When Andrew Johnson illegally tried to fire War Secretary Edwin Stanton in 1868, the president’s congressional foes saw their chance to impeach him. But Stanton had to hold his post to keep the issue alive.
In 2021, it took two days for the House to impeach President Donald Trump for the second time for his role in inciting his supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The former president’s Senate trial is set to begin Feb. 9.
Trump will spend the trial at Mar-a-Lago, his luxurious private club in Florida. In 1868, to the chagrin of his wife, Stanton barricaded himself in his office and slept on a couch for more than two months until Johnson’s trial ended.
Stanton is mostly remembered as the man who said “Now he belongs to the ages” when Abraham Lincoln died after being shot at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Johnson, the Democratic vice president, succeeded Lincoln, a Republican. Stanton stayed on as war secretary.
The new president and Stanton clashed over post-Civil War policies. Stanton and the Radical Republican faction in Congress backed Lincoln’s reconstruction plan to advance the rights of Black people in the South. Johnson, a racist from Tennessee, pushed to ease sanctions on former Confederates.
Finally, on Feb. 21, 1868, Johnson fired Stanton and appointed an interim war secretary. That night, the 53-year-old Stanton slept on the sofa in his second-floor office a half-block from the White House. The next morning, several House Republicans joined him for breakfast.
That same day, House Republicans began moving to impeach Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act, which barred the dismissal of federal appointees without Congress’s approval.
Meanwhile, Stanton, who was a lawyer, had obtained a warrant for the arrest of his designated replacement, Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, for his role in violating the act. A U.S. marshal arrested the general at his home early on Feb. 22, while he was having breakfast and nursing a hangover.
Thomas got out on bail and went to the War Department shortly before noon to tell Stanton that he was taking over as interim war secretary. “Mr. Stanton replied that he could do no such thing,” the Washington Star reported. The two men were old rivals, and Stanton poured glasses of whiskey as they talked.
At some point, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who headed the Army, came in. Grant joked to Stanton: “I am surprised to find you here. I supposed you would be at my headquarters for protection.”
Stanton settled in. That evening he and an Army sergeant who stayed with him tried to boil an Irish stew in Stanton’s fireplace. The stew burned and “stank up the office.”
The next day, Ellen Stanton arrived by carriage. The couple quarreled over the secretary’s decision to remain in his office. His wife wanted him to resign and drove off in a huff. She refused to send over food and fresh linen from home.
Stanton vowed to stay put until Johnson’s Senate trial was over. His main complaint, friends said, was that “he wished the reporters would leave him alone.”
The clash made headlines across the country. “The telegraph wires are laden with ‘wars and rumor of wars’ between the contending powers for the occupancy of the dirty, dingy room devoted to the secretary’s use in the dirty, dingy building in Washington city,” one news service reported.
Republicans accused Johnson of trying to stage a coup. The New York Herald warned, “If violence is used in ejecting Mr. Stanton, 100,000 men are ready to come to Washington to put him back in.”
The House impeached Johnson on Feb. 24, and the Senate trial began March 2. Stanton dug in for a long wait.
He had barricades put up blocking “all the passages in the War Office. He has had heavy new shutters placed on the windows,” the New Orleans Times reported. “If the President should move against the stronghold, we advise him to employ a fire engine to wash its opponent out.”
Grant doubled the guards outside Stanton’s office door. The war secretary didn’t dare “to go out of earshot of his office,” the Boston Post reported. Some War Department officials said they would be duty bound to recognize Thomas as the new secretary if Stanton walked outside “even for a moment.”
Rep. John Logan (R-Ill.), a former general, moved in as a kind of personal security guard and slept on a cot. Logan organized members of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal group of Union veterans, to stand watch in the area. He offered to mobilize armed support, but Stanton said he didn’t want any bloodshed on his behalf. (Logan Circle in Washington is named after him.)
At first Johnson and Thomas vowed to remove Stanton by force, but their empty threats soon drew ridicule. Newspapers mocked Thomas as “Lorenzo the Magnificent.” The New York Herald reported sarcastically, “The President in a fit of rage had gone over personally and unceremoniously pitched [Stanton] out the window at the War office.”
Stanton continued to operate as war secretary except for going to Cabinet meetings. Interim secretary Thomas “submits to Stanton’s orders and is locked out, laughed at and treated with contempt,” complained Johnson’s Navy Secretary Gideon Welles.
Johnson gave up the idea of trying to root out Stanton, which could backfire at his impeachment trial. By April, Stanton was able to sneak home in an Army ambulance to sleep one night in his own bed. He and his wife made up, and another time they slipped away for a weekend in Baltimore.
On May 16, to the surprise of many, the Senate acquitted Johnson by one vote. The same day, Stanton “relinquished” his office, or as one newspaper put it: The war secretary “who could not be kicked out nor cuffed out, nor dragged out, nor reasoned out, nor shamed out of office, has accepted the impeachment notice to quit and has left.”
Stanton went home and resumed his private law practice. Later that year, Grant was elected president. In late 1869, Grant appointed Stanton to the U.S. Supreme Court, but he never served. Four days after being confirmed by the Senate, he died of an asthma attack on Dec. 24.
Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, wrote a letter of condolence to Stanton’s son, Edwin Stanton Jr.
“When I recall the kindness of your father to me,” he said, “when my father was lying dead, and I felt utterly desperate, hardly able to realize the truth, I am as little able to keep my eyes from filling with tears as he was then.”
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