1868: The President On Trial

I’m now ready to write this much-delayed blog post which will conclude August’s series on the Reconstruction Era. Rest assured, I plan to revisit the era in 2018 and address more details. This week’s delay (sorry!) was caused because I was determined to finish the book I was reading about Johnson’s impeachment trial; I wanted to make sure I was sharing accurate information and discovered that I no longer agreed with the source I had intended to reference for facts.

Today’s post is an overview. If you want a more in-depth study, I’d recommend David O. Stewart’s book Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson And The Fight For Lincoln’s Legacy. That was the book I couldn’t stop reading once I got it the study.

President Andrew Johnson

Johnson vs. Congress

Andrew Johnson became president when Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865. With views aligning more with the Southern Democrats on interpretation of the Constitution, Johnson pursued a lenient course with the Southern states, allowing them to establish state governments filled with Confederate politicians who had no problem enacting black code laws to keep the newly freedmen in terror and bondage.

Congress – with a Republican majority – didn’t want to see four bloody years of war without a result. They insisted that civil rights needed protection and the Southern states needed more military or Federal government oversight to ensure that the rights of freedmen were established and respected.

Basically, Johnson and Congress were at ideological odds, and the president wasn’t keen on the idea of working with Congress. Instead, he managed to irritate the legislature by routinely vetoing their reconstruction bills and using presidential powers to try to get what he wanted. Congress responded by routinely overriding the executive vetoes and going ahead with their agenda…while trying to curb the president’s policies.

(More complete details in our previous blog post.)

Edwin Stanton

Tenure of Office Act

In the midst of this power struggle, Congress passed a bill known as the Tenure of Office Act (1867). Simply put, it stated that the president could not dismiss a member of his cabinet without the approval of Congress.

Meet Edwin Stanton.

Stanton served as Secretary of War during the Lincoln administration and Johnson asked him to keep his post. However, by 1867, Stanton was in the Radical Republican camp and not complying with Johnson’s reconstruction ideas. Johnson decided to get rid of him and started fishing around for a replacement – including Generals Grant and Sherman, who didn’t want to get involved.

Eventually, without consulting his more loyal cabinet members or his supporters in Congress, Johnson wrote dismissal and replacement orders. Lorenzo Thomas – U.S. adjutant general and a man who’d been kept on “busy work” tasks during the Civil War – was sent to the war office at the end of February 1868 to deliver the president’s message and order Stanton out of the office and cabinet position.

Stanton refused to leave. A literal office siege and farce began. And Congress was furious. The president had broken their law.

The Impeachment Committee

Impeachment Charges

The House of Representatives’ Impeachment Committee had drawn up impeachment charges on Johnson on two prior occasions but failed to have substantial charges and evidence. However, with the violation of the Tenure of Office Act, they had their ammunition. Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republican leaders were ready. They took their resolution to the Senate and said the official charges would follow.

Then they scrambled. Trying to figure which charges to use, how to word them, etc. etc. Eventually, they came up with eleven charges; the strongest revolved around aspects of the Tenure Act. But…was that act constitutional and did it qualify as a “high crime and misdemeanor”?

Congress went ahead with impeachment procedures. The trial was set to begin on March 30, 1868.

The Trial

The Senate sat as jury. The House managed prosecution. And the president had his lawyers. Supreme Court Justice Salmon P. Chase was the judge.

Long-winded accusations, defenses, and closing remarks tired Congress, the spectators, and the president who waited in the White House. Many speeches were three hours long. One piece of oratory took ten hours (over three days)! From March 30 until May 26, the impeachment trial continued. Across the country, newspapers reported and speculated on the happens and outcome. Adventurers placed bets with the odds and sides changing weekly.

When all the speeches were over, the Senate had to vote. Political parties, political leaders, schemers, and the president tallied possible votes and tried to guess or estimate how Senators would vote – for acquittal or for removal. Large amounts of money moved through dishonest hands, but the actual details any bribes or deals remain carefully buried with the participants (or in undisclosed documents).

In the end, seven important Republican Senators decided to join the Democrats and vote for acquittal. President Johnson was not convicted and would not leave office. The impeachment trial was over.

The Aftermath

A persistent historical story/myth circulates that the seven senators saved the Constitution and without their principle everything would’ve been lost…and that they suffered for the rest of their lives for their choice. Well, they didn’t really suffer in their later lives – in fact, some placed heavy patronage demands on Johnson for high-paying offices for friends and constituents. (Johnson complied…)

Defeated, the Radical Republicans tried drafting new impeachment charges, but those plans fell through.

Benjamin Butler – the leader of the prosecution – began a search for bribery but oddly didn’t investigate too far. Possibly because he’d tried some bribery of his own during the trial.

Johnson finished his term as president, succeed by Ulysses S. Grant. Congress continued to manage the Reconstruction, trying to institute civil rights and curb violence, but often too far from the local scenes and crimes to fully understand the difficulties and look for solutions. On the timeline, the Reconstruction Era in 1877 ended as Grant left office after and and Rutherford B. Hayes took the presidential oath.

However, it is possibly to argue that Reconstruction didn’t end there. Perhaps it never fully ended and we are still challenged by the Civil War, the Reconstruction, and a continuing battle for respect and civil rights. Since the saga of Johnson, Congress, and the Impeachment is just one moment in the Reconstruction Era and debates over American government powers; rest assured, we’ll return to this time period and explore other facets in the coming years.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

4 thoughts on “1868: The President On Trial

  1. Pingback: What In The World Happened In 1867? | Gazette665

  2. Pingback: 1864: “I Run Off From Him” | Gazette665

  3. Pingback: Eliza Johnson: First Lady In Tumultuous Times

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