CS: You did an epic amount of research for this book: how long did it take before a narrative could take shape? What was it like trying to create one, and if you started with a story or a person, who spoke to you first?
BW: That’s a lot of questions! I had to have a sense of what the story was in order for the narrative could take shape. The entire book took six years to research and to write, but the story came to me after about two years into the research. In other words, I research extensively before I begin writing and I continue to do research after I start to write. For I didn’t entirely know what the story would be while I was in the initial stages of the book, but I always begin any book with a question or two. So I try to find answers to these questions, and I begin to formulate a series of them partly from my research, of course, and partly from hunches and intuition, which often drive the research. But I can’t say that there was a light-bulb moment when I said, aha, that’s the story.
CS: Speaking of light bulb moments, I’ve read that you thought of writing this book while you were writing Ecstatic Nation. What was the moment that lit up for you, when you knew you wanted to write this book?
BW: No, I didn’t think of writing The Impeachers while I was writing Ecstatic Nation I was writing that book. But when I finished Ecstatic Nation, I wondered, okay what’s next? And I realized that during the writing of Ecstatic Nation I had been surprised that I had known so little about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. That seemed odd to me; how was it possible not to know about the first-ever presidential impeachment, such a major event in American history? That was one of the questions I began with.
CS: The book is so cinematic and it evens opens with a Dramatis Personae as if it were a play, and the beginning so dramatic can you speak on why? What was the thinking behind that structure?
BW: I’m happy to know you think The Impeachers reads like theater but that was not my intention. The idea for the opening was that Thaddeus Stevens and John Bingham announce Johnson’s impeachment before the bar in the Senate. That was the book’s opening. The Dramatis Personae was put where it is to orient the reader, but the book wasn’t initially conceived with it. You ask about the epigraph too. I read plays, and I read poetry, but I don’t really remember why I chose the Hamlet epigraph other than it seemed so apt. And that’s another way to orient the reader; parts of my book make reference to Lear and to Hamlet. What I’m trying to say that I draw on what I read, whether novels or plays or poetry, when I’m writing; they help, they’re instrumental, in shaping the way I think, which is to say, they help me define and shape my narrative.
CS: The book creates precise pathways for the reader to orient themselves through such complicated moments as the end of the Civil War when we end up with something close to 750,000 casualties that we know about. Among the conditions that Lincoln has for the seceded South to again join the Union, are rights and freedoms secured for black men. Then Lincoln is assassinated and Johnson is put into office and very quickly we see that Johnson is not the man everyone thought he was, you quote him as saying “…I vindicate the Union and insist on the preservation of the Government in its original purity…” Original purity meaning white; this is the rhetoric of white supremacy. So through Johnson are we seeing the foundation and galvanization of white supremacy as a movement in America?
BW: No, the idea of white supremacy certainly preceded Johnson. Johnson wasn’t an instigator as much as he was the product of something systemic. Institutional racism allowed slavery to exist and that precedes him. What he did allow was its continuation. He helped establishment of certain southern legislatures that passed “Black Codes,” which denied civil rights to black people and to the former enslaved people in the South. What he did was turn a blind eye to the increased violence against black people and white Republicans in the South. What he did was dismantle the Freedman’s Bureau. What he did was create opportunities for the formation of the KKK and other such organizations that were basically terrorist groups.
CS: Thinking of the national conversations around black lives and reparations, I can’t help but reflect on that moment after the Civil War when the slaves had been freed and how we could have gotten this right, you write “after the war they (the Radical Republicans) championed civil rights for blacks and alleged that a reconstruction policy overly lenient to former confederate states would unquestionably return the freedman and woman to a condition like slavery….they clamored for black voting rights.” At the end of the book you quote Wendell Phillips “The epoch turns on the negro, justice to him saves the nation….injustice to him prolongs the war….you may shut your eyes to it and say you don’t want to hear about it but the thunders of a thousand cannons will ring in your ears, and into the ears of your children.” Are we still hearing the cannons?
BW: Sure, absolutely. I quoted Phillips because I thought he made a very good point. He wanted to make sure they were warning people about the result and the consequences about their choices.
CS: Your quotes from Whitman and Twain add another perspective to the national press conversation that is human and more everyman. You quote Whitman “looking for reconciliation, the kind that rockets transcendentally of the petty concerns of petty people.” In this moment he was reflecting the national weariness after the war. You write “Melville and Whitman were giving voice to those Whites bewildered or oblivious or just uncaring who didn’t want to turn back the clock so much as bury the past and move on”
Were Johnson and his company counting on this national weariness to fade into apathy?
BW: Johnson thought he was doing right, that he was preserving the Constitution in the terms that he understood. But you can’t lump together Whitman, Melville, and Twain, all of whom appear in my book. My point for including them in the book was to show that they were part of this crucial moment and that they represented the very different points of view about Johnson and impeachment and reconstruction. . Twain was a crack political journalist; Whitman was helping wounded men in the hospital write letters home. His politics were different from Twain’s. And there were women covering the events in Washington, and in a way, it was a wonderful time for women writers.
To go back to your question, I don’t think Johnson was counting on apathy, even if after the war many people, especially in the South, were tired and traumatized. Remember that the war had been devastating, and the entire nation wanted to put their lives back together.
CS: you write that Johnson early in his career reaches out to the poor and powerless through speeches designed to incite with such quotes as “The voice of the people is the voice of God” and you write, “He catered to the prejudices of whatever crowd he addressed.” This tactic for power and base sounds so familiar …He championed “The lost course regained” in his speeches as a fantasy of idyllic American life. Sounds to me like “Make America great again”
The similarities between these two presidents, Trump and Johnson, seems remarkable are we in a mirror moment with the Trump presidency and now his impeachment?
BW: Many people see the similarity. I didn’t see it when I was writing this because Obama was in the White House. But Trump and Johnson do play on the same kinds of prejudices. The difference is Johnson really believed in the Constitution, he and read it– that’s a difference right there. Johnson did feel he was being persecuted, as Trump does, but he wasn’t wealthy and he wasn’t corrupt in that he wasn’t using the president’s office to line his pockets. But he was a white supremacist and wanted a government for and of white men.
We certainly can make more than one connection between the two presidents. And there have been only two impeachments, that of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton; Nixon resigned before his impeachment, and if Donald Trump is impeached he would only be the third American president to be impeached. And, as in Johnson’s day, people today debate about what constitutes an impeachable offense, and what kind of malfeasance rises to the level of an impeachable offense. An impeachable offense, that is, needn’t be an actual criminal one.
CS: Republicans of 1868 like Lyman Trumbull claim Johnson is distasteful to the extreme and you quote him as saying “I should consider it a great calamity of the age if the disloyal element so often encouraged by his [Johnson] measures should gain political ascendancy”
But still, they protect him because damaging the office of the presidency is worse than keeping him in office. Was it really the office of the presidency they were protecting or was it a grab for power and a push for the personal agendas of the powerful being opportunistic in a vulnerable moment?
BW: There were people of good conscience on both sides of the impeachment question, and they had good reasons to take the sides they did, although many of them were motivated by political rather than national concerns, though they thought of them as the same: if Johnson was removed, who would take over the White House? The man next in line frightened people and that gave many Senators enough reason to keep Johnson in office. And there were people that were afraid if Johnson were removed, then that make the nomination of Grant for president much harder. That’s to say we’re talking about the men politically motivated to keep Johnson in office, not the people who were likely bribed to do so. Lyman Trumbull was not bribed or coerced; he was not grabbing for personal power but some probably did believe in the maintenance of the presidential office, even if he didn’t much like Johnson. Remember that even though Trumbull wasn’t a radical, he had written the Civil Rights Act that Johnson vetoed. So the vote to acquit Johnson, which wasn’t a huge vote, should not be reduced to a grab for a power and such generalizations.
CS: What are the questions you wish people would ask?
BW: I wish people would ask what happened, and what the impeachment meant for the country. It was a way to make the country fulfill its promise of equality and justice for all– and that was a wonderful, a heroic thing. Congress was trying to live up to its historical and responsibility to protect the nation from incompetence, cowardice, lawlessness, and white supremacy. Those were the values that motivated the impeachment, and they were worth fighting for.
Charlotte Slivka is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at The New School for Public Engagement.