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130 Years Ago, Parallels Up to a Boiling Point


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  • Revisiting Rehnquist's Look at Johnson Impeachment (Washington Post, Sept. 18)

  • Coverage of the Committee Vote on Nixon (Washington Post, July 1974)

  • By Peter Carlson
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 13, 1998; Page A1

    The president was a Southern Democrat who'd risen from the class scorned as "white trash." His personal life inspired widespread snickering. The Republicans who controlled Congress detested him. They investigated every aspect of his life and then voted to impeach him. With his fate in the hands of a few moderates, he hired a claque of lawyers skilled in nitpicking and pettifoggery.

    The president was, of course, Andrew Johnson. The year was 1868.

    When news of Johnson's impeachment reached Philadelphia, Republicans celebrated by firing a 50-gun salute while Democrats threatened to send scores of armed men to defy Congress.

    In 1868, unlike 1998, Americans were not blase about impeachment. Passions ran high, at least at the beginning. The issue was not sex -- or even perjury. It was far more incendiary. On paper, the question was whether the president could fire the secretary of war without the consent of Congress. In reality, it was a battle over Reconstruction -- over the fate of former Confederates and former slaves.

    Wild rumors spread: Johnson would use the Army to stay in power. Confederates were marching toward Washington to help him. The Houston Telegraph reported that the War Department had been burned, the secretary wounded in battle. The Louisville Democrat asked readers: "Are you ready once more to take up the musket?"

    Many Americans were ready to fight. Iowa's governor, who supported impeachment, cabled his state's congressional delegation: "100,000 Iowans are ready to maintain the integrity of the Union." On the same day, a man from Terre Haute cabled Johnson: "Indiana will sustain you with 100,000 of her brave, stalwart and tried men."

    For a while, it seemed that America was on the verge of a second Civil War. But soon things settled into a spectacle more familiar to today's impeachment watchers -- one part drama, one part farce and many, many parts legal hairsplitting, windy speechifying and mind-numbing tedium.

    The Secretary of War War

    "I am in favor of the official death of Andrew Johnson," an Indiana congressman said during the House debate on impeachment. "I am not surprised that one who began his presidential career in drunkenness should end it in crime."

    Other congressmen were almost as nasty. One said the president was stained with "the filth of treason." Another called him a "despicable, besotted, traitorous man."

    The only American president ever impeached was a tailor by trade. He grew up dirt poor in Raleigh, N.C., and didn't learn to read until he married and his bride tutored him. He opened a tailor shop in Tennessee and drifted into politics. He had a gift for oratorical invective -- populist volleys directed at the Southern planter elite. He was elected state legislator, then congressman, then governor, then senator.

    In 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected president and Southern states began seceding from the Union, Sen. Johnson returned to Tennessee to campaign against secession. He wasn't opposed to slavery -- he owned a few slaves himself -- but he was loyal to the Union. When Tennessee joined the Confederacy, Johnson returned to Washington. On the way, he was nearly lynched by a rebel mob in Lynchburg, Va.

    The only Southern senator who stayed with the Union, he was a hero in the North -- "the greatest man of the age," said the New York Times. In 1864, Lincoln chose him as his vice presidential running mate. Feeling a tad sick on inauguration day in 1865, Johnson fortified himself with whiskey -- too much whiskey. Visibly soused, he delivered an incoherent speech, and forever after his enemies mocked him as a drunk.

    When Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson inherited the task of reuniting the nation. He was determined to bring the South back into the Union as quickly as possible. Under his rules, the rebel states merely had to end slavery and pledge loyalty and they could send representatives to Congress. In December 1865 -- only eight months after the war's end at Appomattox -- those representatives arrived. Chosen in whites-only elections, they included the Confederate vice president, six members of the Confederate Cabinet and four Confederate generals.

    Northern congressmen were incensed. Asked Sen. Ben Wade of Ohio: Did any nation in history ever welcome "traitors" into its Congress as equals? "Would a man who was not utterly insane advocate such a thing?"

    Congress refused to seat the Southern delegations. Johnson was outraged. It was the beginning of the long battle that led to impeachment.

    When the Republican-dominated Congress passed a bill giving full citizenship rights to blacks, Johnson vetoed it. When Congress passed a bill funding a Freedmen's Bureau to assist former slaves, Johnson vetoed it. When Congress passed a bill allowing blacks in the District of Columbia to vote, Johnson vetoed it.

    In the South, the all-white "Johnson governments" passed laws denying blacks the right to vote or buy property or own firearms. Angry Republicans asked: Are we losing in peace what we won in war?

    But Johnson wasn't interested in the problems of former slaves. He wanted only to reunite the country. He was for union in 1860, he said, and he was still for union in 1866. He broke with the Republicans and toured the country campaigning against them.

    His strategy backfired. Republicans won big in the election of 1866. Emboldened, they started investigating Johnson, spreading rumors that he had conspired with the men who killed Lincoln. Over his veto, they enacted a Reconstruction Bill that dissolved the "Johnson governments" and put the South under military rule.

    That law gave Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who ran the military, a great deal of power over Reconstruction. Stanton was allied with the Republicans. To keep him in office, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which barred the president from firing Cabinet secretaries without the consent of the Senate. Johnson asked for Stanton's resignation. Stanton refused. Johnson asked the Senate to fire him. The Senate refused. Johnson fired him anyway but Stanton refused to leave, barricading himself in his office.

    Johnson's treasury secretary warned the president that he could be impeached if he persisted in removing Stanton.

    "Impeach and be damned," Johnson replied.

    'The Show'

    Slowly, painfully, Thaddeus Stevens, the aged, sickly leader of the House Republicans, shuffled into the hushed Senate chamber on Feb. 25, 1868, followed by a group of congressmen.

    "We appear before you," Stevens said, "and in the name of the House of Representatives and all the people of the United States, do impeach Andrew Johnson, president of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors."

    Clubfooted, gaunt and grim-faced, Stevens, 76, was an avid abolitionist who had spent the war urging Lincoln to crush the Confederates mercilessly, even if "their whole country is to be laid waste." The rebels hated him so much they detoured on their way to Gettysburg just to burn down his Pennsylvania ironworks. After the war, he lived in sin with his black housekeeper and didn't much care who gossiped about it. He sponsored the impeachment bill, and after it passed, 126-47, the House named him to the committee that would prosecute the president in the Senate.

    The smart money was betting on conviction. Acquittal, the New York Times reported, "is looked upon as simply impossible, unless some new and startling development takes place."

    The president hired five crafty lawyers, including his attorney general, and paid them each $2,000 out of his own pocket. They opted to stall. On March 13, they asked for another 40 days to prepare their case.

    "Forty days!" roared Rep. Ben Butler, the former Union general who was serving with Stevens as a prosecutor. "As long as it took God to destroy the world by a flood!"

    Butler wanted to start the trial immediately. The Senate compromised, scheduling the case for March 30.

    When that day arrived, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presided over the Senate, which was stuffed with 150 extra chairs to accommodate House members. The president did not appear -- nor was he expected -- but the galleries were packed, mostly with well-dressed women who had connections to senators, who each got four gallery tickets, or to congressmen, who each got two.

    "Congressmen appear to be very good judges of female beauty," the Washington Star reported. "We looked and looked in vain for a dozen plain-looking women in the galleries."

    Butler delivered the prosecution's opening statement. He started slowly, droning on about this unique historical moment, but soon he was orating grandiloquently: "By murder most foul he succeeded to the presidency and is the elect of an assassin to that high office!"

    After a few hours, Butler's audience began to wilt but Butler kept going. He was still chugging along on April Fool's Day, when wags in the press gallery amused themselves by sending notes, purportedly from women in the galleries, to the congressmen on the floor, and then snickering as they read the congressmen's replies.

    When Butler finally finished his opening statement, he began calling witnesses who had observed the attempt to remove Stanton from office. The scene they described barely rose above farce: Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, the new appointee as secretary, went to Stanton's office and ordered him to leave. Stanton refused and ordered Thomas to leave. Thomas refused. Back and forth it went, each man ordering the other to leave, until finally Stanton poured two stiff shots of whiskey and the dueling secretaries sat down for a friendly chat.

    One witness, a Delaware buddy of Thomas, recalled his efforts to buck up the general during this historic confrontation: "Said I to him, 'General, the eyes of Delaware are upon you.' "

    The senators burst out laughing.

    Next, Butler summoned several newspaper reporters to testify about the president's speeches during the 1866 campaign. The reporters confirmed that the president had indeed said many nasty things about his Republican congressional enemies. To Butler, this was proof that Johnson was subverting the power of Congress. To most observers, it was proof of nothing more than politics as usual.

    Tedium was setting in. Many hours were spent in the reading of legal documents and senatorial speechifying. "Spectators found the proceedings rather uninteresting," the Star reported. Rep. James Garfield was equally bored: "This trial has developed, in the most remarkable manner, the insane love of speaking among public men," the congressman wrote in a letter. "We are wading knee deep in words, words, words . . . and are but little more than half across the turbid stream."

    Newspaper editorialists began complaining about the lack of public interest in the impeachment controversy. The Baltimore Gazette lamented that "the greatest act known to the Constitution -- the trial of a President of the United States" was inspiring "less interest in the public mind than the report of a prize fight."

    Johnson could have enlivened things by appearing at his trial but he never did. He also refused to make any public comment on impeachment. Privately, he contemptuously referred to the proceedings as "the show."

    Behind the scenes, the president was wooing moderate Republican senators by appointing officials whom they supported and by sending signals that he would stop obstructing Reconstruction. "The president," the Chicago Tribune reported, "has been on his good behavior."

    Finally, at the end of April, both sides began to sum up their cases. The ailing Thaddeus Stevens, who spent most of the trial huddled under a blanket, rose on wobbly legs to make his final statement. The case was about Reconstruction, he said, about how the president had usurped congressional power and helped to create new Confederate governments in the South. Stevens denounced Johnson as a "wretched man" and a "pettifogging political trickster," but then his strength gave out and he had to sit down and let Butler read the rest of his speech.

    The next day, while another prosecutor was delivering a long summation, British novelist Anthony Trollope fell asleep in the gallery, much to the amusement of the press corps.

    Then the defense began its summations, and the president's lawyers more than earned their $2,000 fees. They quibbled about the definition of "high crimes and misdemeanors" and concluded that the president's actions did not rise to that level. They said the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional. They said that violating that act couldn't be an impeachable offense because the act hadn't been passed when the Constitution was adopted. Finally, in a delightful demonstration of the art of legal hairsplitting, they claimed that Johnson could not be convicted of removing Stanton from office but only of attempting to remove Stanton from office. After all, Stanton had never left his office -- he was still barricaded in his suite at the War Department.

    As the speakers droned on, the Washington Star tracked the daily fluctuations in the betting action. On May 2, the odds were 3 to 1 for conviction. On May 5, the odds were 2 to 1 for acquittal. The next day, the paper reported: "Today impeachment stock is as unaccountably up as it was unaccountably down yesterday. The bulls have it."

    On May 6, as prosecutor John Bingham prepared to deliver the final summation of the trial, a false rumor swept the galleries that Sen. James Grimes had died. Grimes was a Johnson backer, and Republicans in the galleries began to sing gleefully: "Old Grimes is dead, that bad old man."

    Justice Chase gaveled for order and then Bingham began his speech. It was a full-blown barn-burner. "We stand this day pleading for the violated majesty of the law, by the graves of half a million martyred hero-patriots who made death beautiful by the sacrifice of themselves for their country."

    After much florid rhetoric, he spoke the last words of the trial: "Before man and God, he is guilty!"

    Now it was time to decide the question -- except the senators insisted on discussing the matter in secret sessions for a few days.

    Finally, on May 16, 1868, they were ready to vote.

    Close Call

    The galleries and the Senate floor were packed but the room was absolutely silent as Chief Justice Chase called the roll. Conviction required a two-thirds majority, which meant 36 of the 54 senators, and everyone knew that the vote would be close.

    "Mr. Senator Anthony, how say you?" Chase asked.

    "Guilty," said Henry Anthony, a Rhode Island Republican.

    "Mr. Senator Bayard, how say you?"

    "Not guilty," said James Bayard, a Delaware Democrat.

    Those votes were no surprise. Anthony and Bayard, like most of the senators, had already announced their opinions. There were 35 certain votes for conviction and three undecided. The first of the undecided was William Pitt Fessenden, a Republican from Maine.

    "Mr. Senator Fessenden, how say you?" Chase asked.

    "Not guilty."

    Across the country, crowds packed newspaper offices to get news of each vote as it came over the telegraph. In the White House, Johnson also learned of each vote by a separate telegram.

    The next undecided voter was Sen. Joseph Fowler. He was from Tennessee, Johnson's home state, but he was a Republican who'd frequently voted against the president.

    "Mr. Senator Fowler, how say you?"

    Fowler mumbled something that sounded like "guilty."

    "Did the court hear his answer?" a senator called out.

    Chase asked the question again.

    "Not guilty," Fowler shouted.

    Now it all came down to Edmund G. Ross. A Kansas Republican, Ross was new in office, having replaced a senator who had committed suicide in 1866. Ross disliked Johnson and voted against his Reconstruction policies. He'd been seen as a certain vote for conviction until he sided with Johnson supporters on some procedural motions. Since then, he'd been bombarded by mail demanding that he vote to convict. But he worried that conviction would damage the presidency forever. During the vote, he sat at his desk, nervously ripping papers into strips. When his name was called, he stood up and the strips fell to the floor.

    "Mr. Senator Ross, how say you?"

    "Not guilty."

    It was over. The president was saved by a single vote. His lawyers sprinted to the White House to bring him the news. Johnson wept with joy. He called for whiskey, poured shots for his lawyers, and they celebrated with a silent toast.

    Back in the Capitol, the senators elbowed their way through a rowdy crowd. "Fessenden, you villainous traitor!" somebody yelled. Fessenden said nothing and kept moving.

    Too ill to walk, Thaddeus Stevens was carried from the chamber in a chair. Seething with rage, he glared down at the crowd. Someone asked him what had happened.

    "The country," he screamed, "is going to the Devil!"


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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