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When Congress Tried To Rule
Was it, as Navy Secretary Welles believed, “a conspiracy to overthrow the government”?
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
The mood of the Reconstruction Congress has not gone unobserved on the part of twentieth-century commentators. Roscoe Pound and Charles H. McIIwain have detected in its attitudes similarities to those of the British Rump Parliament, which in 1649 sent Charles I to the scaffold and proclaimed the Commonwealth a “unitary state” with the supreme power vested in the Parliament “of this nation.” The British political scientist Harold J. Laski has found the actions of the post-bellum Senate “inexplicable except upon the assumption that it was determined to make the President no more than its creature.” An even more pointed observation comes from another British student of American government, D. W. Brogan. Noting that if Johnson had been removed, his successor under the Constitution would have been Ben Wade, the pro-Radical president pro tern of the Senate, Brogan poses the question. “Had the impeachment succeeded,” he writes, “had Congress tasted blood by putting one of its own … into the White House, who can say what would have happened to the presidential office?”
It is now pretty widely agreed that, as a matter of fact, Congress had no such chance. When the trial opened on March 30, 1868, many senators—and the people of the North in general—sincerely believed that Johnson merited removal on constitutional grounds. But in the course of almost two months of testimony-taking and a hundred hours of fervid argumentation, the pendulum swung in the other direction.
The fact that Johnson was acquitted by only one vote imparted breathless drama to the closing hours of the trial on May 26, but it cannot be taken as a measure of prevailing sentiment at the time. Three months later, in a letter to an intimate, Johnson was contending that the vote was “not so close as most people think.” The President revealed that “rather than to have seen Ben Wade succeed to the presidential chair,” Senator Edwin D. Morgan of New York, who voted “Guilty,” would have changed his vote if on the two final roll calls the President could have been saved from conviction by his doing so. Two other Republican senators, William Sprague of Rhode Island and Waitman Thomas Willey of West Virginia, bent to the party lash and also voted “Guilty,” but both let it be understood prior to the roll calls that they too would change their votes if their voices were needed.
Apparently all of the seven Republicans who broke with their party to save the day for the President were aware of the impact of their decision on the structure of government. Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, who cast the deciding vote, believed that to have convicted Johnson “upon insufficient proofs and from partisan considerations … would practically have revolutionized our splendid political fabric into a partisan congressional autocracy.” During the summer of 1868 Fessenden, perhaps the clearest thinker among those Republicans who had supported Johnson, was writing that to remove a President of the United States for merely political reasons “would be to shake the faith of the friends of constitutional liberty in the permanency of our free institutions.…” Within weeks after the conclusion of the trial, a decided reaction was noticeable on the part of the public—an inchoate but growing realization that in the acquittal of Johnson the country had escaped dangers far greater than any that its willful, even if right-minded, President could conceivably generate.
The American of today, living in an age quite different from that of 1868, can be excused for wondering whether the acquittal was a danger avoided, as the people of that time believed; or whether, on the contrary, it was an opportunity missed. Would the United States be better able to cope with its present problems if Johnson had been convicted and the central government shifted from a federal to a parliamentary base?
A considerable literature has addressed itself to this question. Many critics of a federalist government of separated powers, of checks and balances, point out that it is also a government of delays and deadlocks. Thoughtful men—Laski among them—have foreseen the day when these characteristics may prove fatal to the American government when it must meet and solve the swiftly arising crises of our own era. Another objection frequently voiced is that the federal system tends to block needed social reforms and in effect thwart the will of the people.
While such criticisms have been coming thicker and faster in recent years, there is nothing new about them. Doubts concerning the workability of the American form of government were in the air while the government itself was still an embryo. In the course of the federal convention during the summer of 1787 Roger Sherman of Connecticut advocated a constitution that would make the legislature “the depository of the supreme will of the society.” And at that same memorable meeting in Philadelphia Alexander Hamilton declared that “the British government was the best in the world: and that he doubted much whether any thing short of it would do in America.”