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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