This Day in History: Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial ends in acquittal
On this day in 1868, President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial comes to a close. Thirty-five Senators had voted to convict him, still one vote shy of the 36 votes needed to remove him from office.
That trial has since been labeled a “political circus” and “a contest for power.” Regardless, Johnson had survived the attempt against him.
Americans were then recovering from a brutal Civil War that had left hundreds of thousands dead or wounded. Johnson wasn’t supposed to be the President that got them through this trying period! He was President only because Abraham Lincoln had been killed just one month into his second term.
Needless to say, Johnson struggled. Like Lincoln, he was inclined to be more lenient towards the South, but Lincoln surely would have had an easier time of it. For one thing, Lincoln was a Republican dealing with a Republican Congress, whereas Johnson was a Democrat. Moreover, Johnson sometimes gave brash, vitriolic speeches that sat badly with people. He granted amnesty to southerners and let ex-Confederate officials participate in the new state governments.
Radical Republicans couldn’t take it. They wanted Johnson stopped, and the 1866 midterms gave them just what they needed: veto-proof majorities in Congress. The new Congress passed many Reconstruction measures over the President’s veto. But the real fight came over the composition of Johnson’s cabinet.
Congress wanted to keep the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Johnson emphatically did not.
Congress dug in its heels, passing legislation that would prevent the President from dismissing any cabinet member without the advice and consent of the Senate. Johnson vetoed this “Tenure of Office Act,” but Congress overrode that veto.
Johnson wasn’t going to roll over so easily, though! He waited for a Senate recess, then he dismissed Stanton anyway. Furious congressmen reinstated Stanton—only to watch Johnson dismiss Stanton again! The President appointed Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas as an interim Secretary—or at least he tried to.
What would modern news outlets do with the stand-off that ensued on February 21, 1868?! Thomas confronted Stanton in his office, but Stanton refused to leave—he even had Thomas arrested!
The very next day, Congressmen began debating impeachment. Johnson had “set himself above the Constitution and the laws,” Rep. John Bingham (R) of Ohio blasted. Democrats saw it differently, of course. They argued that the issue was one of separation of powers. Nevertheless, the Republican House voted overwhelmingly to impeach Johnson on February 24.
When the impeachment trial finally started, the Senate Gallery was packed! Anyone who could get in, did. Would you believe that the trial lasted for more than a month?
Finally, on May 16, Senators cast their vote on the first of 11 impeachment articles. Thirty-five Senators voted to convict, but 36 votes were needed to oust Johnson. On May 26, votes were taken on two additional articles, but with the same result. Seven Republican Senators had voted to acquit the Democratic President.
“I cannot agree to destroy the harmonious working of the Constitution,” explained Republican Senator James Grimes of Iowa, “for the sake of getting rid of an Unacceptable President.”
The Tenure of Office Act was later repealed, but an interesting twist came in 1926: The Supreme Court found a similar law unconstitutional.
Johnson had been right all along.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Andrew Johnson, Executive Order—Removing Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War (Feb. 21, 1868)
Annette Gordon-Reed, The Fight Over Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment Was a Fight for the Future of the United States (Smithsonian Magazine; Jan. 2018)
David Herbert Donald, Why they impeached Andrew Johnson (American Heritage Magazine; Dec. 1956) (reprinted HERE)
David O. Stewart, Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy (2009)
Edmund G. Ross, History of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson President of the United States by the House of Representatives and his Trial by the Senate for High Crimes and Misdemeanors in Office 1868 (reprint edition HERE)
Impeachment Time Line (National Park Service website)
Lorraine Boissoneault, The Political Circus and Constitutional Crisis of Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment (Smithsonian Magazine; February 27, 2018)
Michael Les Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (1973)
The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson (1868) President of the United States (United States Senate website)