Magazine | June 03, 2019, Issue

Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment Lessons

The impeachment of Andrew Johnson (Theodore R. Davis)
The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple (Random House, 576 pp., $32)

Although Brenda Wineapple insists that she began her new book “six years ago — deep into the Obama presidency — when impeachment was far from anyone’s mind,” this is clearly not a book about Barack Obama, or even, for that matter, about Andrew Johnson.

But I will let her tell you that.

Impeachment is a constitutional process that serves as a restraint on “all civil Officers of the United States.” It actually makes four separate appearances in the text of the Constitution, three of them in Article I, concerning Congress, and the other at the tail end of Article II on the presidency. But those appearances are maddeningly brief. Even more maddening, the grounds for impeachment are designated as “Treason, Bribery,” which are pinpoint specific, and “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which are not, and which gave rise to James Madison’s misgivings at the Constitutional Convention about what “might be called a misdemeanor.”

Those misgivings explain why Congress reached for the impeachment weapon only four times in its first 81 years, and then only to impeach judges. But cries for impeachment, especially of presidents, continued to bubble up. Infuriated enemies of Andrew Jackson wanted Old Hickory impeached in 1831. Nineteen years later, Alexander H. Stephens (the future vice president of the Confederacy) was ready to move the impeachment of Zachary Taylor for the president’s plan to restrict slavery in the territory acquired in the Mexican War. James Buchanan suffered the indignity of having fellow Pennsylvanian John Covode introduce an impeachment resolution and convene an investigative committee. (Congress adjourned before the Covode committee could move matters forward, and the election of 1860 rendered the whole question moot.) It waited for the hapless Andrew Johnson for the machinery of impeaching and trying a president finally to come to life.

Johnson could have been a model of the self-made man, having risen from poverty to create a successful tailoring business and then moved into politics to become Tennessee’s governor and then a U.S. senator. His finest hour came in 1861, when he defied the secessionists of Tennessee and remained in his Senate seat, refusing (at least symbolically) to be dragged out of the Union. Lincoln rewarded him by designating Johnson as military governor of Tennessee when federal forces reoccupied the state, and, though Johnson was a Democrat and a small-time slaveholder, he promised the slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation that he would be their Moses to lead them to the promised land of freedom. In 1864, Lincoln’s Republicans attached Johnson to Lincoln’s presidential-reelection bid as his vice president, hoping to fashion a bipartisan Union ticket. No one dreamt that Johnson would become president himself until John Wilkes Booth’s fatal bullet accomplished just that.

Within weeks, the worst of Johnson began to show. He might have been brave, but he was also obstinate. He might have promised to be the freedmen’s Moses, but instead he became their Pharaoh, with a strong streak of anti-black racial animosity to make it worse. And though he loudly promised to punish treason, he broke with the Republican leadership in Congress by handing out pardons to all but the most notorious Confederate leaders and installing, in the defeated Confederate states, interim governments that promptly acted to reduce the freed slaves to little better than peons. When the 39th Congress assembled in December 1865, Republicans hurriedly passed a number of bills to reverse Johnson’s actions. To their astonishment, he vetoed them. Infuriated, they overturned his vetoes and passed new legislation to direct the reconstruction of the Confederacy. Congress even adopted a Tenure of Office Act to prevent Johnson from removing Republican officeholders. Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton anyway, and that became the principal ground, in February 1868, for impeaching him.  

The impeachment and trial of Andrew Johnson have been the subject of several outstanding scholarly and popular histories, most notably by Michael Les Benedict, Hans Trefousse, and David O. Stewart. Brenda Wineapple is a literary critic whose previous work has been largely defined by studies of Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, and Janet Flanner. Her one foray into a history of the Civil War years, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 18481877, was gingerly described by David Shribman in the Boston Globe as “not of the traditional order.” Indeed. And there are moments in The Impeachers when her unfamiliarity with the 19th-century political terrain shows: She gets the year of Johnson’s vice-presidential inauguration wrong, imagines that the three-fifths clause gave “the North a net gain” in representation, claims that “there was no constitutional reason for a military trial” of the Lincoln-murder conspirators, insists that Lincoln had treated Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee during the war as “conquered provinces,” and suggests that the name of the Ku Klux Klan “referred to the sound that a cocked rifle made.”  

What Wineapple lacks in grasp, though, is more than made up by passion. For Wineapple, the impeachment was an accusing finger pointed at America’s pervasive “racial prejudice,” and it contradicts “the national myth of a democratic country founded in liberty, with abundant space, opportunity, and resources available to all.” America was “a divided, culpable nation,” and the failure of the impeachment to convict Johnson shows just how far we have yet to travel on “the path toward a free country, a just country, a country and a people willing to learn from the past, not erase or repeat it.” That’s very entertaining, even riveting. The problem is that it’s not history; it’s middle-school melodrama.

And like melodrama, The Impeachers teems with breathless innuendo and cardboard stage-prompts (“What you saw was what you got” . . . “Johnson was definitely smashed” . . . “Sleaziness is hard to nail down”). The principal players appear as threadbare caricatures. Charles Sumner “seemed as free of mixed motives as anyone in government could be” (a judgment few of his contemporaries, starting with Lincoln, shared). New York governor Horatio Seymour was “a smooth-faced and soulless person” who “supported the murderous draft rioters” (Seymour was quite bewhiskered and issued two proclamations declaring the New York City draft rioters to be in a state of insurrection) Above all, though, Andrew Johnson was a “demagogue,” a political climber, without humor, and full of “scrappy populism.” Never mind that “populism” did not exist in the political lexicon until the 1890s — as soon as the word pops up, we know at once who the real subject of the book is, or at least whose impeachment will surely bring us to “the fair future of which men and women still dream.”

Andrew Johnson offers very little for any American to like, much less admire. The end of the Civil War ought to have been the golden moment when nearly 4 million slaves were brought into the circle of American citizenship and the Democratic oligarchs who ruled the plantation South were displaced in favor of free labor and free markets. Instead, Johnson allowed the defeated rebels the chance to catch a second wind, invent the myth of the Lost Cause, and make it nearly impossible to impose a decent Reconstruction on the former Confederacy. We can only wish that it had been Booth, rather than George Atzerodt (the Booth conspiracy’s designated assassin of Johnson), who lost his nerve on the night of Lincoln’s assassination.

But the Republicans who led the charge for Johnson’s impeachment did not show much greater political wisdom. The Reconstruction legislation they had passed in 1866 and 1867 had effectively bypassed Johnson, so impeaching him within nine months of a national election in which he was not a candidate was pointless. Moreover, they chose to make violating the Tenure of Office Act the principal charge, when in truth, the Tenure of Office Act was manifestly unconstitutional (and was eventually repealed). And if there is a lesson to be learned for today’s politics from the Johnson impeachment, it’s about how the impeachment ruined the reputations of nearly everyone involved in it, just as was the case 130 years later with the Clinton impeachment.

Wineapple believes that the Johnson impeachment “demonstrated that the American President was not a king.” But this is to treat impeachment as though it were a Punch and Judy show, when its constitutional purpose is as solemn as a funeral. When it has been used on presidents, the only clear lesson has been failure. Impeachment, wrote Raoul Berger, is a “clumsy instrument,” and Americans are not very forgiving of those, on both sides of the aisle, who try to wield it.

This article appears as “Impeachment Theater” in the June 3, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College. 

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