1868 impeachment: A radical departure

Way Back When

Vote: For a president, a reprieve. For a senator, a ticket to infamy.

January 23, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

"That said Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, on the 21st day of February, 1868, unmindful of the high duties of his office, his oath of office and of the requirement of the Constitution that he should take care that the laws be faithfully executed, did unlawfully and in violation of the Constitution and laws of the U.S., frame an order in writing for the removal Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War ..."

So read the first article of impeachment that led to the 1868 impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, the first, and until this year the only, such trial of a president in U.S. history. It began on March 13 and concluded 33 days later, on May 17, with Johnson's narrow acquittal.

Johnson was president only because of the assassination of his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, by John Wilkes Booth in 1865. Previously, Johnson, who had taught himself the trade of tailor and learned to read and write from his wife, had risen from alderman to state legislator to U.S. senator from Tennessee.

He despised antebellum plantation society and when the Civil War broke out, refused to leave the Senate. He repudiated secession and throughout the war served as the state's military governor.

In 1864, he was nominated for the vice presidency on Lincoln's "National Union" re-election ticket. Radicals in the Republican Party were already challenging Lincoln on his treatment of the South at the conclusion of the war.

To the consternation of the radical faction, after assuming the presidency, Johnson continued Lincoln's policies of broad amnesties, quick readmission of rebel states into the Union with the preservation of their social systems.

"Under the Reconstruction Act, whoever controlled the Army controlled the South," commented The Evening Sun in 1973. "Johnson, as commander-in-chief, played musical chairs with generals' commands to secure lenient military governors. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, though seemingly loyal to the President in the Cabinet, emerged as a spy for congressional Radicals."

Finally, on Feb. 21, 1868, in defiance of the Tenure of Office Bill, which required Senate consent, Johnson removed Stanton from office.

On the first day of the impeachment trial, crowds swarmed the Capitol building in Washington hoping to get into the "court of impeachment," reported The Sun.

"A cordon of police was stretched all around the Capitol, a file of soldiers tramped back and forth, every corridor and vestibule of the magnificent building swarmed with uniformed officers of the law, and at every entrance leading to the Senate wing, and each single door of the floor and gallery, stood the door-keepers, with the bright star glittering on the breast, to prevent the passage of those who did not possess the talismanic piece of pasteboard."

As the trial dragged on, Johnson began to think that his vindication would fail, and had packed his bags preparing to leave the White House.

However, the Radicals had failed to take into account the rather independent streak in Kansas Sen. Edmund Ross, whose vote for removal from office they had taken for granted.

Early in the trial, Ross had said, "The thing is here; and as far as I'm concerned, though a Republican and opposed to Mr. Johnson and his policy, he shall have as fair a trial as any accused man ever had on earth."

On May 16, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, who was presiding, rose in the Senate, gripped the side of his desk and intoned to the clerk, "Call the roll."

To each senator, the Chief Justice inquired: "Is the respondent Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, guilty or not guilty of a high misdemeanor as charged in this article?"

Another president, John F. Kennedy, recalled the moment in "Profiles in Courage": "By the time the Chief Justice reached the name of Edmund Ross, 24 `guilties' had been pronounced. Ten more were certain and one other practically certain. Only Ross' vote was needed to convict the President. The hopes and fears, hatred and bitterness of past decades were centered on this one man."

Ross himself later wrote: "Every hand was folded, not a foot moved, not the rustle of a garment, not a whisper was heard ... hope and fear seemed blended in every face, instantaneously alternating, some with vengeful hate ... others lighted with hope ... I almost literally looked down into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, everything that makes life desirable to an ambitious man were about to be swept away."

In a strong voice, he gave his answer -- "Not guilty" -- and the vote to convict failed, 35-19, one vote shy of the two-thirds majority necessary for removal from office.

In Baltimore, The Sun reported, "during the balance of the day and evening the result of the vote elicited a jolly feeling. ... The democratic conservative voters of South Baltimore fired a salute of one hundred guns from Federal Hill, whilst those of the West End did the same from Stewart's Hill."

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