America's First Legal Coup
The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy
By David O. Stewart
Simon & Schuster. 447 pp. $27
In 1864, fearing defeat in the presidential election, Abraham Lincoln broadened his Republican ticket by placing on it Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat who fiercely supported the Union. Although hostile to blacks, Johnson intensely disliked the Southern planter class. The Lincoln-Johnson combination prevailed, and in the spring of 1865, a month after taking the vice presidential oath, Johnson became president when Lincoln was assassinated. An untried and marginal politician now led the nation at a crucial time.
Before his death Lincoln had fought with radical members of his own party over how the South should be treated after victory. They wanted to make Southerners feel the weight of defeat and to uplift the former slaves. Lincoln focused on reconciliation with Southern whites, although he also showed concern for the welfare of African Americans. When Johnson took over, his policies looked to parallel Lincoln's, and Johnson, too, soon ran afoul of the radical Republicans. The dispute proved more than nasty. By 1867 the executive and legislative branches were at such loggerheads that the Republican House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment. A trial took place in the Senate, and Johnson escaped losing his job by one vote.
David O. Stewart's "Impeached" is the fullest recounting we have of the high politics of that immediate post-Civil War period. As the author astutely tells us, the Constitution's impeachment clauses provide a complex legal remedy for enmity between Congress and the president. Impeachment, if it succeeds, gives the United States a non-violent way to remove the president when there is a sustained and widespread sentiment that he must go.
Impeachment, however, need not be about significant matters, as the case of Bill Clinton demonstrates, and overall Johnson's story is similar. The ostensible reason for the trial was Johnson's attempt to remove the secretary of war despite a Tenure of Office Act, and this affront, among others, was embodied in a catchall series of articles of impeachment. The real reason, as one participant put it, was Johnson's "general cussedness."
Stewart's graceful style and storytelling ability make for a good read. The author maintains interest by emphasizing the heavy drinking and hyperbolic oratory in an age of excess. He also includes striking examples of the era's political jokes, humor and invective. In photographs found throughout the book, the politicians exhibit their prominent noses, exotic facial hair and aptitude for striking a pose; these gents can strut while sitting down. More substantially, Stewart evokes the corruption of the late 19th century, including the heavy betting on whether Johnson would survive his trial and the influence of bribery on Congress.
But Stewart makes too much of the case, as if American history pivoted around it. The impeachment proceedings themselves were pettifogging and boring, and not even Stewart's skill as a writer and raconteur can breathe much life into them. As he notes, the evidence for bribery and who was behind it is murky and circumstantial. Thus, he can't make much of these long-dead scandals. More important, while bringing to life the quarrel between Johnson and the radicals, Stewart fails to show that anything fundamental was at stake. Stewart rightly notes that Lincoln was more sensitive to black rights in the South -- and a more astute leader -- than the clumsy and deeply racist Johnson. But Lincoln had struggled with the radicals before his death, and Stewart's presumption that the nation would have been spared a fracas about Reconstruction had Lincoln lived is unconvincing.
As it was, had Johnson been removed from office, Benjamin Wade from Ohio, president pro tem of the Senate, would have taken over the presidency from May 1868 until March 1869. Many believed that Johnson was saved because politicians considered Wade less capable. Johnson's successor, Gen. U. S. Grant, easily obtained the Republican nomination for president and then won election in the fall of 1868. Grant did not offer leadership of a high order, and he permitted the return of white Southerners to power in ways consistent with Johnson's ideas. In truth, for the next several decades all the major politicians after Lincoln who grasped at the presidency were on a par -- mediocre and ultimately uncommitted to African Americans.
It is a gauge of Stewart's troubles in carving out a new interpretation that he again and again contrasts his views with those of John F. Kennedy in his book "Profiles in Courage." The young president-to-be stuck his name on this ghost-written survey of American politics in 1955. The book is a very minor contribution to historical understanding, but it had a chapter on Johnson's impeachment which made a hero of Edmund Ross, one of the senators who voted against impeachment. Stewart may win this interpretive battle, but the victory is tiny.
Bruce Kuklick teaches American history at the University of Pennsylvania.