Impeachment of Andrew Johnson Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Motivated primarily by partisan political differences, this first attempt to impeach a U.S. president created a constitutional crisis that crippled Andrew Johnson’s presidency and weakened federal Reconstruction policy in the defeated southern states.

Summary of Event

On February 24, 1868, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring that President Andrew Johnson should be impeached, few observers were surprised. Angry Republicans, especially members of the radical faction who saw Johnson as the great enemy of their program, had put through the House a resolution directing the Judiciary Committee to inquire into Johnson’s conduct in January, 1867. Among the many charges made against Johnson Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;and Lincoln assassination[Lincoln assassination] Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;assassination of was the accusation that he had been involved in the Lincoln assassination plot. However, although the committee recommended impeachment at that time, the full House had voted it down. Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;impeachment of Presidency, U.S.;Andrew Johnson[Johnson] Presidency, U.S.;impeachment Stanton, Edwin M. [p]Stanton, Edwin M.;and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment[Johnsons impeachment] Congress, U.S.;impeachment of Andrew Johnson Republican Party;and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment[Johnsons impeachment] [kw]Impeachment of Andrew Johnson (Feb. 24-May 26, 1868) [kw]Andrew Johnson, Impeachment of (Feb. 24-May 26, 1868) [kw]Johnson, Impeachment of Andrew (Feb. 24-May 26, 1868) Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;impeachment of Presidency, U.S.;Andrew Johnson[Johnson] Presidency, U.S.;impeachment Stanton, Edwin M. [p]Stanton, Edwin M.;and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment[Johnsons impeachment] Congress, U.S.;impeachment of Andrew Johnson Republican Party;and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment[Johnsons impeachment] [g]United States;Feb. 24-May 26, 1868: Impeachment of Andrew Johnson[4150] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 24-May 26, 1868: Impeachment of Andrew Johnson[4150] [c]Crime and scandals;Feb. 24-May 26, 1868: Impeachment of Andrew Johnson[4150] Chase, Salmon P. [p]Chase, Salmon P.;and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment[Johnsons impeachment] Stevens, Thaddeus [p]Stevens, Thaddeus;and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment[Johnsons impeachment] Sumner,Charles [p]Sumner, Charles;and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment[Johnsons impeachment]

The impeachment campaign arose over Johnson’s alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act Tenure of Office Act (1867) passed by Congress on March 2, 1867, and subsequently passed again over the president’s veto. This act made the removal of cabinet officers subject to approval by the Senate. Even supporters of the bill declared that its provisions referred only to cabinet members appointed by a president in office and not to those who had been appointed by his predecessor. Thus, the law should not have applied to cabinet appointees of Lincoln still serving under Johnson in 1867.

The conflict grew out of Johnson’s determination to replace Edwin M. Stanton Stanton, Edwin M. [p]Stanton, Edwin M.;and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment[Johnsons impeachment] as secretary of war and to test the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act in court. A holdover from Lincoln’s cabinet whom Johnson considered disloyal, Stanton supported the Reconstruction program of Congress, not that of the president. In the summer of 1867, Johnson asked Stanton to resign, but Stanton refused to do so. Johnson thereupon suspended Stanton from office pending concurrence by the Senate, the procedure required by the Tenure of Office Act. He then appointed General Ulysses S. Grant Grant, Ulysses S. [p]Grant, Ulysses S.;as secretary of war[Secretary of war] as the interim secretary of war. If the Senate did not concur in his action, Johnson planned to challenge the Tenure of Office Act in court in order to test its constitutionality.

Grant accepted the cabinet post but soon became unhappy because he supported the congressional party and knew that he was its choice for the Republican presidential nomination in 1868. As his discomfort increased, his relations with the president worsened. As a consequence, modern historians have debated Grant’s integrity, or lack of it, in the episode. When the Senate, as expected, refused to concur in Stanton’s ouster, Grant turned the office back to him. Johnson, however, remained determined to rid himself of Stanton. He then invited General William Tecumseh Sherman Sherman, William Tecumseh to take over from Stanton, but Sherman refused. At last, the adjutant general of the Army, garrulous old Lorenzo Thomas, agreed to take Stanton’s place. On February 21, 1868, Johnson fired Stanton and appointed Thomas. However, since Stanton refused to give up his office, Thomas would not take it.

At that point, the Radical Republicans in the House saw their chance to strike at Johnson. On February 24, 1868, the House passed, by a large majority, the Covode Resolution, which declared that the president should be impeached. For many, it was a psychological catharsis to bring down the great opponent of Reconstruction and the great sustainer of rebellion. Some powerful legislators, such as Senator Charles Sumner Sumner, Charles [p]Sumner, Charles;and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment[Johnsons impeachment] of Massachusetts and Representative Thaddeus Stevens Stevens, Thaddeus [p]Stevens, Thaddeus;and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment[Johnsons impeachment] of Pennsylvania, considered Johnson, a Union Democrat originally from North Carolina, to be too closely allied with former Confederates who had only recently laid down their arms.

Another motive of the Republicans in Congress was to deal with the real problem of military Reconstruction. Reconstruction;and Andrew Johnson[Johnson] Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] In his capacity as chief executive, Johnson had removed Union generals in the South who had been enthusiastic about military Reconstruction and replaced them with men of his own temper. Congressional Republicans wanted the secretary of war to be someone who supported their own program of Reconstruction. When Johnson moved against Stanton, they concluded that they had to stop the president. To many, impeachment seemed to be the only solution. The resolution that the House finally passed had eleven articles. The first nine articles dealt with the president’s alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act, and the last two charged Johnson with making speeches designed to denigrate Congress and with failing to enforce the Reconstruction laws.

Congressional sergeant-at-arms George T. Brown serving President Andrew Johnson with a summons to appear for impeachment proceedings.

(Library of Congress)

After the House had done its work by initiating Johnson’s impeachment, it was left to the Senate to convict or acquit him. The U.S. Constitution stipulated that a two-thirds majority vote was necessary for conviction. In 1868, that meant that the votes of thirty-six senators were needed. In early March, with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase Chase, Salmon P. [p]Chase, Salmon P.;and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment[Johnsons impeachment] presiding, the senators took the oath to try the president. As this was the first impeachment trial ever conducted against a president, there was a long debate about whether the Senate sat as a court or as a political body. To Chase, the Constitution Constitution, U.S.;and impeachment[Impeachment] clearly indicated that the Senate sat as a court, so he conducted the proceedings as a formal trial.

On March 30, the trial opened. The prosecution, composed of important Radical Republicans, claimed that Johnson had subverted the will of Congress, the will of the Republican Party, and the will of the people. As the defense duly noted, the prosecution made no effort to pin any specific crime on the president. Emphasizing that fact, Johnson’s defense counsel argued that Johnson had done nothing to warrant impeachment under the Constitution.

Voting took place on May 16; the result was one vote short of the number needed to convict. Two more votes were taken on May 26, with the same result. Thirty-six votes were needed, but each time the outcome was only thirty-five to nineteen. Johnson was saved by seven Republicans who supported Reconstruction in Congress but who did not believe there were legal grounds for conviction in this case. Typical of the Republican senators who reluctantly opposed conviction was Kansas’s Edmund G. Ross Ross, Edmund G. . Although Ross was no supporter of Johnson, he opposed the president’s removal from office because he believed the office of the presidency itself would be seriously damaged if Thaddeus Stevens Stevens, Thaddeus [p]Stevens, Thaddeus;and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment[Johnsons impeachment] and Sumner Sumner, Charles [p]Sumner, Charles;and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment[Johnsons impeachment] succeeded in their struggle with Johnson.

Significance

President Johnson was acquitted by the narrowest of margins. He served the remainder of his term with little further direct influence on Reconstruction policies. The office of the presidency survived this constitutional crisis, but the direction of Reconstruction remained firmly in the hands of the leaders of Congress. There would not be another impeachment trial of a U.S. president until 1998, when the House voted to impeach President Bill Clinton Clinton, Bill [p]Clinton, Bill;impeachment of on charges of perjury and obstruction. As with Johnson’s trial, Clinton was acquitted by the Senate on all charges.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beale, Howard K. The Critical Year: A Study of Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1958. Clearly explains the positions taken by the executive and legislative branches as the crisis erupted.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Benedict, Michael Les. The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973. Exceptionally good study of Johnson’s impeachment. Concludes, with much supporting evidence, that the impeachment was justified and conviction would have been proper.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brodie, Fawn M. Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South. New York: W. W. Norton, 1959. Well-written and balanced biography of Johnson’s chief nemesis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hearn, Chester G. The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000. One of several books about Johnson’s impeachment written after Congress initiated impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. Hearn focuses on the political turmoil after the Civil War that led to Johnson’s impeachment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992. Analysis of the war and the political intrigue that flourished after Lincoln’s assassination.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simpson, Brooks D. The Reconstruction Presidents. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. Comparative study of the presidencies of Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes—the four presidents who presided over the Union’s Reconstruction policies in the defeated South.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trefousse, Hans Louis. Impeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999. Study of Johnson’s impeachment that examines why Congress failed to convict Johnson, the consequences of his acquittal, and connections between the impeachment and failure of Reconstruction.

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