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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
There was a temperamental coldness about this plain-featured, grave man that kept him from easy, intimate relations with even his political supporters. His massive head, dark, luxuriant hair, deep-set and piercing eyes, and cleft square chin seemed to Charles Dickens to indicate “courage, watchfulness, and certainly strength of purpose,” but his was a grim face, with “no genial sunlight in it.” The coldness and reserve that marked Johnson’s public associations doubtless stemmed from a deep-seated feeling of insecurity; this self-educated tailor whose wife had taught him how to write could never expose himself by letting down his guard and relaxing.
Johnson knew none of the arts of managing men, and he seemed unaware that face-saving is important for a politician. When he became President, Johnson was besieged by advisers of all political complexions. To each he listened gravely and non-committally, raising no questions and by his silence seeming to give consent. With Radical Senator Sumner, already intent upon giving the freedmen both homesteads and the ballot, he had repeated interviews during the first month of his presidency. “His manner has been excellent, & even sympathetic,” Sumner reported triumphantly. With Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, Sumner urged Johnson to support immediate Negro suffrage and found the President was “well-disposed, & sees the rights & necessities of the case.” In the middle of May, 1865, Sumner reassured a Republican caucus that the President was a true Radical; he had listened repeatedly to the Senator and had told him “there is no difference between us.” Before the end of the month the rug was pulled from under Sumner’s feet. Johnson issued his proclamation for the reconstruction of North Carolina, making no provisions for Negro suffrage. Sumner first learned about it through the newspapers.
While he was making up his mind, Johnson appeared silently receptive to all ideas; when he had made a decision, his mind was immovably closed, and he defended his course with all the obstinacy of a weak man. In December, alarmed by Johnson’s Reconstruction proclamations, Sumner again sought an interview with the President. “No longer sympathetic, or even kindly,” Sumner found, “he was harsh, petulant, and unreasonable.” The Senator was depressed by Johnson’s “prejudice, ignorance, and perversity” on the Negro suffrage issue. Far from listening amiably to Sumner’s argument that the South was still torn by violence and not yet ready tor readmission, Johnson attacked him with cheap analogies. “Are there no murders in Massachusetts?” the President asked.
“Unhappily yes,” Sumner replied, “sometimes.”
“Are there no assaults in Boston? Do not men there sometimes knock each other down, so that the police is obliged to interfere?”
“Would you consent that Massachusetts, on this account, should be excluded from Congress?” Johnson triumphantly queried. In the excitement of the argument, the President unconsciously used Sumner’s hat, which the Senator had placed on the floor beside his chair, as a spittoon!
Had Johnson been as resolute in action as he was in argument, he might conceivably have carried much of his party with him on his Reconstruction program. Promptness, publicity, and persuasion could have created a presidential following. Instead Johnson boggled. Though he talked boastfully of “kicking out” officers who failed to support his plan, he was slow to act. His own Cabinet, from the very beginning, contained members who disagreed with him, and his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, was openly in league with the Republican elements most hostile to the President. For more than two years he impotently hoped that Stanton would resign; then in 1867, after Congress had passed the Tenure of Office Act, he tried to oust the Secretary. This belated firmness, against the letter of the law, led directly to Johnson’s impeachment trial.
Instead of working with his party leaders and building up political support among Republicans, Johnson in 1866 undertook to organize his friends into a new party. In August a convention of white southerners, northern Democrats, moderate Republicans, and presidential appointees assembled in Philadelphia to endorse Johnson’s policy. Union General Darius Couch of Massachusetts marched arm in arm down the convention aisle with Governor James L. Orr of South Carolina, to symbolize the states reunited under Johnson’s rule. The convention produced fervid oratory, a dignified statement of principles—but not much else. Like most third-party reformist movements it lacked local support and grass-roots organization.
Johnson himself was unable to breathe life into his stillborn third party. Deciding to take his case to the people, he accepted an invitation to speak at a great Chicago memorial honoring Stephen A. Douglas. When his special train left Washington on August 28 for a “swing around the circle,” the President was accompanied by a few Cabinet members who shared his views and by the war heroes Grant and Farragut.
At first all went well. There were some calculated political snubs to the President, but he managed at Philadelphia, New York, and Albany to present his ideas soberly and cogently to the people. But Johnson’s friends were worried lest his tongue again get out of control. “In all frankness,” a senator wrote him, do not “allow the excitement of the moment to draw from you any extemporaneous speeches.”