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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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154777,562 (3.92)13
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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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 Because the 3/5 compromise was no longer in force former slave states could no longer count their "property" in calculations of their population.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 |
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 poof 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 fom 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 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 |
An interesting blow-by-blow account of Johnson's difficult Presidency and his troubles with Congress. Not everyone will be up for the level of detail here, but the book is well researched and the graft, bribery, etc. that was rampant in the 1860's makes today's politicians look good. Of course, it may be that today they are more adept at hiding the evidence. The book certainly demolishes some of the 'myths' that have grown up around Lincoln, Johnson, and Reconstruction. Johnson got off to a rocky start and he would certainly have had an easier time if he had been able to compromise rather than get angry and stubborn and try to go around Congress. Recommended, especially for those who like all the details of who did what and when.
1 vote hailelib | Apr 25, 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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