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The Impeachment and Trial of

Andrew Johnson



"The trial of President Johnson is the most memorable attempt made by any English-speaking people to depose a sovereign ruler in strict accordance with all the forms of law. The order, dignity and solemnity which marked the proceedings may therefore be recalled with pride by every American citizen.”-J. G. Blaine: “Twenty Years in Congress," Vol. II., p. 381.

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The author of this assertion, as to the truth of which there may well be two opinions, adds:

"It will be studied as a precedent, or as a warning, by the citizens of the Great Republic during the centuries through which God grant, it may pass with increasing prosperity and renown.'

Another writer says:

“It must be presumed that all the established forms of procedure were adhered to and that the accused had a fair trial."

An entire generation has passed away since the trial, and the accused, as well as his accusers, have been well-nigh forgotten. Indeed, I doubt whether our elder brethren of the Virginia Bar remember or care to recall the excitements of that period, while I am sure our juniors have practically ignored them.

It may, therefore, require an apology—which I humbly offer, in advance—for presuming to revive your acquaintance with this memorable case, from which I confess I may be unable to extract anything of interest or instruction.

The literature of the Johnson case, strictly speaking, may not be light summer reading, but it cannot be classed among the weightier matters of the law. And, yet the case has in it all the elements of a drama, approaching even to the tragic in its attempted destruction of the Executive office at the will of Congressional tyranny.

Let us examine it in its origin, its progress and its results.

By birth a native of North Carolina, by adoption a citizen of Tennessee, Andrew Johnson has illustrated in his remarkable career the strange vicissitudes which may mark the progress and vary the destiny of even the poorest American boy. At twenty years of age, an alderman; at twenty-two, a mayor, and thence in rapid promotion through his State Legislature and the Federal Congress to the Vice-Presidency of the United States.

The death of Lincoln, by the hand of an insane assassin, on the 14th of April, 1865, cast upon Johnson duties so important and responsible that his first exclamation, in that shortest of all inaugurals ever delivered by a President, was an honest declaration of his incompetency to perform them.

Without having spent a day in school, he enjoyed the unique distinction of having been educated by his wife—a post-nuptial and post-graduate course which many of us perhaps unconsciously, but none the less submissively, acknowledge and admire. To this in large measure may be due the supreme self-control of Mr. Johnson in his struggle with Congress, conscious as he always was that he would have the last word.

Upon the accession of the Vice-President to the office of President, the ghost of a temporary dictatorship was laid, and politicians of every stamp seemed to rally to Johnson's support. For the first few weeks he moved cautiously, knowing that he lacked the confidence of the leaders of the dominant and radical element in Congress. The extremists of this set were Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, Benjamin F. Wade and Henry

a State

Winter Davis, whose envenomed hatred of all Southern people had dethroned reason and carried their red and black Republicanism to the height of madness and excess.

Long before a commission of lunacy could be issued against these conspirators, Johnson had publicly declared "that no State had been or could be out of the Union," and that" as a State could not be guilty of treason.'

But, as a sop to Cerberus, in his first message to Congress, he had affirmed, as to individuals, “It is manifest that treason, most flagrant in character, has been committed,” and “that treason should be punished and the offense made infamous.”

But soon afterwards he urged "general amnesty and mutual conciliation,” for which to some extent he had paved the way by a previous proclamation, indicating a change of heart as sudden and remarkable as the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the way to Damascus.

It is now conceded that the plan of Reconstruction by the Executive Department which Johnson attempted to enforce was first conceived and adopted by Lincoln. His successor was honestly striving to follow Lincoln in his wise and humane endeavor to restore peace and union. On the other hand, it is no longer denied that the Congressional plan was formulated under the baneful influence of Stevens, Sumner, Wade, Davis and other revolutionists, with motives as revengeful, and cruelty as savage and bloodthirsty, as ever actuated Robespierre, Danton or Marat.

The administration of the Freedman's Bureau under Stanton, as Secretary of War, was largely the cause of his quarrel with the President, and of his indecent hostility to Mr. Johnson.

Three other members of the Cabinet, Speed, Dennison and Harlan, showed their disaffection and very properly resigned. It remained for Edwin M. Stanton to outrage all sense of propriety and insist upon retaining the portfolio of war as an adviser of the President against his will.

It will be remembered that the first attempt to impeach the President occurred in 1866, immediately upon his veto of the bill to establish negro suffrage in the District of Columbia. This veto was a strong paper, and, notwithstanding the passage of the bill over the President's objections, it had the effect of preventing his impeachment at that early date.

Indeed, it is clear to every impartial mind that in nearly every one of his veto messages the President had the better of the argument with Congress. His messages returning to them the Freedman's Bureau Bill, the Civil Rights Bill and the Original and Supplemental Reconstruction Bills, all evince a vigor of expression and a power and correctness of reasoning as well as honest and true interpretation of the Constitution, which, but for the blind rage of his opponents would have been unanswerable.

Instead of this, Congress took up as its own the rebellion of Secretary Stanton against his chief, passed an act depriving the President of his control of the army, and followed it up by another act which tied his hands behind him in the fight with his Cabinet. This was the Tenure-of-Office Act, passed March 2, 1867, the terms of which will be discussed below. The vetoes, of these two bills are described by Professor Burgess, of Columbia University, in his recent work on “Reconstruction and the Constitution" thus: “To the publicist and historian of this day they are masterpieces of political logic, constitutional interpretation and official style.”.

In August, 1867, the situation had become so unbearable that President Johnson suspended Secretary Stanton from office and appointed General Grant Secretary of War ad interim.

The Fortieth Congress re-assembled in December of that year, and had to listen to the chastisement administered to them by the President in his message of December 3, 1867. The Military Appropriation Bill had been passed, usurping the President's authority, He had allowed it to become a law simply because without it the army could not be supportednot because he acquiesced in the usurpation. The Reconstruction Bill, as finally adopted, with all its glaring iniquities, had been passed over his veto, and the author above quoted, thus describes it:




“There is no question now that Congress did a monstrous thing and committed a great political error, if not a sin, in the creation of the new electorate. It was a great wrong to civilization to put the white race of the South under the domination of the negro race. The claim that there is nothing in the color of the skin, from the point of view of political ethics, is a great sophism. To put such a race of men in possession of a 'State government in a system of Federal government * is simply to establish barbarism in power over civilization;

nor is the welfare of the whole land, or any part of it, to be promoted by the subjection of the white race to the black race in politics and government.'

These are the doctrines, long neglected, but now instilled into the pupils of the great New York Law School by Professor Burgess; but that learned teacher has so mingled error with truth in another sentence as to break the force of his otherwise fair statement. Having condemned the establishment of “barbarism in power over civilization,” he says:

“The supposed disloyalty, or even the actual disloyalty, of the white population will not justify this. It will justify the indefinite withholding of the State form of local government. It will justify the throwing a 'State of the Union back under the form of a Territory of the Union.”

Upon what authority he bases these dicta he fails to state, and it is too late to reverse the Supreme Court's judgment in Texas vs. - White.

The origin of the Impeachment Trial, as we have now viewed it, was the antagonism between Congress and the President upon the question of reconstruction, and this was intensified by the quarrel between Secretary Stanton and Mr. Johnson, leading up to the catastrophe and the actual trial before the Senate.

In any view we may take of it, it is not to be denied that Johnson's attitude was the heroic stand of one man against a

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