Disharmony has provoked presidential crises before. There may be no more obvious case than the bitter feud between President Andrew Johnson and his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, that developed over Reconstruction policy — a clash so severe it ultimately led to Johnson’s impeachment in 1868. For as disagreeable as Stanton found it to serve under Johnson, he believed it was his duty to defend congressional Reconstruction and thwart the president’s obsession with restoring white supremacy and eroding black freedom.
By doing so in the open, however, Stanton left himself vulnerable to presidential retaliation. This forced Congress to intervene, distracting it from the crucial work of drafting a solid foundation for black freedom. The country faces the same problem today: constraining Trump may damage other crucial efforts needed to advance the country’s interests.
At first glance Johnson and Stanton appeared to have much in common. Before the war, both men were staunch Democrats who opposed secession; after the war, both men were committed to punishing the Confederacy and the men who led it. But before long a gulf emerged over the direction Reconstruction policy should take.
The president favored a quick and easy restoration of civil rule and white supremacy throughout the former Confederacy, while his Cabinet minister preferred sterner measures to suppress rebellious tendencies and ensure the founding of truly loyal regimes that, among other tasks, would look out for the welfare of the millions of African Americans emancipated during the conflict. Stanton expressed his support for black suffrage but did not press the point against an increasingly recalcitrant president.
Nevertheless, the breach between the two men widened during 1866. Johnson opposed civil rights legislation and the 14th Amendment, while Stanton endorsed both in Cabinet discussions where the president expected support for his positions. Johnson overlooked or excused violence against Southern blacks, while Stanton showed support for Southern loyalists regardless of color — although one can make too much of his lukewarm commitment to black equality. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles often taunted Stanton over his lack of support for presidential positions, claiming that compliance and support was the standard to be met by a loyal Cabinet member. Otherwise, Welles believed, Stanton should resign.
Stanton disagreed. When three members of Johnson’s Cabinet broke with the president and resigned over his efforts to enlist them in the National Union movement, an anti-Republican vehicle designed to mobilize support for Democratic candidates in the 1866 midterm elections, Stanton stayed on — and Johnson declined to dismiss him.
Friction between the two men increased as Congress undid much of Johnson’s approach to Reconstruction. Legislation provided for the reestablishment of civil governments under military supervision that would offer protection to African Americans as they participated in the process of constitution-making and state-building, voting for candidates and serving in conventions. Allied with General in Chief Ulysses S. Grant, Stanton favored the use of military force to preserve law and order in the states of the defeated Confederacy.
Given Stanton’s policy alignment with congressional Republicans, they aimed to protect him against capricious executive action by passing the Tenure of Office Act. That legislation provided that the president could only suspend, not fire, officeholders whose nominations had been confirmed by the Senate — like Stanton — until that body decided on the officeholder's removal.
Noting that the Tenure of Office Act gave the president the right to suspend an officeholder when the Senate was not in session, Johnson waited until that body had adjourned to request Stanton’s resignation on Aug. 1, 1867. When Stanton refused, Johnson suspended him and named Grant as his interim replacement, having warned the general that if he did not accept the offer, Johnson would name someone much more supportive of his views. The president was playing a clever game, hoping to discredit Grant in the eyes of Republicans who viewed him as a possible presidential candidate by claiming that the general supported the administration.
It did not take long for Johnson and Grant to divide over the president’s eagerness to replace the pro-Republican generals in charge of Reconstruction with officers far more sympathetic to Johnson’s conservative views. Meanwhile, Stanton bided his time, waiting for the Senate to reconvene in December. When it did, it refused to concur in Stanton’s suspension by a vote of 35-16.
By then Johnson had decided that he would no longer comply with the terms of the Tenure of Office Act, and sought to enlist Grant’s support in a scheme to block Stanton’s return to office, thus provoking a court test of the legislation. Grant refused. Instead, Stanton hastily reclaimed his office, much to Johnson’s chagrin. Grant’s break with Johnson became public knowledge, with each man accusing the other of lying in a heated public exchange of letters that served to reassure Republicans that Grant was now on their side.
A frustrated Johnson tried once more to remove Stanton outright in February 1868, this time naming Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas to take over the War Department. Thomas, who disliked Stanton, gloried in the opportunity, but Stanton immediately had him arrested for violating the law. News of Johnson’s action sparked the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to impeach the president on Feb. 24, 1868. Although the grounds for impeachment were far broader than a violation of the Tenure of Office Act, it was the president’s dogged pursuit of Stanton that ignited the final crisis.
Johnson survived impeachment by a single vote; Stanton then resigned his office. By that time, Grant had secured the Republican nomination for president. Yet it had been Stanton’s willingness to stand up to Johnson and thwart some of his more troubling proposals that had provoked the president to retaliate, drawing Congress into the work of containing and contesting executive actions. This focus, however, came at the expense of the content of Reconstruction policy, which as a result ended up poorly drafted or ill-conceived.
Combating presidential obstruction trumped the work of fashioning capable legislation, resulting in a shaky foundation for black freedom. This offers a lesson for today: Current preoccupations with controlling the behavior of the chief executive may be wise, but the business of the nation may suffer as people place more emphasis on damage control than on the damage that may ensue from neglecting the true ends of policy.