Introduction: Brenda Wineapple draws the political map around one of the most important and least talked about events in American history, the first ever impeachment of a president. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Radical Republicans struggle with Democrats over the rights of the freed slaves and a just nation while a demagogue president usurps congress in favor of an antebellum South. Six years in the making, this book is the culmination of Ms. Wineapple’s brilliantly crafted narrative and research.
“Andrew Johnson was the queerest man who ever occupied the White House,” one of his colleagues remembered. As Lincoln’s Vice President, thrust into the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson earned the hatred and opprobrium of most Republicans, particularly those members of Lincoln’s party in Congress who initially hoped that he had become one of them. Although he had been a Democrat, he’d been Lincoln’s running mate, after all. But just six weeks after the assassination, Johnson swerved away from what many considered to be Lincoln’s program for reconstruction and the fruits of a hard-fought, unthinkably brutal war.
Still, impeachment? That was new territory even for a reviled President, and certainly other chief executives had been reviled: Franklin Pierce, old John Quincy Adams, and on occasion Lincoln himself. Yet never before had Congress and the country been willing to grapple directly with impeachment, as defined in the Constitution. Then again, never before had the country been at war with itself, with more than 750,000 men dead, at the very least, during its Civil War, and countless men and women, black and white, still dying, and murdered, in Memphis, in New Orleans, in other cities and in the countryside, in Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Alabama.
So in 1868 Congress and the public would have to consider the definition of a high crime and the meaning of a misdemeanor. It was bewildering. “The multitude of strangers were waiting for impeachment,” Twain observed. “They did not know what impeachment was, exactly, but they had a general idea that it would come in the form of an avalanche, or a thunder clap, or that maybe the roof would fall in.”
For no one knew what the first-ever impeachment of the President of the United States would look like or what sufficient grounds, legal or otherwise, were necessary. No one knew partly because the U.S. Constitution provides few guidelines about impeachment beyond stipulating, in Article II, Section 4, that a federal officer can be impeached for treason, bribery, or a high crime or misdemeanor. The House of Representatives shall have the sole power of impeachment, the Constitution says, and a simple majority of members can vote to impeach. The Senate shall then have the sole power to try all impeachments, and if there is a trial of the U.S. President, the chief justice of the Supreme Court shall preside over it. No person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of the members of the Senate present. A conviction requires the person be removed from office. As for further punishment, the convicted person may or may not be prosecuted by law. That’s pretty much it.
And if the President— the President of the United States— was to be impeached for treason, bribery, or a high crime or misdemeanor, then the country had to define “high crime.” Originally, the crime warranting impeachment was “maladministration,” but James Madison had objected; the term was hazy. Yet “high crimes and misdemeanors” is fuzzy too. In Federalist 65, Alexander Hamilton clarified— sort of: a high crime is an abuse of executive authority, proceeding from “an abuse or violation of some public trust.” Impeachment is a “national inquest into the conduct of public men.” Fuzzy again: are impeachments to proceed because of violations of law— or infractions against that murky thing called public trust?
But surely if the only crimes that were impeachable were “high,” then the Founders must have meant “high misdemeanors” as well. For a misdemeanor is a legal offense, ranked below that of a felony. Was a President to be impeached for any misdemeanor— like stealing a chicken— or did it have to be something, well, “higher”?
Yet the fact remains that the Founding Fathers had anticipated the possible need for an impeachment. Of that, there can be no doubt. A man in a position of power must be held accountable for his actions. And so they outlined a way to adjudicate accountability— to provide, in other words, a way to maintain a responsible and good government, which is to say to preserve the promise of a better day. Still, the impeachment of a President seemed no less revolutionary, no less confusing, and no less terrifying for that. Impeachment was the democratic equivalent of regicide, for Benjamin Franklin had said that without impeachment, assassination was the only way for a country to rid itself of a miscreant chief executive who acted like a king. And murder was of course out of the question.
President Andrew Johnson’s utterly unprecedented impeachment thus presented knotty constitutional issues— and at a very specific, very difficult time in American history. The ink on the Appomattox peace agreement was barely dry, and the country was seeking moral clarity or, more particularly, the restoration of the Union in a country facing the consequence of war, a reconstruction half done, and a popular if unreadable general, Ulysses S. Grant, waiting in the wings to be elected the next chief executive. Driven by some of the most arresting characters in American history—
Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, Benjamin Butler, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and especially Thaddeus Stevens— it was one of the most significant moments in the nation’s short history, occur- ring as it did when it did.
For there were concrete, burning questions to be answered about the direction the country would take: Under what terms would the eleven seceded Southern states of the former Confederacy be al- lowed to re- enter the Union? Should the states that had waged war against the Union be welcomed back into the House and the Senate, all acrimony forgotten, all rebellion forgiven, as if they had never seceded? President Johnson argued that the eleven states had never left; the Constitution forbade secession, and so the Union had never been dissolved. As a consequence, to his way of thinking, these Southern states should resume their place in the Union, their former rights and privileges restored, as soon as their governments could be deemed loyal— mostly by their renouncing secession, accepting slavery’s abolition, and swearing allegiance to the federal government. In theory, such a speedy restoration would swiftly re- pair the wounds of war.
Yet what about the condition of four million black men and women, recently freed but who had been deprived during their lives of literacy, legitimacy, and selfhood? Shouldn’t this newly free population be able to control their education, their employment, their representation in government? Were these black men and women then citizens, and if so, could they vote? In 1865, just after the war ended, the white delegates to the South Carolina state convention would hear none of that. As a northern journalist reported in disgust, to them “the negro is an animal; a higher sort of animal, to be sure, than the dog or the horse.”
Would the nation then reinstate the supremacist status quo for whites? “Can we depend on our President to exert his influence to keep out the Southern States till they secure to the blacks at least the freedom they now have on paper?” a Union general worried. Allowing white Southerners to rejoin the Union quickly while at the same time denying the black man the vote seemed to many
Republicans, black and white, “replanting the seeds of rebellion,” as Thaddeus Stevens said, “which, within the next quarter of a century will germinate and produce the same bloody strife which has just ended.”
In a South where houses had been burned, crops had failed, and the railroads had been destroyed, soldiers were hobbling home from the front in gray rags, seeking paroles, jobs, and government office. Thousands of people, both black and white, were dying of starvation. Around Savannah, about two thousand persons had to live on charity. Black men and women in the hundreds had been turned off plantations with little or no money and maybe a bushel of corn. Visitors from the North frequently found white Southerners smoldering, aggrieved, and intransigent; white Southerners had tried to protect their homes, believing they’d fought for the unassail- able right of each state to make its own laws and preserve its own customs. And they wouldn’t surrender such rights easily, having lost the war. “It is our duty,” said South Carolina planter Wade Hampton, “to support the President of the United States so long as he manifests a disposition to restore all our rights as a sovereign State.” Union General Philip Sheridan, renowned for unrelenting aggression during the war, alerted his superiors that planters in Texas were secretly conspiring “against the rights” of the freedmen. In New Orleans, a visitor was stunned to find a picture of Lincoln hanging next to one of John Wilkes Booth, and above them both, a huge portrait of Robert E. Lee.
All through the South, ex- Confederates were vilifying the black population, and one legislature after another had been passing “black codes,” ordinances designed to prevent freedmen and – women from owning property, traveling freely, making contracts, and enjoying any form of civil rights or due process. “People had not got over regarding negroes as something other than human,” said a journalist traveling through the South. Meanwhile, Andrew Johnson, the Tennessean occupying the White House, had acted quickly. While Congress was in recess, he singlehandedly re- established Southern state governments by executive proclamation.
He subsequently issued pardons to former Confederates on easy terms and at an astonishing rate. He later nudged out of the Freed- men’s Bureau those who disagreed with his position and tried to shut down that Bureau by vetoing legislation that would keep it running. He vetoed civil rights legislation as unfair to whites and attempted to block passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship to blacks. He turned a cold eye on the violence directed toward the freedmen, and he emphatically staked out a position he sought to maintain, saying, “Everyone would and must admit that the white race is superior to the black.”
Yet on December 4, 1865, at the opening session of the Thirty- Ninth Congress, the clerk at the House of Representatives had omitted from the roll call the names of Southern congressmen.
Battle lines were being drawn, albeit without a bayonet or rifle. The four- year period between the death of Lincoln in the spring of 1865 and the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant in March of 1869 seems a thicket of competing convictions, festering suspicions, and bold prejudice. Yet oddly, for years and years, the intensely dramatic event— the impeachment of the U.S. President— has largely been papered over or ignored. For years, we’ve sidestepped that ignominious moment when a highly unlikeable President Johnson was brought to trial in the Senate, presumably by fanatical foes. The whole episode left such a bitter aftertaste, as the eminent scholar C. Vann Woodward said more than four decades ago, that historians often relegated the term “impeachment” to the “abysmal dust- bin” of never- again experiences— like “secession,” “appeasement,” and “isolationism.”
The year before Woodward’s pronouncement, though, Michael Les Benedict had brilliantly scrutinized the political dimensions of Johnson’s impeachment, thus breaking with the long tradition of embarrassment, outrage, or silence. Regardless, that tradition has persisted— despite David O. Stewart’s careful study, a decade ago, of how dark money may have influenced the final vote. And though Stewart, a practiced lawyer, is no friend of Andrew Johnson, he too concludes, albeit sadly, that the whole affair was a “political and legal train wreck.”
But to reduce the impeachment of Andrew Johnson to a mistaken incident in American history, a bad taste in the collective mouth, disagreeable and embarrassing, is to forget the extent to which slavery and thus the very fate of the nation lay behind John- son’s impeachment. “This is one of the last great battles with slavery,” Senator Charles Sumner had said. “Driven from these legislative chambers, driven from the field of war, this monstrous power has found refuge in the Executive Mansion, where, in utter disregard of the Constitution and laws, it seeks to exercise its ancient far-reaching sway.”
In addition to the recently published The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, Brenda Wineapple is the award-winning author of five other books of nonfiction as well as the volume of Whitman reflections, Whitman Speaks, which appeared last May. She teaches in the MFA programs at the New School and Columbia University.
From The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation (Random House, 2019) All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.