On Impeachment: Andrew Johnson
For at least the past three, each century—from the eighteenth until the twenty-first—has borne witness to an impeachment proceeding upon which, in light of the current events in which we’re engulfed, it would be worthwhile to remark. Failing to do so, I think, would be—contrary to the reputation of which we’ve grown so proud—utterly remiss. It certainly would be an uncharacteristic act, a display of omission to which we, a people ever conscious of our past, are uniquely unaccustomed. Are we not, after all, a people—before all others in the world—for whom historical literacy is of chief import? Are we not always eager to apply the lessons of the past to our life as it spins today?
Beginning in the eighteenth century, the world witnessed the impeachment of Warren Hastings—the tyrant of India and pilfering politician about whom I wrote in the article prior to this. In the nineteenth century, America, still in the growing pains of her adolescence, saw the impeachment of Andrew Johnson—about whom I’ll comment below. In the twentieth, Richard Nixon, before resigning himself from his office, inched dangerously close toward the precipice of impeachment. Later in that same century, Bill Clinton, laudably as centrist as he was lascivious, endured an impeachment process from which he almost didn’t escape. And, nearing the second decade of the twenty-first, we bear witness to the impeachment of Donald Trump.
The life of Warren Hastings is a very distant, if not totally recondite, history; that of Johnson, slightly less so, yet he’s the person to whom we turn our attention in this installment of the “Impeachment” series by which I’ve lately busied myself. It’s a series at whose conclusion we may (or may not) find ourselves talking about the impeachment of Donald Trump. Should that time come, we’ll talk of the event not as historians (for such scholars avail themselves of the distance of time and the breadth of their scope), but as contemporaries very much caught up in the heat of moment and the propinquity of the act.
That being said, we turn to Andrew Johnson. We face him and gaze upon the peculiarities of his life. What an unprepossessing image to behold! Never has so anomalous an American president danced off the pages of history and frightened our eyes! However, before one’s complete immersion into the picture of Johnson can take place, the proper scene—at once both celebratory and melancholy—must be set. The celebration, of course, wasn’t without good cause, nor shall it be said to have been inapt; it accompanied the conclusion, by the beginning of the year 1865, of our nation’s first wholly internal military affair—the Civil War.
It came as that most disastrous and unforgettable half-decade of fraternal strife wore itself out to the sigh of its exhausted conclusion. A sanguinary lustrum of brotherly bloodshed, a five-year-period of horror and death, the Civil War had come to its natural end. Over half a million Americans—men in whose indistinguishable veins the same blood and the same spirit of their shared Founders yet beat—were strewn like corpses over countless graves. From Vicksburg to Gettysburg, the Wilderness to the Seven Pines, Antietam to New Orleans and every contested outpost from Florida to Maine, the American male population was reduced by some two-percent. No war since, certainly no war prior, had exacted from this still-maturing nation so much of its virile and valuable flesh.
The Union, victorious, earned the right to relish this moment—for the spoils of war belonged to none other than it. Of course, this sense of success and this exhalation of glee were tempered by the sober acknowledgement that so many, indeed, a nearly unthinkable amount, had died for a cause far in excess of what they themselves, in their time and place, could conceive. They died, be it consciously or not, for the liberty of their own fellow human beings, a population—stolen from Africa and destined to toil—toward whom they might’ve felt only the feeblest pull of sympathy. The people for whom they fought and died had been, since their arrival on the shores of Virginia in the early seventeenth-century, shorn of all human dignity. They were pulverized into a powder of impotent dust and dehumanized in the bonds of servility. All this for the immutable offense of being slightly darker in hue than the white European’s tone of skin.
The Union soldiers, all three-hundred-and-twenty thousand of them, died in the course of that war for their fellow black man. They died, though unbeknownst to them and recognized only much later in time, for his full and constitutional liberation and his ability to be free. Ultimately, they died for the preservation of a splintered land of which they’d all be, one day—irrespective of black skin or white—equal members. These hundreds of thousands of enlisted men, without whose mortal sacrifice the war surely would’ve been lost, paid the ultimate price—as we’re prone, with both reverence and euphemistic nonchalance, to call a soldier’s last breath. Liberty for all, these men once again proved, never is, nor ever can be, a commodity purchased on the cheap. It’s bought only with blood.
Those Northerners who survived, while scarred, were jubilant, and rightly so. But the trumpets of triumph soon breathed their last gasp. In the blink of an eye, they changed from mirthful to mournful as the baptism of a new founding gave way to a death. Freedom’s hymn, a song only recently learned, turned into a nation’s first dirge.
On the evening of April the 14th, at a well-attended theater in heart of Washington D.C., the president was shot in the back of the head. Certainly conspicuous with a height of over six feet and a half, he and his beloved Mary Todd were enjoying the performance of the British comedy, My American Cousin at the historic Ford’s Theater. A dashing, though disaffected young rebel by the name John Wilkes Booth found his way, within a few inches, to President Lincoln’s body. Strengthened prior to his arrival by two shots of whiskey, compelled by the laments of his now-lost Dixie, and situated so desirably close to the man for whom he felt nothing but detestation, Booth made good on his vow and struck the fatal blow.
Within a few hours, Lincoln would be dead. This, however, was unknown to Booth. Frantic, he leapt from the box from which, only moments prior, the President was watching the play. Upon impacting the stage (which was, unexpectedly for him, unforgivingly hard) the actor-turned-assassin broke his leg. Though hobbled, he was not finished. At the exhortation of his adrenaline (a most hortatory hormone, if ever one inhabited the blood), Booth stood up, composed himself, and cried out, Sic semper tyrannis! The audience, stunned by the excitement of the sound and the eloquence of Booth’s Latin, knew not what to do. Arrested in place, it simply couldn’t react, much less think. Booth, histrionic and homicidal, fled the scene.
Just like that, the tide of American history altered course. Immediately, the blithe revelry by which the North was suffused changed. News quickly spread of this successful assassination attempt and, disconcertingly, the hunt for its perpetrator was still underway. Booth, though vigorously pursued, was able to stave off detection for a surprisingly long time. Not a day later, Lincoln—seemingly indomitable in the face of all other things by which he’d been confronted—succumbed to his fatal wound.
James Russell Lowell, abolitionist, satirist, poet, and sage, summarized best the cloud of sorrow under which the nation (or, at the very least, the North) now stood. The concluding lines of his essay on Lincoln deserve, in full, their reproduction here:
“Never before that startled April morning did such multitudes of men shed tears for the death of one they had never seen, as if with him a friendly presence had been taken away from their lives, leaving them colder and darker. Never was funeral panegyric so eloquent as the silent look of sympathy which strangers exchanged when they met on that day. Their common manhood had lost a kinsman”.
Indeed, a kinsman—perhaps the greatest of all—was lost. In his place, a barbarian was gained.
There was, as we sit and look back, nothing particularly alluring about Lincoln’s successor. The best that can be said about Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth and most ignominious of our forty-five presidents to date, is that he was a Unionist southerner at time when such men were in high demand. He was a War Democrat upon whom the North could, if only hesitatingly, rely. This, however, ought not to be deemed so high a bar that, by having cleared it, we should dispense so easily with our praise. Johnson was good in the “least bad” sense of the word (a sense to which, sadly, we ourselves have become lately accustomed in the choice of those by whom we’re to be represented). He was, more than anything else, a political expedient whose qualities shone only in the utter darkness of the time.
Born of humble origins, Andrew Johnson was a man from whom the spark of genius, though admittedly only selectively bestowed, had been completely withheld. Lincoln was also the product of a simple and lowly stock, but—an autodidact and a moralist to his core—he was able to raise himself on the wings of his industry and the force of his innate brilliance. Johnson, incorrigibly bound to the earth, never was able to elevate his image in the eyes of his fellow men.
This wasn’t because said men had become accustomed to gazing upon so towering a stature as was Lincoln’s. Surely, any successor to this radiant and inimitable man would seem—both physically and historically—diminutive in the long cast of his shade. But Johnson seems to have been made of inherently dark matter—a tenebrous contrast to Lincoln’s beautiful light.
A tailor’s apprentice in his youth, Johnson was impecunious until he tapped into the profits of high office and cultivatable land. He began as the governor of the state of Tennessee (the state to which he fled as a boy from the rigors of Raleigh, North Carolina), before becoming a United States Senator, before then returning to Tennessee to become the state’s wartime governor. He was at the height of his power with the eruption of the Civil War and benefitted mightily from the side with which he chose to ally himself.
He was not, throughout the duration of Lincoln’s first term, the Vice President as he would soon become. That distinction, though not then so eminently distinct, belonged to the consummate statesman from Maine, Hannibal Hamlin. Utterly bored with the role of which he was the first Republican occupant, and seeing no purpose for his continuance therein, Hamlin slid away from Lincoln’s 1864 re-election campaign. He went on, to borrow from the jargon of baseball, to hit for what you might call the political “cycle”: he served, by the time of the conclusion of his illustrious career, as a senator, a member of the House of Representatives, a governor, a foreign minister to Spain, and, of course, as a vice president of the United States. The presidency, that highest and most distinguished of all offices, eluded him. That, however, is only because he couldn’t wait.
How differently might’ve history progressed had he been more patient? He was an avowed abolitionist, an opponent to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a liberal-minded progressive, a defected Democrat, a nascent Republican, an enlightened politician, and a stalwart supporter of the Lincolnian creed. Reconstruction, had it fallen unexpectedly into his lap, might’ve been less tumultuously pursued than it otherwise was. With greater expedition and magnanimous haste, he might’ve raised from the ashes a land, now left fallow in the absence of the watering sweat of its slaves, that would take, under the tutelage of another, many torturous decades to regrow. Reconciliation with the now-dissolved Confederacy, though perhaps more severely imposed, might’ve lessened the time spent in mutual unease that still persists between the South and North.
With wistful forbearance, we return to the reality of the world and the sad facts on the ground; for an imaginative wanderer, such as I, avoidance of such alluring counter-factuals is usually the best of paths to take. The incumbent Lincoln replaced the wearied Hamlin with a man more conformable to the Southern unionists’ tastes. Within the passage of only a few months, the replacement would prove tragic. This man, in whose presence slaveholders and bigots alike felt ominously at ease, was none other than the aforementioned Andrew Johnson. Lincoln thought that Johnson’s fidelity to the Union’s cause, however speciously expressed, was absolutely vital to the country as it moved forward from war to peace.
Johnson, as stated, was a professed Unionist. At least he was in word. Admittedly, the Unionists of his day were cut in a variety of cloths, but, at their best, they joined in their rejection of the belief that another man could be enslaved. Johnson had no such scruples.
He was a slaveholder, and a rather acquisitive one, at that. He was unpersuaded by the maxim, toward which—over the passage of years—Lincoln had become inclined, that all men, having been born free, should remain so for life. In his lifetime, Johnson gathered no fewer than ten slaves (and probably, given his druthers, he would’ve purchased many more). Certainly, the Thirteenth Amendment, against whose installment he pertinaciously fought, wouldn’t have gotten in his way; he advocated for its defeat, as he did for each of the other two Reconstruction Amendments that subsequently were to pass. In time, in spite of his intransigence, those three amendments—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth—would become the trinity of liberty by which the nation was to be founded anew.
In choosing Johnson as his newest running-mate, Lincoln was merely examining and, by examining, understanding the exigencies of the map. Only the most peripheral of Southern redoubts were in his grasp. New Orleans, that dizzy, sub-tropical entrepôt of sugar, provocation, and Creole creeds, was a reliable friend to the Union; the rest of Louisiana, on the contrary, was not. Neither was the state of South Carolina (in whose very bosom the war itself began), but its verdant, wind-swept sea islands off its eastern coast most assuredly were. The Keys of Florida, like a tickling finger stretching from that state’s southernmost tip, were also in the possession of the federal, rather than the confederal, government. The mainland, much to its current embarrassment, stood unwaveringly aloof.
Tennessee was the only Southern state, in its entirety and without regional exemption, over which the Union had more than only a marginal influence. As such, and doubtless to Johnson’s morbid delectation, the Emancipation Proclamation had no baring within the borders of his state. A fact of which most Americans have no knowledge, the Emancipation Proclamation granted to many territories and states a number of, shall we say, charitable exemptions. Any state or city from which the Lincoln administration could expect fidelity to the Union cause would be exempted from this extraordinary and long-awaited fiat. Its preliminary proclamation, uttered a full year prior to its final roll-out, was supposed to be an inducement for the voluntary movement of Southern states to the Northern way of life. Much to Lincoln’s frustration, though probably not to his overwhelming surprise, none of the states to which his inducements were extended was sufficiently tempted to change its ways. Those ways, long since ingrained, were inveterate. Those people, long since hardened, were recalcitrant.
Johnson, however, couldn’t be happier; he reaped the benefits of his state’s immunity to Lincoln’s historic decree. He enjoyed, at least for the next few years, the unencumbered retention of his slaves. For Johnson’s slaves, the Emancipation Proclamation meant only a continuation of their legally-protected vassalage and plight.
Standing astride two movements—one clinging to and the other sprinting away from the institution of legal slavery—Johnson was bound to fall. Upon his accession to the presidency in the spring of 1865, he landed in the Oval Office straddling an untenable position. Latently a bigot, now overtly a racist, his sympathies clearly aligned with the plight of his cousins and brothers in the South. He did all he could to stymie the efforts of freedmen and northern liberals attempting to alter their habits and implement change. Conveniently, Congress was out of session at the time, which allowed Johnson the ability to act both as executive-in-chief and maker of law. Much to the despair of the Union, that’s exactly what he did.
Congress, however, wouldn’t long countenance so odious, illiberal, and reactionary a Commander-in-Chief. In its most productive and prodigious session to date, it wrote and passed a number of bills whose resonances still echo in the American ear today. These included, among others, the Reconstruction Act, which apportioned five distinct military districts throughout ten of the eleven seceded states. Each would be delineated as a territory, hopefully buffeted by the staunch sympathies of a Republican populace, over which a Union general would preside. Deaf to President Johnson’s objections, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments would also pass through this Congress. Finally (and perhaps surprisingly, if only for the irrelevance with which it’s considered by us today) the Tenure of Office Act was signed into law. This, more than the others, proved to be the most consequential act of Congress as it related to the impeachment proceedings to come.
The breach of this law, implemented in the year 1867, was the spark that led to the explosion that was President Johnson’s impeachment. Though handily inscribed into the Constitution’s second Article, impeachment—of a sitting president, at the very least—hadn’t a precedent in American political life. Thus, within the span of a few short years, the nation witnessed with dizzying rapidity two very traumatic “firsts”: that of the assassination of a sitting president, and that of his successor’s impeachment. Not to mention, of course, the Civil War in whose foreground all of this had transpired.
The Tenure of Office Act, now since rescinded from the statute books, was designed to impede the president’s ability unilaterally to dismiss federal public officials—typically officers and members of his own cabinet—with whom he had grown to develop, for lack of a kinder word, poor relations. Just as the president had been required to obtain, on the recruitment and installment of these same officers, the Senate’s “advice and consent”, so too would he be made to procure its permission for their release. Johnson, in a word, was barred from firing officials who’d been given the proverbial “green-light” by the Senate’s infallible approval.
Undoubtedly, one could argue, and not without the helpmate of good reason, that the Senate was overstepping its bounds by implementing what can only be described as a petty law. Its intention, quite obviously, was to fetter a president of whose motivations it was highly—and, as time would prove, justifiably—suspicious. It wanted to remove the possibility of a purgation of Republican, Unionist influences on which Lincoln’s White House was so carefully built. At the very least, it seems to have been an act of invigilation of a president in whom the Senate had lost much of its confidence. Surely, it was an effort to truncate Johnson’s power and to move that which remained of it into the Senate’s much more capable hands.
It didn’t take long for Johnson to run afoul of this new Act. At the time of its installment, the Secretary of War was an Ohioan by the name of Edwin Stanton—a venerable man of whom students of American history should be made to stop and take note. There are many good qualities for which he’s remembered, but he strayed, as do we all, quite far from the perfection expected of a statesman. He was, as his colleagues soon learned, a man as assiduous as he was disputatious, as masterful as he was mercurial. While organizing the Union’s massive military response to the casus belli that was the attack on Fort Sumter, he micromanaged from Washington many things of which he had no intimate knowledge that were going on in the field. This, naturally, frustrated the Union generals to whom his orders trickled.
Being of a prickly character himself, Johnson, after war’s end, found Stanton to be insufferable. Here was a Lincoln appointee, a hold-over from the prior administration, with whom he simply could not get along—though one wonders, considering the obstinacy of his own temperament, how sincerely he actually tried. Exasperated by Stanton’s antics and indifferent toward Congress’s decree, Johnson decided to fire the man for whom he’d lost all patience. Stanton did not take the news graciously, but Johnson was resolute. More than that, he was impenitent and not at all inclined to bend to Congress’s will. An overt and insolent breach of a duly-passed law, the Congress moved swiftly to impeach the president.
The articles raised against him were eleven in number, of which, ultimately, only three were pursued. Those that were most damning highlighted Johnson’s blatant subversion of Congress’s Tenure of Office Act. As it is today, both in the political systems of America and England (from whom, I add with thanks, our own protocol is a direct inheritance), impeachment is a two-step process: the lower of the two houses in a bicameral system votes for the impeachment, while the higher votes to acquit or to convict. In this case, by only one vote, the thirty-ninth Congress chose the former option of the two. After a three-month process, a duration of time after which Johnson was very minimally esteemed and completely without credibility, the president would retain his office. He would do so until the next election had its say.
As students of this age, we must ask ourselves the following question: did Johnson’s offense fall under the rubric of bribery, high crimes, and misdemeanors—that trifold of ambiguity for which presidents and civil servants are to be impeached? Did he so egregiously infringe upon the Constitution that it warranted his premature removal from office? A scholar more perspicaciously-inclined toward the subtleties of the law might have for you an answer. Doubtless, it would be convincing, unequivocal, and clear. I, however, can offer one not. My conclusion, humbly held, is that it is, in most cases, the prerogative of the people to decide an elected official’s fate. Such was the case with Johnson, and so should it be.