The impeachment of Andrew Johnson

By Roger Stanley
Posted 1/28/20

The impeachment process is possible because the framers of the Constitution understood a president guilty of misconduct needed to be removed by the legislative branches.

George Mason and James …

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The impeachment of Andrew Johnson


The impeachment process is possible because the framers of the Constitution understood a president guilty of misconduct needed to be removed by the legislative branches.

George Mason and James Madison, who were instrumental in the original Constitutional Convention, warned impeachment was not to be used for a political disagreement with the president. They endorsed the idea it was for high crimes such as treason, bribery or corruption. However corruption was changed to misdemeanors, which both Mason and Madison agreed to.

Andrew Johnson was an unusual man who was born in North Carolina and moved to Tennessee. He was much like Lincoln. Both were self-educated men, known for their wisdom and speaking ability and both were interested in politics.

Johnson was elected to many offices in Tennessee, and he finally became the state’s senator in the U. S. Congress. When Tennessee left the Union he continued to serve as a senator.

Lincoln chose him as a running mate in 1864 believing Johnson was an asset for reconstruction as a Democrat from the South who had opposed secession of the southern states.

Johnson was not so friendly with the more Radical Republicans who controlled Congress, but he was thought by Lincoln to be more in tune for a slower reconstruction.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson found himself president after serving as vice president for less than six months.

In the early spring of 1868, the Radical Republicans had enough reasons to try to impeach President Johnson. He had vetoed many of the acts for Reconstruction and the final straw was broken when, during the adjournment of Congress, the president fired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and tried to replace him with General U.S. Grant.

Congress had passed the 14th and 15th amendments in 1864 ending slavery and guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens, but Johnson kept vetoing the supportive legislation for Reconstruction such as the Freedman Act. Many vetoes were overridden.

The Tenure of Office Act was Johnson’s undoing because when he tried to replace Stanton, it was regarded a violation of existing law. As Johnson and Congress struggled, the president finally went on a tirade and made many speeches deriding the Congress and even used racial terminology that was deemed unfit.

On Feb. 24, 1868, the House of Representatives filed for Articles of Impeachment on 11 counts. Many of those counts involved his breaking the Tenure of Office Act, which stated since the Senate needed to approve of the president's appointments, that body also had oversight regarding the tenure of office for those officials.

Johnson had dismissed Stanton without the Senate’s approval, which was part of the case, and he was also accused of other abuses of presidential power. It was argued such actions fell under the heading of high crimes and misdemeanors clause found in the Constitution.

Before the proceedings Representative Thadeus Stevens addressed the House with this statement, “This is not to be the temporary triumph of a political party, but is to endure in its consequence until the whole continent shall be filled with a free and untrammeled people or shall be a nest of shrinking, cowardly slaves.”

The House impeached Johnson by a vote of 126 to 47. Most of the articles had four Democrats and 122 Republicans voting yea and 45 Democrats and two Republicans voting nay.

The Articles of Impeachment were sent to the Senate, which had 54 senators at that time and to find him guilty

required a two-thirds vote. A roll call vote was taken on only three of the 11 articles. The roll call had 35 voting for conviction and 19 voting for acquittal. That was one vote short of what was needed for removal from office. The Senate adjourned May 26, 1868, and Johnson was acquitted

During the Senate trial, there were many promises, bribes and gestures offered for the yea and nay votes, it is unsure what affect it had on the final vote, but in total 35 Republicans voted yea and nine Democrats and 10 Republicans voted no.

Lyman Turnbull, the Republican Senator from Illinois, voted to acquit.

“If Johnson had been convicted the main source of the president’s political powers in the freedom to disagree with the Congress without consequences would have been destroyed, and the Constitution system of checks and balances along with it,” Turnbull said at the time explaining his vote.

President Johnson served out his term as a lame duck president and U.S. Grant succeeded him, and Reconstruction became Grant’s problem.

As a side note: the Tenure of Office Act was repealed by Congress in 1887 and in 1926, the Supreme Court found the original act of 1867 unconstitutional when hearing a similar case.