A Trial Account
by  Douglas O. Linder    
In May, 1868, the Senate came within a single vote of taking the unprecedented step of removing a president from office.  Although the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson was ostensibly about a violation of the Tenure of Office Act, it was about much more than that.  Also on trial in 1868 were Johnson's lenient policies towards Reconstruction and his vetoes of the Freedmen's Bureau Act and the Civil Rights Act.  The trial was, above all else, a political trial.

Andrew Johnson was a lifelong Democrat and slaveowner who won a place alongside Abraham Lincoln on the 1864 Republican ticket in order to gain the support of pro-war Democrats.  Johnson was fiercely pro-Union and had come to national prominence when, as a Senator from the important border state of Tennessee, he denounced secession as "treason."

On April 11, 1865, Abraham Lincoln gave his last major address.  Lincoln congratulated Lee on his surrender, announced that his cabinet was united on a policy of reconstructing the Union, and expressed the hope that the states of the confederacy would extend the vote to literate negroes and those who served as Union soldiers.

When Andrew Johnson became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, some of the Republicans in Congress most opposed to what they saw as the too-lenient policies of Lincoln toward reconstruction saw Johnson's ascension as a hopeful sign.  One of the radical Republicans of the Senate, Benjamin Wade, expressed his support: "Johnson, we have faith in you.  By the gods, there will be no more trouble in running the government."  Less than three years later, Wade would cast a vote to convict Johnson in the impeachment trial that nearly made him the next president of the United States.

There were two contending theories in post-war Washington concerning reconstruction.  One theory argued that the states of the United States are indestructible by the acts of their own people and state sovereignty cannot be forfeited to the national government.  Under this theory, the only task for the federal government was to supress the insurrection, replace its leaders, and provide an opportunity for free government to re-emerge.  Rehabilitation of the state was a job for the state itself.  The other theory of reconstruction  argued that the Civil War was a struggle between two governments, and the southern territory was conquered land, without internal borders, much less places with a right to statehood.  Under this theory, the federal government might rule this territory as it pleases, admitting places as states under whatever rules it might prescribe.  Andrew Johnson was a proponent of the first, more lenient theory, while the radical Republicans who would so nearly remove him from office were advocates of the second theory.  The most radical of the radical Republicans, men like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, believed also in the full political equality of the freed slaves.  They believed that black men must be given equal rights to vote, hold office, own land, and enter into contracts, and until southern states made such promises in their laws they had no right to claim membership in the Union. Republicans also had more practical reasons to worry about Johnson's lenient reconstruction policy: the congressmen elected by white southerners were certain to be overwhelmingly Democrats, reducing if not eliminating the Republican majorities in both houses.

The first serious conflict over the course of reconstruction concerned the plan drafted by the Johnson Administration for North Carolina.  The plan called for residents to elect delegates to a state convention that would frame a new state constitution.  The cabinet split 4 to 3 in favor of allowing black residents to vote, but Johnson sided with those who would restrict voters to those qualified to vote under state law at the time of North Carolina's secession-- whites only.  Secretary of War Edwin Stanton reported that "the opposition of the President to throwing the franchise open to the colored people appeared to be fixed."

In January, 1866, Senator Lyman Trumbull introduced two bills.  One would enlarge the powers of the Freedmen's Bureau while the other would extend basic civil rights to negro citizens.  Andrew Johnson surprised many who believed he would postpone confrontation with the radical Republicans by vetoing both bills. Congress was unable to override the Freedmen's Bureau veto, but succeeded in overriding the Civil Rights Act veto on a Senate vote of  33 to 15. Except for veto overrides on two minor pieces of legislation, one in the Pierce and one in the Tyler administrations, it was the first successful override in the nation's history and portended serious trouble for the President and his reconstruction policies.  By February of 1866, the radicals viewed Johnson as "an outlaw undeserving of quarter."

A summer massacre in New Orleans further fueled the growing animosity between Johnson and the Republican Congress.  A mob, including members of the Louisiana police, fired upon whites and blacks gathering for a Republican-backed convention that would frame a new state government.  Forty were killed and over one hundred wounded. Only after the killing was over did U. S. troops arrive to place the city under martial law.  Republicans angrily denounced Johnson for not anticipating trouble and protecting convention delegates and supporters.  Impeachment talk began to swirl around Washington. Complaints against Johnson included his public drunkenness, generous use of the pardon power, and even suggestions that he was a principal in the Lincoln assassination plot.

Johnson, for his part, answered denunciation with denunciation.  In a series of combative speeches in cities such as Cleveland and St. Louis, the President lashed out at his congressional critics as "traitors."  He accused ultra-radicals Thaddeus Stevens, Wendell Phillips, and Charles Sumner of comparing themselves to "the Savior."  Johnson's a intemperate speeches would later become the basis for articles of impeachment.

In the spring of 1867, the new Congress passed over Johnson's veto a second Freedmen's Bureau bill  and proposed to the states a Fourteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.  (The Fourteenth Amendment is best known today for its requirement that states guarantee equal protection and due process of law, but the most controversial provisions of the time concerned the conditions precedent that imposed on states for readmission to the Union.)  Johnson announced his opposition to the Fourteenth Amendment and campaigned for its defeat. The Reconstruction Act of 1867, also passed over a presidential veto, wiped out the "pretended state governments" of the ten excluded states and divided them into five military districts, each commanded by an officer of the army.  To escape military rule, states were required to assent to the Fourteenth Amendment, frame a new constitution with delegates chosen without regard to color, and submit the new constitution to the Congress for examination.  Johnson's message vetoing the Reconstruction Act was angry and accusatory, calling the act "a bill of attainder against nine millions people at once" and suggesting that it reduced southerners to "the most abject and degrading slavery."  Impeachment efforts in the House intensified, but the doubtfulness of conviction in the Senate, due in part to the knowledge that removal of Johnson would elevate to the presidency the less than universally popular Ben Wade, President Pro Tempore of the Senate,  convinced many in the House to hold their fire.  Representative Blaine spoke for a number of conservative Republicans when he said he "would rather have the President than the shallywags of Ben Wade."

The issue that finally turned the tide in favor of impeachment concerned Johnson's alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act.  The Tenure of Office Act, passed in 1867 over yet another presidential veto, prohibited the President from removing from office, without the concurrence of the Senate, those officials whose appointment required Senate approval.  The Act was passed primarily to preserve in office as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a holdover from the Lincoln Administration, who the radical Republicans regarded "as their trusty outpost in the camp of the enemy."  Although Stanton for many months largely acquiesced in Johnson's reconstruction policies, by June of 1867, his opposition was out in the open.  By July, Johnson was close to convinced that Stanton must go, Tenure of Office Act or no Tenure of Office Act.  The final straw appears to have been the revelation on August 5, 1867, during an ongoing trial of Lincoln assassination conspirator John Surratt that Stanton two years earlier had deliberately withheld from Johnson a petition from five members of the military commission that convicted Mary Surratt urging that her death sentence be commuted to imprisonment.  Stanton, Johnson believed, had hood-winked him into signing the death warrant of a woman who he most likely would have spared.  That day Johnson sent Secretary Stanton the following message: "Sir: Public consideration of high character constrain me to say that your resignation as Secretary of War will be accepted."  Stanton answered "that public considerations of a high character...constrain me not to resign."  The Tenure of Office Act allowed the President to "suspend" an officer when the Congress was out of session, as it was at the time, so the President responded by suspending Stanton and replacing him with war hero Ulysses S. Grant.

In January of 1868 the returning Senate took up the issue of Johnson's suspension of Secretary Stanton, and voted 35 to 6 not to concur in the action.  On January 14, a triumphant Stanton marched to his old office in the War Building as the President considered his next move.   Johnson was anxious to challenge the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act in court, but to do so he would have to replace Stanton and defy the Senate.  This he did on February 21, 1868, naming as the new Secretary of War Major General Lorenzo Thomas.  When Stanton notified his Capitol Hill allies of the presidential order to vacate his office, he received from Senator Sumner a one-word telegram: "Stick."  Impeachment in the House for violation of the Tenure of Office Act and other "high crimes and misdemeanors" was by now inevitable.  On February 24, the House voted to adopt an Impeachment Resolution by a vote of 126 to 47.  Five days later, formal articles of impeachment were adopted by the House.