The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A national debate over politics, principles and impeachment — in 1868

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John Fabian Witt is a professor at Yale Law School and head of Yale’s Davenport College.

Brenda Wineapple’s riveting new account of the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson contains no mention of President Trump. But Wineapple has written a stunningly well-timed book on a question ripped from the headlines. Should we think of impeaching a lawless and toxic president as a vital matter of national principle? Or as an affair of pragmatic politics?

Johnson was a “vain, vulgar, and vindictive” president. A Democrat from Tennessee, he became president upon Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at the end of the Civil War in 1865. He was poorly positioned to lead a country emerging into the age of emancipation. Johnson had owned eight or nine slaves before the war; he may have fathered several of them. He openly espoused white supremacy. Unlike most of his fellow statesmen in the South, however, he opposed secession. He called it treason and charged the South’s plantation-owning elite with abandoning the Constitution. Lincoln rewarded him with the post of military governor of Tennessee in 1862. Two years later, the Republican Party chose Johnson as Lincoln’s running mate in hopes of attracting Democratic votes in the crucial presidential race of 1864. Lincoln’s assassination made him an accidental president.

Republicans held out hope that as president Johnson would embrace the party’s policies. He had come around to support emancipation, though as Wineapple observes, he did so on the ground that ending slavery would “liberate the white man,” not because it would free African Americans. (Blacks, Johnson insisted, had benefited from captivity.) As 1865 proceeded, Johnson’s real sympathies became clear: He pardoned former rebels. He restored confiscated lands to rebel owners. Johnson recognized new Southern state governments led by former slaveholding whites. He defended draconian state laws limiting the freedom of former slaves.

In 1866, Johnson moved aggressively to block the Republican Party agenda. He vetoed an extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which Congress had established to administer abandoned lands and provide aid to African Americans in the South. He vetoed the Civil Rights Bill, too, which promised rights of contract and basic legal protections. Moderate Republicans had championed the bill as a conservative alternative to more radical measures like land redistribution and voting rights for black men. But Johnson’s zero-sum racial outlook led him to insist that simple equality guarantees actually “operated ‘in favor of the colored and against the white race.’ ”

Johnson’s ambition was to combine conservative Republicans and Democrats into a new governing coalition: a Union Party, which he hoped would allow him to win reelection in 1868. But his political instincts failed him. He was prone to self-damaging outbursts. His Union Party convention in the summer of 1866 brought together a rogues’ gallery of Confederates and fellow travelers. And when he took to the road to gather support in an unprecedented series of rallies, he found himself heckled by audiences and mocked by the press.

Critics began calling for impeachment of the politically wounded president. Radical Republican candidates for Congress campaigned on a pro-impeachment platform in 1866. Republicans swept both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, making impeachment a real prospect.

Impeaching a president from an opposing party, however, presented difficult questions of principle and politics. Wineapple doesn’t mention it, but Alexander Hamilton had predicted that impeachment debates would inevitably turn on “the comparative strength of the parties” rather than “real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.” Debates over impeaching Johnson, as Hamilton had predicted, quickly became debates over political power and its uses. Republican leaders feared that impeaching Johnson might make him a martyr among his supporters. Some worried that Johnson might resist removal from office by force. (Johnson helped to stoke the impression that a military coup might be near at hand.) Johnson’s critics observed, too, that he served as a useful rallying point for Republican candidates. “Johnson is as useful to us as the devil is to orthodox theology,” said New York editor Horace Greeley. Moderate and conservative Republicans resisted removing Johnson for another powerful reason: A widely distrusted radical Republican named Benjamin Wade served as president pro tempore of the Senate and thus stood next in the order of presidential succession. Impeaching Johnson meant promoting Wade, which many were loath to do.

Given the complex political dynamics, a subtler president would have been able to avoid impeachment. But Johnson was temperamentally incapable of walking away from a fight. He suspended the authority of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and clumsily sacked federal officials in the South whom Stanton had been protecting. In an ill-tempered annual message to Congress, Johnson accused Republican lawmakers of helping blacks “rule the white race” and “Africanize the half of our country.”

Johnson finally took a step too far when he tried to fire Stanton outright over Congress’s objection. Ulysses S. Grant, the popular hero of the Union war effort, publicly refused to step into Stanton’s role, citing his “honor as a soldier and integrity as a man.” Democrats disowned the president. Conservative Republicans felt betrayed by his refusal to sign on to their hard-earned compromise legislation. And radicals like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner rightly viewed him as an implacable enemy to 4 million freedpeople. By early 1868, Johnson had few allies remaining, leaving the House to impeach him, seemingly at little political cost.

Yet even under these circumstances, impeachment in the House did not produce conviction in the Senate. Debate over procedural minutiae and evidentiary rules bogged down the proceedings on the Senate floor. Delay and mind-numbing legalistic debate caused the public to lose focus. Constituencies like the African Methodist Episcopal Church urged the president’s conviction. But the Senate’s 35-to-19 vote fell one vote short of the two-thirds requirement written into the Constitution. Johnson served out his term a wounded president, reduced to little more than wielding his pardon power on behalf of Jefferson Davis and the remaining secession traitors.

Ultimately, Wineapple’s heroes are the impeachers like Stevens and Sumner, who believed that the “soul of the country” was at stake and that Johnson’s removal was a referendum on the bigger dream of creating meaningful freedom for Southern blacks. But this compulsively readable account actually seems to yield a very different lesson. Impeachment in 1868 was not a story of sacred truths triumphing over politics. To the contrary, impeachment was politics — power politics of an especially risky kind. The House voted to impeach Johnson only as a last resort, when the president showed he would be an impossible obstacle to achievement of a unified Congress’s objectives. Even then, impeachment was costly. The managers from the House who acted as prosecutors in the Senate lost control of the proceedings once they were subject to the crosscutting agendas of senators and an ambitious chief justice, who presided over the trial as required by the Constitution. Despite vanishingly little political support, Johnson gained an acquittal.

Republicans, by contrast, devolved into mutual recrimination and infighting. Acquittal represented a defeat for the radicals who had promoted impeachment and helped propel a shift in the Republican Party away from protecting freedpeople. No wonder the House shied away from impeaching a president for a century thereafter. When Congress finally dusted off its presidential impeachment authority in 1998, the process boosted President Bill Clinton’s popularity ratings to record highs.

So what to do under the very different circumstances of a president with the robust support of a major political party in control of the Senate? Wineapple’s timely story suggests, almost despite itself, that impeaching presidents and dreaming of justice are no substitutes for the work of doing justice and winning elections.

By Brenda Wineapple

Random House. 543 pp. $32