By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The senate impeachment trial of President Trump has the nation divided. As the trial enters its second week, polls show that Americans remain split over Trump’s conviction and removal from office. The rift is similar to the events of President Johnson’s 1868 impeachment.
Fifty percent of voters support President Trump’s conviction and removal from office in the Senate impeachment trial with 44 percent disagreeing, a Fox News poll said Sunday. “Most Democrats say remove (81 percent) and most Republicans disagree (84 percent),” the article said. “Among independents, more say Trump should be removed by a 19-point margin (53 percent to 34 percent).”
With the overall poll results separated by a six-point margin, the difference in public opinion is clear but considerably narrow. In a sense, this divisive impeachment trial is a case of history repeating itself. In 1868, President Abraham Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, faced impeachment, while the nation was split in its opinion.
Post-Civil War America
After the Civil War ended, the American South was in a state of revolt. John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in April 1865, the only successfully executed part of a conspiracy to topple the federal government. The following year, President Andrew Johnson, a vocal supporter and advocate of the American South, vetoed a piece of legislation that extended citizenship to anyone born or naturalized in the United States, claiming it would “operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.”
When Congress responded by overriding President Johnson’s veto, Johnson —who was a wealthy businessman before his presidency—pledged $20,000 of his own money to defeat the legislation in court. This legislation that extended citizenship to anyone born or naturalized in the United Staes would later become the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that was ratified in 1868.
Riots broke out in Memphis and New Orleans in May and July, respectively. The riots, spurred on largely by white policemen and veterans of the Confederacy, resulted in the deaths of dozens of African Americans, with hundreds more injured. Many of the dead and wounded included women and children, spurring some to call it more of a massacre than a battle.
President Johnson did not blame the riots on embittered post-Confederacy citizens, but rather, on Congress for sowing discord among the public.
Impeachment Trial of 1868
In 1867, one of President Johnson’s opponents, Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA), drafted the Tenure of Office Act in a deliberate move to keep the president in check. The Tenure of Office Act required that any civil officer who had been approved by the Senate, which included Cabinet members, could not be fired without prior Senate approval. Rep. Stevens also stipulated that violation of the Act would constitute a “high crime and misdemeanor,” meeting the requirement for an impeachment. The Act became a U.S. federal law in March of that year.
Despite this, President Johnson was fed up enough with his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, to ask Stanton to resign his post. When Stanton refused, Johnson started looking for a suitable replacement, anyway. He eventually convinced Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas to accept the post as Interim War Secretary. In turn, Congress decided that Johnson had no power to remove Stanton nor to name and appoint his replacement.
In 1868, 11 articles of impeachment were drafted against President Johnson, eight of them pertaining to his actions against Stanton. Occurring during an election year, the impeachment trial was muddied by politics of Republicans and Democrats seeking office or reelection. Additionally, Johnson mounted a five-point defense that included denouncing the Tenure of Office Act as unconstitutional and inapplicable to Stanton.
In the end, Johnson was acquitted, but not reelected. He was succeeded by General Ulysses S. Grant.
Whatever verdict awaits President Trump in the Senate impeachment trial, the comparisons of divided nations in 1868 and 2020 couldn’t be more apt.
This article contains material from The Great Courses’ first feature-length documentary, Going to the Devil: The Impeachment of 1868, which tells the story of the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson—the first time a president of the United States faced charges of committing impeachable acts.