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Why They Impeached Andrew Johnson
One of the saddest tales in American history tells how a well-intentioned President lost a dazzling opportunity
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
Ignoring public opinion by pardoning the former Confederates, Johnson actually entrusted the formation of new governments in the South to them. The provisional governments established by the President proceeded, with a good deal of reluctance, to rescind their secession ordinances, to abolish slavery, and to repudiate the Cofederate debt. Then, with far more enthusiasm, they turned to electing governors, representatives, and senators. By December, 1865, the southern states had their delegations in Washington waiting for admission by Congress. Alexander H. Stephens, once vice president of the Confederacy, was chosen senator from Georgia; not one of the North Carolina delegation could take a loyalty oath; and all of South Carolina’s congressmen had “either held office under the Confederate States, or been in the army, or countenanced in some way the Rebellion.”
Johnson himself was appalled. “There seems in many of the elections something like defiance, which is all out of place at this time,” he protested. Yet on December 5 he strongly urged the Congress to seat these southern representatives “and thereby complete the work of reconstruction.” But the southern states were omitted from the roll call.
Such open defiance of northern opinion was dangerous under the best of circumstances, but in Johnson’s case it was little more than suicidal. The President seemed not to realize the weakness of his position. He was the representative of no major interest and had no genuine political following. He had been considered for the vice presidency in 1864 because, as a southerner and a former slaveholder, he could lend plausibility to the Republican pretension that the old parties were dead and that Lincoln was the nominee of a new, nonsectional National Union party.
A political accident, the new Vice President did little to endear himself to his countrymen. At Lincoln’s second inauguration Johnson appeared before the Senate in an obviously inebriated state and made a long, intemperate harangue about his plebeian origins and his hard-won success. President, Cabinet, and senators were humiliated by the shameful display, and Charles Sumner felt that “the Senate should call upon him to resign.” Historians now know that Andrew Johnson was not a heavy drinker. At the time of his inaugural display, he was just recovering from a severe attack of typhoid fever. Feeling ill just before he entered the Senate chamber, he asked for some liquor to steady his nerves, and either his weakened condition or abnormal sensitivity to alcohol betrayed him.
Lincoln reassured Republicans who were worried over the affair: “I have known Andy for many years; he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared. Andy ain’t a drunkard.” Never again was Andrew Johnson seen under the influence of alcohol, but his reformation came too late. His performance on March 4, 1865, seriously undermined his political usefulness and permitted his opponents to discredit him as a pothouse politician. Johnson was catapulted into the presidency by John Wilkes Booth’s bullet. From the outset his position was weak, but it was not necessarily untenable. The President’s chronic lack of discretion made it so. Where common sense dictated that a chief executive in so disadvantageous a position should act with great caution, Johnson proceeded to imitate Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson, his political idol. If Congress crossed his will, he did not hesitate to defy it. Was he not “the Tribune of the People”?
Sure of his rectitude, Johnson was indifferent to prudence. He never learned that the President of the United States cannot afford to be a quarreler. Apprenticed in the rough-and-tumble politics of Frontier Tennessee, where orators exchanged violent personalities, crude humor, and bitter denunciations, Johnson continued to make stump speeches from the White House. All too often he spoke extemporaneously, and he permitted hecklers in his audience to draw from him angry charges against his critics.
On Washington’s birthday in 1866, against the advice of his more sober advisers, the President made an impromptu address to justify his Reconstruction policy. “I fought traitors and treason in the South,” he told the crowd; “now when I turn around, and at the other end of the line find men—I care not by what name you call them—who will stand opposed to the restoration of the Union of these States, I am free to say to you that I am still in the field.”
During the “great applause” which followed, a nameless voice shouted, “Give us the names at the other end. … Who are they?”
“You ask me who they are,” Johnson retorted. “I say Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania is one; I say Mr. Sumner is another; and Wendell Phillips is another.” Increasing applause urged him to continue. “Are those who want to destroy our institutions … not satisfied with the blood that has been shed? … Does not the blood of Lincoln appease the vengeance and wrath of the opponents of this government?”
The President’s remarks were as untrue as they were impolitic. Not only was it manifestly false to assert that the leading Republican in the House and the most conspicuous Republican in the Senate were opposed to “the fundamental principles of this government” or that they had been responsible for Lincoln’s assassination; it was incredible political lolly to impute such actions to men with whom the President had to work daily. But Andrew Johnson never learned that the President of the United States must function as a party leader.