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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
When in the spring of 1868 the Senate of the United States declared Andrew Johnson “not guilty” of the high crimes and misdemeanors charged against him by the House, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens predicted that never again would a serious effort be made to impeach an American President. What the sharp-spoken warrior from Pennsylvania was saying, of course, was that the failure to remove Johnson had set a precedent that future generations would hesitate to challenge.
At seventy-six Stevens, emaciated and sick, presenting to the world the appearance ol a white old rock drying in the sun, was almost at the end of his earthly course. His comment on the outcome of Johnson’s trial, of which he himself was the chief architect, was the last remark of more than passing interest he would ever make. It was also one of his most tantalizing, for it fastened attention on a question that still hovers over the only attempt to date to drum a Chief Executive out of office.
The question is why—why did the leaders of the Republican majority in Congress go to the enormous bother of trying to depose a President who had long since, and irretrievably, lost all ability to interfere in any substantial way with their legislative programs?
On the surface, the purpose of Johnson’s enemies was to call a halt to his persistent opposition to their plans for reconstructing the eleven formerly Confederate states, all of which, except Tennessee, were still out of the Union at the time of the impeachment trial. For many of the lesser lights among the so-called Radicals of the congressional majority this was, no doubt, the only motive. But to say that it was the only —or even the main and operative—motive in the minds of Thad Stevens and the other effective leaders of the impeachment movement is to suggest that these brainy and experienced politicians were incapable of grasping realities that were right under their noses.
The members of the congressional majority did not have to remove the President in order to have their way about Reconstruction. They had had their way ever since the 1866 elections, which had given them in both houses of Congress enough strength to override any vetoes Johnson chose to hand down. They had scuttled his Reconstruction program and substituted their own. One wav or another thev had made it difficult for him to exercise many of his constitutional powers, hamstringing him to the point where even if they failed to impeach him, he would still be unable to wrest control of the South from their hands.
There was the further fact that Johnson’s term of office was almost over, and there was no reason to believe that he could be elected to another, even if some of the leaders of his own Democratic party were quixotic enough, in 1868, to suggest the nomination o! a man so discredited in the eyes of the voters. His presence in the White House was annoying, and sheer hatred of the man was playing a role in the How of events. The Republican leaders had only to bide their time in patience for a lew months and Andrew Johnson would be out of their way.
But they didn’t wait, and for this they had compelling reasons—largely unspoken, to be sure, and perhaps not even fully articulated in their own minds. Other men outside their circle and unfriendly to them guessed what they were up to. One was Gideon Welles, Johnson’s Secretary of the Navy and Lincoln’s before him. Behind Welles’ benign eyes and his ecclesiastical face in its whiskery nest lay a trenchant and suspicious mind, a mind sometimes wrong in its judgments but sometimes devastatingly accurate. “It is evident,” he was writing in his famous diary on the eve of the trial, “that the Radicals in Congress are in a conspiracy to overthrow not only the President but the government.”
“Deacon” Welles, as he was now and then called, was right. The determined men behind the impeachment had bigger fish to fry than the Reconstruction of the South. They were looking beyond immediate issues to the reconstruction of the American form of government.
A few of them overrated Johnson, assuming that he still possessed the capacity to impede their Reconstruction plans. But it is difficult to believe that Stevens and his more knowing associates entertained any such misapprehensions. Far from seeing a danger in Johnson’s strength, these men saw an opportunity in his weakness. Here was a President cut off from organized political support and violently opposed by at least sixty per cent of the press, an Executive who probably could be removed. The proximity of the end of his term, instead of being a deterrent, was a spur, since it might be a long while before another President so defenseless and vulnerable came along. Of this fact Stevens, facing death, was poignantly aware.
The anvil was hot; the time to strike was now. If this Congress could oust a President because he disagreed with them, what was to prevent future Congresses from ousting other Presidents for the same reason? The result was bound to be a gradual erosion of the federal system and its replacement by something akin to the parliamentary system of Great Britain, a system in which Congress would rule supreme—with the executive and, in time, the judiciary as satellites.