The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Kill the beast’: The impeachment trial that nearly took down a president 150 years ago

A Senate Historical Society drawing of the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, which began in April 1868. (U.S. Senate Historical Society/AP)

The president stood accused of racism and abuse of power, contempt for his enemies and a firing that subverted the rule of law. Four weeks into President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, his chief foe, the most ardent civil rights advocate in Congress, rose to speak. It was 150 years ago, but Thaddeus Stevens’s denunciation of Johnson still resonates today amid calls for President Trump’s impeachment.

At that climactic moment, the 76-year-old Stevens was deathly sick, with a weak liver and bad heart. Six feet tall, big-boned and thin, with piercing eyes and a severe brow framed by a brown wig, the Pennsylvania congressman still looked fearsome.

“When Andrew Johnson took upon himself the duties of his high office,” Stevens declared, “he swore to obey the Constitution and take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Instead, Stevens argued, Johnson had defied the laws and violated his oath by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. “I accuse him, in the name of the House of Representatives, of having perpetrated that foul offense against the laws and interests of his country.”

‘Temporarily insane’: A congressman, a sensational killing and a new legal defense

For three years, Johnson, a former slave-owner from Tennessee, had worked to restore racist ex-Rebels to power in the South. For all that time, Stevens, a radical humanitarian nicknamed the Great Commoner, had worked to stop him. Now, the House of Representatives had impeached Johnson for high crimes and misdemeanors, and Stevens was a House prosecutor at his Senate trial.

It was his last stand against his greatest enemy.

For Stevens, fighting Johnson was the peak of his life’s work: promoting civil rights for African Americans when few white politicians would. An early member of the anti-slavery Republican Party, Stevens opposed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, defended fugitive slaves in court and served as a watchman on the Underground Railroad.

Harriet Tubman made men pay for underestimating her

During the Civil War, he became the leader of the congressional Radical Republicans, who pressured President Abraham Lincoln to support abolition. Many contemporaries believed that Stevens lived with his black housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, as if husband and wife: The lifelong bachelor commissioned a portrait of Smith and included her in his socializing with friends.

Stevens “seemed to feel that every wrong inflicted upon the human race was a blow struck at himself,” one congressman said.

Yet he could be cruel to his foes.

“His wit and sarcasm were such that colleagues feared to tangle with him,” wrote his modern biographer, Hans Trefousse. “To Northerners he seemed the incarnation of radicalism and to Southerners the embodiment of aggression and vindictiveness.” (Tommy Lee Jones memorably portrayed Stevens’s righteous menace in the movie Lincoln.)

Stevens was destined to clash with Johnson, the white-supremacist Tennessean who became president in April 1865 after Lincoln’s assassination.

‘Assassins!’: A Confederate spy was accused of helping kill Abraham Lincoln. Then he vanished.

A Southern Democrat loyal to the Union, Johnson had become Lincoln’s 1864 running mate for ticket-balancing reasons. It was a fateful choice for the nation after Lincoln’s assassination.

A vengeful populist, Johnson despised Southern aristocrats and blacks alike. “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men,” the president wrote in an 1866 letter quoted in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

In mid-1865, Johnson pardoned most former Confederates, restored property confiscated from them, and approved the creation of new, all-white governments in Southern states. Legislatures filled with former Rebels enacted “Black Codes” that bound African Americans to low-wage labor. Southern whites began to murder black freedmen. Johnson refused to intervene.

The day 30,000 white supremacists in KKK robes marched in the nation’s capital

Stevens and congressional Republicans fought back by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866 over Johnson’s veto and writing the 14th Amendment, which gave ex-slaves citizenship and equal protection under law.

At rallies across the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states, Johnson insulted and threatened Stevens and the Radical Republicans. “Why not hang Thad Stevens?” the president shouted at rallies in Cleveland and St. Louis.

Stevens answered with cutting wit. Told that Johnson considered himself a self-made man, Stevens replied he was “glad to hear it, for it relieves God almighty of a heavy responsibility.”

In early 1867, Stevens masterminded bold new laws to curb the president’s powers. The Tenure of Office Act, for the first time in U.S. history, limited the president’s power to fire members of his administration. The Reconstruction Acts required the Southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment and give African Americans the vote before they’d be readmitted to the Union. Until then, the acts placed the South under martial law and gave Army generals the power to remove local officials.

But when Army generals began to fire Southern officials who were complicit in racist violence against black freedmen, Johnson responded by transferring the generals out of the South.

Stevens pushed the House to impeach Johnson, on broad charges of abuse of his office. But although Republicans had a huge majority in Congress, moderates argued that Johnson hadn’t committed a crime. They voted down an impeachment attempt in December 1867.

Then, in February 1868, Johnson fired Stanton, the secretary of war, who had supported the generals’ crackdown in the South. When the news hit the Capitol, Stevens roamed the House floor, leaning on another congressman’s arm for support.

“What good did your moderation do you?” Stevens asked his colleagues. “If you don’t kill the beast, it will kill you.”

The House voted overwhelmingly to impeach Johnson, then drew up 10 articles of impeachment, which mostly charged the president with violating the Tenure of Office Act by firing Stanton.

Stevens thought the articles were “trifling” and lacked “vigor.” He helped draft a new impeachment article, the only one that got to the real core of the dispute between the president and Congress. It charged that Johnson had fired Stanton for an improper purpose: to block enforcement of the Reconstruction Acts.

Johnson’s Senate trial stretched through April 1868. A year earlier, Stevens would surely have led the prosecution of Johnson. But he was sick and weak, his voice failing. Two porters carried him to his seat in the Senate chamber each day.

So the brash Rep. Benjamin Butler took the role of lead prosecutor. For weeks, as ButleFr and other House prosecutors pressed the case against Johnson, Stevens sat silent in his chair, eating raw eggs and drinking brandy and port to keep going.

Butler bogged down the trial by delving into legal arcana and badgering the president’s witnesses and lawyers. Johnson’s defense attorneys argued that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional and that its vague language might not apply to Stanton at all.

So when Stevens stepped up to the Senate clerk’s desk on April 27, 1868, to deliver his closing speech, he strove to refocus the trial on the big picture.

Echoing Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, Stevens argued that impeachable offenses — “high crimes and misdemeanors” — don’t have to be indictable crimes. They can also include a president’s “abusing his official trust” — misconduct in office.

Stevens struggled to finish the speech. After 10 minutes, he sat down. Then his voice weakened, and he handed the rest to Butler, who read Stevens’s climactic argument for him.

Johnson, argued Stevens, had tried to usurp Congress’s power to make law. He had declared Congress’s key Reconstruction Act unconstitutional “and advised the people not to submit to it nor to obey the commands of Congress.”

The “real purpose of all his misdemeanors,” Stevens argued, was to “convert a land of freedom into a land of slaves.” He denounced Johnson as a “wretched man” and an “offspring of assassination,” adding: “If he were not willing to execute the laws passed by the American Congress and unrepealed, let him resign the office which was thrown upon him by a horrible convulsion and retire to his village obscurity.”

It almost worked. At the trial’s end in May, Senate impeachment advocates counted votes and identified Stevens’s Article 11 as the most likely to result in a conviction. So on May 16, 1868, the Senate voted on Article 11 first. But two undecided senators who had intimated that they’d vote for the article backed down.

The vote was 35 for guilty, 19 for not guilty — one vote shy of the two-thirds necessary to remove Johnson from office. “The country is going to the devil!” Stevens declared on his way out of the Senate. On May 26, the Senate acquitted Johnson on two more articles, again 35-19. The impeachers gave up.

“Had he been granted six more months of health, Stevens probably would have won a Senate conviction and driven Johnson from the White House,” wrote David O. Stewart in his book “Impeached.” Instead, Johnson’s trial was the Great Commoner’s final political defeat.

Convinced that his life’s work had been a failure, Stevens died three months after Johnson’s trial.

He was buried in the only cemetery in his home town of Lancaster, Pa., that had no racial restrictions.

“I reside in this quiet and secluded spot,” his tombstone reads, “that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life: equality of man before his creator.”

Erick Trickey is a Boston-based freelance writer who teaches magazine journalism at Boston University.  Follow him @ErickTrickey

Read more Retropolis:

‘Unflinching’: The day John Brown was hanged for his raid on Harpers Ferry

The truth about Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee: He wasn’t very good at his job

‘My mother was sold from me’: After slavery, the desperate search for loved ones in ‘last seen ads’

When Portland banned blacks: Oregon’s shameful history as an ‘all-white’ state