By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
During Reconstruction, a majority of white southerners stayed away from the Republican Party, as they identified it as the party of, and for, African Americans. These white southerners, the mass of former Confederates, looked to Andrew Johnson to help shield themselves from what the Republican Congress meant to do.
A Weak President
The goal of the former Confederates was to overthrow Republican rule in the South, and they hoped that they would have an ally in the White House in their attempt to do that. Andrew Johnson, in the end, was able to give them very little help.
His powers were disappearing very quickly, as Congress moved forward with its own program. He did what he could, but in the end Congress had had enough of Andrew Johnson, and moved very strongly, simply to remove him through the process of impeachment.
The House impeaches and the Senate convicts under the Constitution. The grounds must be, as the Constitution says, “high crimes and misdemeanors”.
What Prompted the Impeachment?
Johnson gave Congress a pretext in late 1867 and early 1868 to impeach him, when he removed Edwin M. Stanton, his secretary of war. He didn’t ask the Senate’s approval to do so.
He also removed two hard-line generals in the South. He also took other steps aimed at softening Reconstruction. Congress said that removal of Stanton violated the Tenure of Office Act, and that action alone on Johnson’s part warranted impeachment.
Many elements in Congress said that Johnson had done this deliberately. He wanted to test the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act. He did this hoping that there would be a legal review of whether the Tenure of Office Act was, in fact, constitutional.
Johnson believed that almost everything Congress had been doing regarding Reconstruction was unconstitutional. This was just another instance of him believing that the Republicans in Congress were going beyond where they should in terms of what they were trying to do.
He tested it, and Congress responded. On February 24, 1868, along a straight party line vote, the House voted to impeach. The vote was a 126–47. Now, if Johnson were convicted and removed, the person who would end up in the White House would be Senator Benjamin Franklin Wade of Ohio, one of the great radical leaders in Congress for the past 10 years or so.
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The Impeachment Trial
When the process of impeachment began, there were eleven charges levied against Andrew Johnson, the first eight of which dealt with Edwin M. Stanton’s removal. The other three accused Johnson of other, various alleged transgressions, but the real grounds were that Johnson had tried to frustrate the congressional will regarding Reconstruction.
It was a political proceeding. He was being pursued with the idea of getting him out of office because of politics, not because he really had committed crimes that would meet the constitutional standard.
On March 4, 1868, the impeachment trial began in the Senate, and it stretched over 11 weeks. Johnson was very ably defended by his counsel who argued that he shouldn’t be liable under the Tenure of Office Act because that act applied to appointees under the term of the person who appointed them. Andrew Johnson hadn’t appointed Edwin M. Stanton. Abraham Lincoln had. Therefore, the Tenure of Office Act did not apply to him at all.
The whole thing was really quite simple, said Johnson’s lawyers. According to them, the president was on trial because he had opposed members of another party in Congress, and they were trying to punish him for that.
Saved by a Single Vote
Johnson had tried to run Reconstruction his own way. He had simply disagreed with the radicals in Congress, and this is what it had come to. They were after him for that, and for that alone.
Thus, Andrew Johnson fought for his political life. The final vote was very close. Two-thirds majority is necessary to convict in an impeachment proceeding, and the radicals failed by a single vote. Twelve Democrats and seven Republican senators voted for acquittal.
Surprisingly, they did so as some of the moderates and conservatives among the Republicans believed that they would set a very bad precedent by convicting Andrew Johnson. They believed that they would set the precedent under which any president who was opposed by two-thirds of the members of Congress for any reason, never mind whether there was a crime or not, just a president who was opposed by two-thirds of the members of Congress might be removed.
Enforcing the Reconstruction Acts
Andrew Johnson by now, had become much more temperate than he had been in the past. He stopped attacking Congress. He began to act more presidential, in many ways.
The president also agreed to enforce the Reconstruction Acts that were on the books. That impressed a number of the members of the Senate. All of these things put together, and the specter of Benjamin Franklin Wade, in some minds, being president if Andrew Johnson was removed, all came together to bring the vote that allowed Andrew Johnson to escape conviction by a single vote!
Common Questions about How Andrew Johnson Survived Impeachment
The grounds for impeaching a president must be, as the Constitution says, “high crimes and misdemeanors”.
When the process of impeachment began, there were eleven charges levied against Andrew Johnson.
They did so as some of the moderates and conservatives among the Republicans believed that they would set a very bad precedent by convicting Andrew Johnson.