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Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

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Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson occurred in 1868, when the United States House of Representatives resolved to impeach President Andrew Johnson, adopting eleven articles of impeachment detailing his "high crimes and misdemeanors", in accordance with Article Two of the United States Constitution. The House's primary charge against Johnson was with violation of the Tenure of Office Act, passed by Congress the previous year.

Specifically, he had removed Edwin McMasters Stanton, the Secretary of War (whom the Tenure of Office Act was largely designed to protect), from office and attempted to replace him with Brevet Major General Lorenzo Thomas. Contrary to popular belief, Johnson was not impeached for temporarily replacing Stanton with General Ulysses Grant earlier while Congress was not in session.

The House formally agreed to the articles of impeachment on March 2, 1868, and forwarded them to the Senate. The trial in the Senate began three days later, with Chief Justice of the United States Salmon P. Chase presiding. The first vote on one of the eleven impeachment articles concluded on May 16 with a failure to convict Johnson. A ten-day recess was called before attempting to convict him on additional articles, but that effort failed on May 26. The 35-to-19 votes on the three articles actually voted on were all one short of the required two-thirds needed for conviction.

This was the first impeachment of an incumbent President since creation of the office in 1789. The culmination of a lengthy political battle between Johnson and the Republican majority in Congress over how best to deal with the defeated Southern states following the conclusion of the American Civil War, the impeachment and the subsequent trial were among the most dramatic events in the political life of the nation during the Reconstruction Era. Together, they have gained a historical reputation as an act of political expedience, rather than necessity, based on Johnson's defiance of an unconstitutional piece of legislation, and with little regard for the will of a general public which, despite the unpopularity of Johnson, opposed the impeachment. There would not be another serious attempt to impeach a President for 106 years when, during the Watergate scandal, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment of President Nixon and sent them to the full House for consideration; Nixon then resigned from office, rather than face impeachment and trial, which his advisors told him he would lose. The only other actual impeachment trial of a President would occur 131 years later with the impeachment of Bill Clinton, who was acquitted by the Senate.


Tension between the executive and legislative branches had been high since shortly after Johnson's ascension to the White House upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Though a Southerner himself, Johnson had been a fierce and unrelenting critic of the Southern secession that had sparked the Civil War in the first place. Prior to his murder, Lincoln had favored a very moderate and lenient plan for Reconstruction. Although the Radical Republicans had vehemently opposed Lincoln's Reconstruction policies, the 16th President was immensely popular in the North and thus able to deprive the Radicals of the political capital they would need to successfully oppose his agenda.

Radical Republicans were convinced that President Johnson would enact their hardline Reconstruction policies of protection for newly freed slaves and punishment for former slave owners, government, and military officials. Instead, Johnson unexpectedly switched course, rejecting the Radicals. Within six weeks of taking office, Johnson had offered proclamations of general amnesty for most former Confederates, and his initially stricter plans for high-ranking government and military officers quickly dissolved. Johnson also vetoed legislation that extended civil rights and financial support for the former slaves. Congress was able to override only a few of his vetoes, setting the stage for a confrontation between Congress and the president.

In August and September 1866, Johnson destroyed his own political support on a speaking tour of Northern states that became known as the Swing Around the Circle. Meant to establish a coalition of voters who would support Johnson in the upcoming midterm congressional elections, the tour instead destroyed his reputation when reports of his undisciplined, vitriolic speeches and ill-advised confrontations with hecklers swept the nation. Contrary to Johnson's hopes, the midterm elections led to veto-proof Republican majorities in Congress. The Radicals were not only able to pass civil rights legislation, but wrestled control of Reconstruction from the president and took the reins themselves by carving the old Confederacy into five military districts.

Tenure of Office Act

Congress' control of the military Reconstruction policy was mitigated by Johnson's command of the military as president; however, Johnson had inherited, as Secretary of War, Lincoln's appointee Edwin M. Stanton, a staunch Radical Republican, who as long as he remained in office would comply with Congressional Reconstruction policies. To ensure that Stanton would not be replaced, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act in 1867 over Johnson's veto. The act required the President to seek the Senate's advice and consent before relieving or dismissing any member of his Cabinet or, indeed, any federal official whose initial appointment had previously required its advice and consent. However, the act was written specifically with Stanton in mind.

Because the Tenure of Office Act did permit the President to suspend such officials when Congress was out of session, when Johnson failed to obtain Stanton's resignation, he instead suspended Stanton on August 5, 1867, which gave him the opportunity to appoint General Ulysses S. Grant, then serving as Commanding General of the Army, Secretary of War ad interim. Johnson and Grant would later disagree on an understanding between the two of them. If the Senate later failed to concur with Johnson's removal of Stanton, the President claimed that Grant agreed to either remain in office or pre-notify Johnson that he would resign so that Johnson could replace him. Johnson's purpose was to create a court case to test the constitutionality of the Tenure Act. Grant later claimed there was no such agreement.

On January 7, 1868, the Senate passed a resolution (35-to-6) of non-concurrence with Stanton's dismissal. Grant wrote his resignation letter that same day and vacated the office, but he did not notify Johnson of this. Consequently, Stanton re-occupied the office of the Secretary of War. At a cabinet meeting the following day, Grant made stammering, unintelligible excuses for failing to pre-notify Johnson. Believing the Tenure of Office Act unconstitutional, Johnson ignored the Senate's reinstatement of Stanton until, on January 28, he offered the post to Lorenzo Thomas, a brevet major general in the Army, who first turned it down, saying that he would like to stay in office as Adjutant General until his retirement. (The President originally wanted the position for General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was an enemy of Stanton's, but Sherman turned the President down, saying he hated politics.) Johnson later convinced Thomas to help him make a test case, however, and on February 21, 1868, the President appointed Lorenzo Thomas Secretary of War and ordered the removal of Stanton from office. Thomas personally delivered the President's dismissal notice to Stanton, but the Secretary refused either to accept its legitimacy or to vacate the premises. Instead, Stanton had barricaded himself in his office and ordered Thomas arrested for violating the Tenure of Office Act.

Thomas asked if he could be brought to the White House to let the President know that he had been placed under arrest. When Stanton realized, however, that the arrest would allow the courts to review the law, he had the charges dropped. Stanton then claimed that Johnson had broken the recently instituted Tenure of Office Act by removing a Cabinet member without Senate approval.

The political rhetoric escalated. On February 22, 1868, Representative William D. Kelley of Philadelphia orated:

Sir, the bloody and untilled fields of the ten unreconstructed States, the insheeted ghosts of the two thousand murdered negroes in Texas, cry, if the dead ever evoke vengeance, for the punishment of Andrew Johnson.


On February 24, 1868 three days after Johnson's dismissal of Stanton, the House of Representatives voted 126 to 47 in favor of a resolution to impeach the President for high crimes and misdemeanors. The two sponsors of the resolution, Thaddeus Stevens and John A. Bingham, were immediately dispatched to inform the Senate that the House had officially voted for impeachment.

One week later, the House adopted eleven articles of impeachment against the President. The articles charged Johnson with:

Dismissing Edwin Stanton from office after the Senate had voted not to concur with his dismissal and had ordered him reinstated.

Appointing Thomas Secretary of War ad interim despite the lack of vacancy in the office, since the dismissal of Stanton had been invalid.

Appointing Thomas without the required advice and consent of the Senate.

Conspiring, with Thomas and "other persons to the House of Representatives unknown," to unlawfully prevent Stanton from continuing in office.

Conspiring to unlawfully curtail faithful execution of the Tenure of Office Act.

Conspiring to "seize, take, and possess the property of the United States in the Department of War."

Conspiring to "seize, take, and possess the property of the United States in the Department of War" with specific intent to violate the Tenure of Office Act.

Issuing to Thomas the authority of the office of Secretary of War with unlawful intent to "control the disbursements of the moneys appropriated for the military service and for the Department of War."

Issuing to Major General William H. Emory orders with unlawful intent to violate the Tenure of Office Act.

Making three speeches with intent to show disrespect for the Congress among the citizens of the United States.

The eleventh article was a summation of the first ten.


A trial started in the Senate, presided by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, and committees were organized to represent the prosecution and defense. The impeachment committee was made up of Thaddeus Stevens, Benjamin F. Butler, John A. Bingham, John A. Logan, George S. Boutwell, Thomas Williams and James F. Wilson. Johnson's defense team was made up of Alexander Morgan, Henry Stanbery, William M. Evarts, Benjamin R. Curtis, Thomas A. R. Nelson and Jeremiah S. Black (who resigned before the trial began). The trial began on March 13, 1868.

A Vice President is only permitted to vote in the case of a tie vote. Since an impeachment conviction requires a two-thirds vote from the Senators present, a Vice President will either not be voting or will cast an inconsequential vote. During Johnson's trial, there was no Vice President. However, the Senate President pro tempore, Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, who was among the Radical Republican leaders, would, under the Presidential succession act then in force and effect, become President if Johnson was convicted. Indiana Senator Thomas Hendricks questioned Wade's impartiality and suggested that Wade abstain from voting. But Hendricks was persuaded to withdraw his objection a day later and leave the matter to Wade's own conscience. Subsequently, Wade voted for conviction.

Chief Justice Chase, who was himself a Radical Republican, ruled that Johnson should be permitted to present evidence that Thomas's appointment to replace Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was intended to provide a test case to challenge the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act. The Senate, however, overruled Chase by a simple majority vote.

Before the trial started Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio made a surprise attempt on 28 February to add two reliably Radical members to the senate by gaining the admission of Colorado, over Johnson's anticipated veto, as a state. But Wade could not corral the necessary two-thirds majority to override Johnson's expected veto. The attempt, therefore, failed. A separate attempt was made just before the scheduled verdict vote in May to admit senators from selected Reconstruction states in order to add more reliably Radical members to the vote, but it was also unsuccessful.

On the first day, Johnson's defense committee asked for forty days to collect evidence and witnesses since the prosecution had had a longer amount of time to do so, but only ten days were granted. The proceedings began on March 23. Senator Garrett Davis argued that because not all states were represented in the Senate the trial could not be held and that it should therefore be adjourned. The motion was voted down. After the charges against the president were made, Henry Stanbery asked for another thirty days to assemble evidence and summon witnesses, saying that in the ten days previously granted there had only been enough time to prepare the president's reply. John A. Logan argued that the trial should begin immediately and that Stanberry was only trying to stall for time. The request was turned down in a vote 41 to 12. However, the Senate voted the next day to give the defense six more days to prepare evidence, which was accepted.

The trial commenced again on March 30. Benjamin F. Butler opened for the prosecution with a three-hour speech reviewing historical impeachment trials, dating from King John of England. For days Butler spoke out against Johnson's violations of the Tenure of Office Act and further charged that the president had issued orders directly to Army officers without sending them through General Grant. The defense argued that Johnson had not violated the Tenure of Office Act because President Lincoln did not reappoint Stanton as Secretary of War at the beginning of his second term in 1865 and that he was therefore a leftover appointment from the 1860 cabinet, which removed his protection by the Tenure of Office Act. The prosecution called several witnesses in the course of the proceedings until April 9, when they rested their case.

Benjamin R. Curtis called attention to the fact that after the House passed the Tenure of Office Act, the Senate had amended it, meaning that it had to return it to a Senate-House conference committee to resolve the differences. He followed up by quoting the minutes of those meetings, which revealed that while the House members made no notes about the fact, their sole purpose was to keep Stanton in office, and the Senate had disagreed. The defense then called their first witness, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas. He did not provide adequate information in the defense's cause and Butler made attempts to use his information to the prosecution's advantage. The next witness was General William T. Sherman, who testified that President Johnson had offered to appoint Sherman to succeed Stanton as Secretary of War in order to ensure that the department was effectively administered. This testimony damaged the prosecution, which expected Sherman to testify that Johnson offered to appoint Sherman for the purpose of obstructing the operation, or overthrow, of the government. Sherman essentially affirmed that Johnson only wanted him to manage the department and not to execute directions to the military that would be contrary to the will of Congress.


The Senate then had fifty-four members representing the twenty-seven states whose legislatures could then elect Senators; of these, thirty-six "guilty" votes were required to remove Johnson from office. On all three occasions, 35 Senators voted "guilty" and 19 "not guilty." As the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority for conviction in impeachment trials, Johnson was acquitted.

Seven Republican senators were concerned that the proceedings had been manipulated to give a one-sided presentation of the evidence. Senators William Pitt Fessenden (Maine), Joseph S. Fowler (Tennessee), James W. Grimes (Iowa), John B. Henderson (Missouri), Lyman Trumbull (Illinois), Peter G. Van Winkle (West Virginia), and Edmund G. Ross (Kansas), who provided the decisive vote, defied their party by voting against conviction. In addition to the above seven, three more Republicans James Dixon (Connecticut), James Doolittle (Wisconsin), and Daniel Norton (Minnesota) and all nine Democratic Senators voted not guilty.

On decision day, before the first vote was taken, Samuel Pomeroy, who was the senior senator from Kansas, told the junior Kansas Senator Ross that if Ross voted for acquittal that Ross would become the subject of an investigation for bribery.

The first 35-to-19 vote was taken on 16 May for the eleventh article. In hopes of persuading at least one of the seven Republican acquittal senators to change his vote, the Senate adjourned for ten days to take a second vote on 26 May on the other articles. During the hiatus, under Butler's leadership, the House put through a resolution to investigate alleged "improper or corrupt means used to influence the determination of the Senate". But the pressure did not change any of the acquittal votes, with the result that the vote on 26 May was the same. After the trial, Ben Butler conducted hearings on the widespread reports that Republican senators had been bribed to vote for Johnson's acquittal. In Butler's hearings, and in subsequent inquiries, there was increasing evidence that some acquittal votes were acquired by promises of patronage jobs and cash cards. Nonetheless, the investigations never resulted in charges, much less convictions, against anyone.

Moreover, there is evidence that the prosecution attempted to bribe the senators voting for acquittal to switch their votes to conviction. Maine Senator Fessenden was offered the Ministership to Great Britain. Prosecutor Butler said, "Tell [Kansas Senator Ross] that if he wants money there is a bushel of it here to be had." Butler's investigation also boomeranged when it was discovered that Kansas Senator Pomeroy, who voted for conviction, had written a letter to Johnson's Postmaster General seeking a $40,000 bribe for Pomeroy's acquittal vote along with three or four others in his caucus. Benjamin Butler was himself told by Ben Wade that Wade would appoint Butler as Secretary of State when Wade assumed the Presidency after a Johnson conviction. An opinion that Senator Ross was mercilessly persecuted for his courageous vote to sustain the independence of the Presidency as a branch of the Federal Government is the subject of an entire chapter in President John F. Kennedy's book, Profiles in Courage. That opinion has been rejected by some scholars, such as Ralph Roske, and endorsed by others, such as Avery Craven.

Not one of the Republican senators who voted for acquittal ever again served in an elective office. Although they were under intense pressure to change their votes to conviction during the trial, afterward public opinion rapidly shifted around to their viewpoint. Some senators who voted for conviction, such as John Sherman and even Charles Sumner, later changed their minds.

Senate votes

Abolition of the Presidency

Johnson's acquittal propelled a body of the citizenry to submit a memorial or petition to Congress, calling for the abolition of the presidency. In the memorial, the petitioners argued that only two forms of government exist: absolute monarchy and absolute democracy. They claimed President Johnson had abused the powers of the presidency and impeachment was the only solution. Johnson's acquittal proved to the petitioners that the role of the presidency had grown too powerful and the only solution was the abolition of the office. The petitioners proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that abolished the presidency and transferred the powers of the executive office to a body composed of members of Congress or of "competent citizens", chosen by Congress and supervised by a standing committee.

Later review of Johnson's impeachment

In 1887, the Tenure of Office Act was repealed by Congress, and subsequent rulings by the United States Supreme Court seemed to support Johnson's position that he was entitled to fire Stanton without Congressional approval. The Supreme Court's ruling on a similar piece of later legislation in the 1926 Myers v. United States affirmed the ability of the president to remove a postmaster without Congressional approval, and stated in its majority opinion "that the Tenure of Office Act of 1867...was invalid."

Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, one of the seven Republican Senators whose refusal to vote for conviction prevented Johnson's removal from office, noted, in the speech he gave explaining his vote for acquittal, that had Johnson been convicted, the main source of the President's political power—the freedom not to agree with the Congress without consequences—would have been destroyed, and the Constitution's system of checks and balances along with it:

Once set the example of impeaching a President for what, when the excitement of the hour shall have subsided, will be regarded as insufficient causes, as several of those now alleged against the President were decided to be by the House of Representatives only a few months since, and no future President will be safe who happens to differ with a majority of the House and two thirds of the Senate on any measure deemed by them important, particularly if of a political character. Blinded by partisan zeal, with such an example before them, they will not scruple to remove out of the way any obstacle to the accomplishment of their purposes, and what then becomes of the checks and balances of the Constitution, so carefully devised and so vital to its perpetuity? They are all gone.