- Historic Sites
William Jefferson Clinton, Andrew Johnson, and the judgment of history
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
When the 105th Congress took a pre-election recess last October, the House of Representatives had already made itself a place in the record books by resolving, for the second time in a quarter of a century and only the third in the nation’s experience, to hold hearings on the possible impeachment and trial of a President.
I was reluctant to add to the millions of words already saturating the media. By now any reasonably conscious American should know plenty, even about such unintimate matters as the Constitution’s definition of impeachable crimes and the 1868 case of Andrew Johnson. Can any further and nonredundant historical framework be supplied?
I make the answer a tentative yes if we think in terms of aftermath. Let us start with a statement and a question. The statement is this: There are those who argue that Clinton’s own behavior brought on the crisis and raises constitutional issues worthy of examination; and there are those who see him as essentially the victim of a vendetta by partisan opponents. The question is: Which view is likely to be the judgment of history? On that the Johnson story is potentially instructive.
To get the core facts into as brief a compass as possible, Johnson was an accidental President in more ways than one. He was a rarity, a Southern Democrat—a senator from Tennessee in 1861—who opposed secession and refused to follow his state out of the Union. In 1864, in order to woo Northern and Western Democrats, the Republicans put him on the ticket as Lincoln’s running mate. But Johnson remained basically a Democrat, and Booth’s bullet put him in the White House in April 1865, confronting a Republican Congress—which, however, was not slated to meet until December.
In the interim Johnson took charge of Reconstruction. He followed a proposed Lincoln plan of allowing a state to re-enter the Union, provided that 10 percent of its 1860 voters sign an oath of loyalty; that it ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery; and that it repudiate its ordinance of secession and debts incurred under the Confederacy. By year’s end all the seceded states had done so. Not surprisingly, their voters then elected governors and congressmen who had been Confederate heroes and state lawmakers who enacted black codes, which regulated the behavior and opportunities of the emancipated blacks so stringently that while not precisely returned to slavery, they were left disenfranchised and far from free.
It was not surprising either that these developments did not sit well with a Northern public that had just lost more than 350,000 of its sons in a war against what was perceived as a Southern oligarchy bent on demeaning and destroying free labor and all the educational and industrial progress that went with it. Nor did they please a Congress unwilling to be shut out of the Reconstruction process. When that body reconvened, its Republican majority was fairly well united behind the idea of giving the freedmen more protection and some basic civil rights through a number of measures, including the Fourteenth Amendment. Some Radical Republicans, such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, hoped to go even further and reorganize Southern society by redistributing power downward to a new class of united blacks and whites whose votes would create a Republican South.
Rather than cultivate more moderate Republicans and soothe war-inflamed feelings, Johnson met the enemy head-on. Born in poverty, self-educated, hot-tempered, and used to backwoods stump oratory, he toured the country during the 1866 congressional election campaign, encouraging the South to reject the Fourteenth Amendment and denouncing Stevens and Sumner by name as traitors and comparing them to Judas Iscariot. A huge backlash swept vetoproof Republican majorities into office in the House and Senate, and in both chambers leadership fell to the Radicals.
The new Congress met in March of 1867 and tied Johnson hand and foot. It tore up his Reconstruction plan and imposed a far more exacting one on Sumner-and-Stevens-like terms. Until the South accepted it, the region would be under military control. But the President was Commander in chief, so in order to deprive Johnson of any voice in the occupation, Congress decreed that it would give orders directly to Army commanders through the Secretary of War, who happened to be Edwin M. Stanton, a Lincoln-cabinet holdover who thoroughly agreed with the Radicals. To prevent Johnson from replacing Stanton, the Tenure of Office Act was passed, requiring Senate approval to discharge presidential appointees it had previously confirmed. Johnson fired Stanton anyway, claiming that Congress was unconstitutionally violating the separation of powers, a position upheld by the Supreme Court in a case decided many years later. But Stanton’s removal in February of 1868 gave Radicals in the House the chance to impeach an already helpless Johnson, who, by the time of the Senate trial, would have less than a year left in office. His violation of the Tenure of Office Act became the key “high crime and misdemeanor” in eleven charges, including contempt of Congress. The trial lasted from March through May and ended with a 35–19 vote for conviction, one short of the two-thirds necessary, thanks to seven moderate Republicans who broke ranks and voted in Johnson’s favor.