Lessons from the impeachment of Andrew Johnson By Eric Foner

James Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sat Dec 19 07:00:09 PST 1998

Lessons from the impeachment of Andrew Johnson

By Eric Foner, 12/19/98

Once before in American history, during the turbulent era of

Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, a president was impeached

by the House and tried before the Senate - Andrew Johnson.

Unlike now, Johnson's impeachment arose from differences with Congress

over the most fundamental questions of public policy: How should the

country be reunited? Who was entitled to the rights of American

citizens? What should be the status of the emancipated slaves?

Johnson's Reconstruction policy is often described as one of

''leniency'' toward the South. It was lenient enough to white

Southerners, to whom Johnson quickly restored control over local


But to the 4 million freed slaves, Johnson's lily-white plan of

Reconstruction was extremely punitive. Johnson, a Democrat who had

been elected Abraham Lincoln's second-term vice president on the

National Union ticket, ordered black families evicted from land on

which they had been settled by the US Army, and through the notorious

Black Codes, the Southern governments he created attempted to reduce

blacks back to the condition of dependent plantation laborers.

Between 1865 and 1867 Northern Republicans slowly became convinced

that Reconstruction must recognize blacks as citizens with equality

before the law and, for men, the right to vote.

Johnson, a thoroughgoing racist, opposed these policies. The 1866

congressional elections, a sweeping victory for the Republicans,

demonstrated that unlike Clinton, Johnson had little popular support.

Yet Johnson attempted to use the patronage and his command of the Army

to obstruct congressional policies.

The catalyst for Johnson's impeachment was his flouting of the Tenure

of Office Act, which forbade the dismissal of certain federal

officials without Senate approval. Claiming the law was

unconstitutional, Johnson removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. That

action became the basis of the articles of impeachment.

In the end, even though Republicans commanded well above a two-thirds

majority in the Senate, seven moderates voted to acquit, fearing

damage to the separation of powers were Johnson removed and assured by

Johnson's attorneys that he would stop obstructing congressional

policy. The final vote was 35 to 19, one short of the two-thirds

needed for conviction.

Today, few historians have a good word to say for Andrew Johnson. His

political crimes were legion, but most consider his impeachment to

have been a mistake. Both prosecution and defense accepted the premise

that impeachment requires an unequivocal and serious violation of the

law; incompetence, disregard of the popular will, or even strenuous

efforts to deny millions of black Americans their basic rights were

not enough. If these did not justify Johnson's impeachment, surely

Clinton's private behavior and efforts to conceal it do not meet the

constitutional standard of ''high crimes and misdemeanors.''

No one ever voted for Andrew Johnson for president of the United

States. Bill Clinton was twice elected by the American people. For a

partisan majority in Congress to remove him from office in the absence

of persuasive evidence that his actions have damaged the body politic

would do far more harm to American democracy than Clinton's sordid


Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University.

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 12/19/98.

© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.

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