slight he believed he was subject too, and who is probably responsible for the failure of reconstruction.

Lastly Stewart talks some about impeachment itself, arguing that even though the whole process was sordid it nevertheless provided a necessary safety valve that prevented a return to war. It allowed the radicals who believed Johnson was purposely trying to return the United States to its prewar status quo, to elevate their complaints in a way that forced Johnson to amend somewhat the worst aspects of his behavior and insured Ulysses S. Grant would be able to follow a more aggressive program of support for freedmen when he became President. It allowed Johnson to assert that the proper power relationship between the two branches was maintained as he believed the Constitution required. Rather than resort immediately to chaos and possibly violence, impeachment slows down the process, allowing each side the forum it needs to make its case. Removal of the President is difficult with the necessity of getting 2/3 of the Senate to go along, but still puts chief executives on notice that they are subject to removal if they go to far.

Stewart also notes that even though we have now gone through three attempts at Presidential impeachment in our history, we still don’t really know what constitutes justification for removal from office. Johnson’s impeachment was clearly and wholly political, Nixon’s probably would have been justified but never got to the point where a vote was taken, and Clinton’s, according to Stewart, was merely a “moralistic tantrum” by his political opponents in Congress.

Overall I enjoyed this quite a bit. Not an academic work as most of his sources are secondary, but an excellent distillation of not only the impeachment and trial, but also the political climate the induced it. Highly Recommended!! ( )
  mybucketlistofbooks | Jan 10, 2015 |
5038. Impeached The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy, by David O. Stewart (read 28 Jun 2013) This is a very good book, telling well the story of the impeachment and the fight over it. The author believes that Johnson's non-conviction was procured by money, and that Senator Ross of Kansas, instead of being the hero JFK's Profiles in Courage portrays him as, was a crook. But he admits that there is no proof of such--just much suspicion. While I admire the Radical Republicans who fought Johnson, including Thaddeus Stevens, I believe it was fortunate that Johnson was not ousted from the Presidency. Johnson's attitude to Negroes was of course reprehensible and no one can approve it. I was glad to see the author agrees that Senator Grimes of Iowa, one of the seven Republicans who were expected to vote for conviction, was in no way implicated in any shady dealings. ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | Jun 28, 2013 |
I just read 1865, and this book, about the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, was a logical next step. It turned out to be a fairly good read, though the details sometimes got in the way of the action. ( )
1 vote addunn3 | Feb 21, 2013 |
As the presidency of Bill Clinton recedes into the halcyon glow of history, his impeachment by the House of Representatives seems less a personal repudiation than an institutional embarrassment for Congress. With the passage of time, the charges against Clinton seem overdrawn, more an extension of a political fight that included the federal government shutdown than a real threat to the sanctity of government.

This recent context is important for anyone who reads David Stewart's magnificent account of the first presidential impeachment, "Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy." As the experienced lawyer turned engaging historian describes the specific charges against Johnson, they too seem overdrawn, legally speaking. However, they were simply one weapon in a more consequential struggle over the future of civil rights in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

Johnson, who became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was a southern Unionist and highly sympathetic to southerners who feared the consequences of granting freed slaves any real civil rights. Such an attitude, while appealing to some influential politicians, was contrary to several of Lincoln's public statements, including his address after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, which coupled leniency for rebels and seceded states -- which Johnson took to extraordinary lengths -- with the promise of voting rights for African-Americans who served in the Union Army and Navy.

Worse, Johnson's policy of leniency for southern politicians who had served in the Confederate government or army and his aversion to assistance for freed blacks was in direct opposition to the most influential group in the Republican-dominated Congress. The Radical Republicans, who had frequently complained that Lincoln's actions toward slavery were too little and too late, wanted the rebellion leaders, including southern politicians, punished for their involvement in instigating and prosecuting the war and also sought increasing civil rights and government support for freed slaves.

The result was significant conflict between Congressional leaders and the President, who drug his feet whenever possible to limit the full execution of laws enacted by the Congress, many of which had been passed by Congress over his veto. Eventually, frustrated Republican leaders began exploring ways to limit Johnson's powers, including the possibility of removing him from office. While the first attempt at impeachment failed, Johnson handed his political enemies a gift when he knowingly violated the Tenure of Office Act, one such Congressional act which limited the president's power to remove appointees confirmed by the Senate and was of questionable constitutionality.

In some ways, the precipitating incident was farcical, as Stewart makes clear. Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, but Stanton refuses to physically leave his office. Johnson then appointed an underling to the position, while trying to tempt Gen. William T. Sherman to take the post. As the impasse continued, General-in-Chief Ulysses Grant, who had little use for Johnson and nurtured presidential ambitions in the next year's election, carefully administered the military independent of civilian oversight, careful to not be directly insubordinate of the President.

Meanwhile, Radical Republicans pressed for impeachment again, this time succeeding, but only after some difficulty in exactly describing the nature of Johnson's crime in constitutional terms. After this, the main event became the trial of the now-impeached Johnson in the Senate, with the possibility that he could be removed from office by a 2/3 vote. With great style, Stewart discusses the personalities and intrigue behind this trial, including the distressing fact that the prosecution's case was poorly coordinated by the House members selected to argue it.

Underlying this analysis, which is consistently strong, Stewart offers a tantalizing, but ultimately unprovable assessment. Despite all of the factors that favored enough people voting to preserve Johnson in the presidency, there is strong circumstantial evidence that the key votes in Johnson's favor -- and the vote for removal fell only one short of the necessary 2/3 -- were bought and paid for by people who benefitted from Johnson remaining in office.

If there is a shortcoming in the delightful account, it is that Stewart never adequately explores Johnson's unexpected Republican allies, such as Secretary of State William Seward, who were neither southern sympathizers or politically beholden to Johnson. This, though, is a small quibble in an otherwise excellent book that is both thoughtful in its assessments and dramatically engaging in its writing. ( )
1 vote ALincolnNut | Sep 30, 2012 |
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After finishing The Summer of 1787 about the writing of the Constitution, I wanted to pick up the Constitution's story at its next critical moment.
Stevens saw the case in simple terms. It was the president's policies, he insisted, that warranted his removal. (Page 85.)
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This account of the attempt to remove Andrew Johnson from the presidency demolishes the myth that Johnson's impeachment was unjustified.

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