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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
At St. Louis, when a Radical voice shouted that Johnson was a “Judas,” the President flamed up in rage. “There was a Judas and he was one of the twelve apostles,” he retorted. “… The twelve apostles had a Christ. … If I have played the Judas, who has been my Christ that I have played the Judas with? Was it Thad Stevens? Was it Wendell Phillips? Was it Charles Sumner?” Over mingled hisses and applause, he shouted, “These are the men that stop and compare themselves with the Saviour; and everybody that differs with them … is to be denounced as a Judas.”
Johnson had played into his enemies’ hands. His Radical foes denounced him as a “trickster,” a “culprit,” a man “touched with insanity, corrupted with lust, stimulated with drink.” More serious in consequence was the reaction of northern moderates, such as James Russell Lowell, who wrote, “What an anti-Johnson lecturer we have in Johnson! Sumner has been right about the cuss from the first….” The fall elections were an overwhelming repudiation of the President and his Reconstruction policy.
Johnson’s want of political sagacity strengthened the very elements in the Republican party which he most feared. In 1865 the Republicans had no clearly defined attitude toward Reconstruction. Moderates like Gideon Welles and Orville Browning wanted to see the southern states restored with a minimum of restrictions; Radicals like Sumner and Stevens demanded that the entire southern social system be revolutionized. Some Republicans were passionately concerned with the plight of the freedmen; others were more interested in maintaining the high tariff and land grant legislation enacted during the war. Many thought mostly of keeping themselves in office, and many genuinely believed, with Sumner, that “the Republican party, in its objects, is identical with country and with mankind.” These diverse elements came slowly to adopt the idea of harsh Reconstruction, but Johnson’s stubborn persistency in his policy left them no alternative. Every step the President took seemed to provide “a new encouragement to (1) the rebels at the South, (2) the Democrats at the North and (3) the discontented elements everywhere.” Not many Republicans would agree with Sumner that Johnson’s program was “a defiance to God and Truth,” but there was genuine concern that the victory won by the war was being frittered away.
The provisional governments established by the President in the South seemed to be dubiously loyal. They were reluctant to rescind their secession ordinances and to repudiate the Confederate debt, and they chose high-ranking ex-Confederates to represent them in Congress. Northerners were even more alarmed when these southern governments began to legislate upon the Negro’s civil rights. Some laws were necessary—in order to give former slaves the right to marry, to hold property, to sue and be sued, and the like—but the Johnson legislatures went far beyond these immediate needs. South Carolina, for example, enacted that no Negro could pursue the trade “of an artisan, mechanic, or shopkeeper, or any other trade or employment besides that of husbandry” without a special license. Alabama provided that “any stubborn or refractory servants” or “servants who loiter away their time” should be fined $50 and, if they could not pay, be hired out for six months’ labor. Mississippi ordered that every Negro under eighteen years of age who was an orphan or not supported by his parents must be apprenticed to some white person, preferably the former owner of the slave. Such southern laws indicated a determination to keep the Negro in a state of peonage.
It was impossible to expect a newly emancipated race to be content with such a limping freedom. The thousands of Negroes who had served in the Union armies and had helped conquer their former Confederate masters were not willing to abandon their newfound liberty. In rural areas southern whites kept these Negroes under control through the Ku Klux Klan. But in southern cities white hegemony was less secure, and racial friction erupted in mob violence. In May, 1866, a quarrel between a Memphis Negro and a white teamster led to a riot in which the city police and the poor whites raided the Negro quarters and burned and killed promiscuously. Far more serious was the disturbance in New Orleans two months later. The Republican party in Louisiana was split into pro-Johnson conservatives and Negro suffrage advocates. The latter group determined to hold a constitutional convention, of dubious legality, in New Orleans, in order to secure the ballot for the freedmen and the offices for themselves. Through imbecility in the War Department, the Federal troops occupying the city were left without orders, and the mayor of New Orleans, strongly opposed to Negro equality, had the responsibility for preserving order. There were acts of provocation on both sides, and finally, on July 30, a procession of Negroes marching toward the convention hall was attacked.
“A shot was fired … by a policeman, or some colored man in the procession,” General Philip Sheridan reported. “This led to other shots, and a rush after the procession. On arrival at the front of the Institute [where the convention met], there was some throwing of brick-bats by both sides. The police … were vigorously marched to the scene of disorder. The procession entered the Institute with the flag, about six or eight remaining outside. A row occurred between a policeman and one of these colored men, and a shot was again fired by one of the parties, which led to an indiscriminate firing on the building, through the windows, by the policemen.