Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

The impeachment of Andrew Johnson was initiated on February 24, 1868, when the United States House of Representatives resolved to impeach Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of the United States, for "high crimes and misdemeanors," which were detailed in 11 articles of impeachment. The primary charge against Johnson was that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act, passed by Congress in March 1867, over his veto. Specifically, he had removed from office Edwin M. Stanton, the secretary of war—whom the act was largely designed to protect—and attempted to replace him with Brevet Major General Lorenzo Thomas.
Johnson became the first American president to be impeached on March 2–3, 1868, when the House formally adopted the articles of impeachment and forwarded them to the United States Senate for. The trial in the Senate began three days later, with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding. On May 16, the Senate did not convict Johnson on one of the articles, with the 35–19 vote in favor of conviction falling short of the necessary two-thirds majority by a single vote. A 10-day recess was called before attempting to convict him on additional articles. The delay did not change the outcome, however, as on May 26, the Senate did not convict the president on two articles, both by the same margin, after which the trial was adjourned without considering the remaining eight articles of impeachment.
The impeachment and trial of Andrew Johnson had important political implications for the balance of federal legislative-executive power. It maintained the principle that Congress should not remove the president from office simply because its members disagreed with him over policy, style, and administration of the office. It also resulted in diminished presidential influence on public policy and overall governing power, fostering a system of governance which Woodrow Wilson referred to in the 1870s as "Congressional Government."


Presidential Reconstruction

Tensions between the executive and legislative branches had been high prior to Johnson's ascension to the presidency. Following Union Army victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, President Lincoln began contemplating the issue of how to bring the South back into the Union. He wished to offer an olive branch to the rebel states by pursuing a lenient plan for their reintegration. The forgiving tone of the president's plan, plus the fact that he implemented it by presidential directive without consulting Congress, incensed Radical Republicans, who countered with a more stringent plan. Their proposal for Southern reconstruction, the Wade–Davis Bill, passed both houses of Congress in July 1864, but was pocket vetoed by the president and never took effect.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, just days after the Army of Northern Virginia's surrender at Appomattox, briefly lessened the tension over who would set the terms of peace. The radicals, while suspicious of the new president and his policies, believed, based upon his record, that Andrew Johnson would defer, or at least acquiesce to their hardline proposals. Though a Democrat from Tennessee, Johnson had been a fierce critic of the Southern secession. Then after several states left the Union, including his own, he chose to stay in Washington, and later, when Union troops occupied Tennessee, Johnson was appointed military governor. While in that position he had exercised his powers with vigor, frequently stating that "treason must be made odious and traitors punished". Johnson, however, embraced Lincoln's more lenient policies, thus rejecting the Radicals, and setting the stage for a showdown between the president and Congress. During the first months of his presidency, Johnson issued proclamations of general amnesty for most former Confederates, both government and military officers, and oversaw creation of new governments in the hitherto rebellious statesgovernments dominated by ex-Confederate officials. In February 1866, Johnson vetoed legislation extending the Freedmen's Bureau and expanding its powers; Congress was unable to override the veto. Afterward, Johnson denounced Radical Republicans Representative Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner, along with abolitionist Wendell Phillips, as traitors. Later, Johnson vetoed a Civil Rights Act and a second Freedmen's Bureau bill; the Senate and the House each mustered the two-thirds majorities necessary to override both vetoes, setting the stage for a showdown between Congress and the president.
At an impasse with Congress, Johnson offered himself directly to the American public as a "tribune of the people." In the late summer of 1866, the president embarked on a national "Swing Around the Circle" speaking tour, where he asked his audiences for their support in his battle against the Congress and urged voters to elect representatives to Congress in the upcoming midterm election who supported his policies. The tour backfired on Johnson, however, when reports of his undisciplined, vitriolic speeches and ill-advised confrontations with hecklers swept the nation. Contrary to his hopes, the 1866 elections led to veto-proof Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. As a result, Radicals were able to take control of Reconstruction, passing a series of Reconstruction Acts—each one over the president's veto—addressing requirements for Southern states to be fully restored to the Union. The first of these acts divided those states, excluding Johnson's home state of Tennessee, into five military districts, and each state's government was put under the control of the U.S. military. Additionally, these states were required to enact new constitutions, ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, and guarantee voting rights for black males.

Tenure of Office Act

Congress' control of the military Reconstruction policy was mitigated by Johnson's command of the military as president. However, Johnson had inherited Lincoln's appointee Edwin M. Stanton as secretary of war. Stanton was a staunch Radical Republican who would comply with congressional Reconstruction policies as long as he remained in office. To ensure that Stanton would not be replaced, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act in 1867 over Johnson's veto. The act required the president to seek the Senate's advice and consent before relieving or dismissing any member of his cabinet or, indeed, any federal official whose initial appointment had previously required its advice and consent.
'' editorial cartoon shows Secretary of War Stanton aiming a cannon labeled "Congress" to defeat Johnson. The rammer is "Tenure of Office Bill" and cannonballs on the floor are "Justice".
Because the Tenure of Office Act did permit the president to suspend such officials when Congress was out of session, when Johnson failed to obtain Stanton's resignation, he instead suspended Stanton on August 5, 1867, which gave him the opportunity to appoint General Ulysses S. Grant, then serving as Commanding General of the Army, interim secretary of war. When the Senate adopted a resolution of non-concurrence with Stanton's dismissal in December 1867, Grant told Johnson he was going to resign, fearing punitive legal action. Johnson assured Grant that he would assume all responsibility in the matter, and asked him to delay his resignation until a suitable replacement could be found. Contrary to Johnson's belief that Grant had agreed to remain in office, when the Senate voted and reinstated Stanton in January 1868, Grant immediately resigned, before the president had an opportunity to appoint a replacement. Johnson was furious at Grant, accusing him of lying during a stormy cabinet meeting. The March 1868 publication of several angry messages between Johnson and Grant led to a complete break between the two. As a result of these letters, Grant solidified his standing as the front-runner for the 1868 Republican presidential nomination.
Johnson complained about Stanton's restoration to office and searched desperately for someone to replace Stanton who would be acceptable to the Senate. He first proposed the position to General William Tecumseh Sherman, an enemy of Stanton, who turned down his offer. Sherman subsequently suggested to Johnson that Radical Republicans and moderate Republicans would be amenable to replacing Stanton with Jacob Dolson Cox, but he found the president to be no longer interested in appeasement. On February 21, 1868, the president appointed Lorenzo Thomas, a brevet major general in the Army, as interim Secretary of War. Johnson thereupon informed the Senate of his decision. Thomas personally delivered the president's dismissal notice to Stanton, who rejected the legitimacy of the decision. Rather than vacate his office, Stanton barricaded himself inside and ordered Thomas arrested for violating the Tenure of Office Act. He also informed Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax and President Pro Tempore of the Senate Benjamin Wade of the situation. Thomas remained under arrest for several days before being released, and having the charge against him dropped after Stanton realized that the case against Thomas would provide the courts with an opportunity to review the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act.
Johnson's opponents in Congress were outraged by his actions; the president's challenge to congressional authority—with regard to both the Tenure of Office Act and post-war reconstruction—had, in their estimation, been tolerated for long enough. In swift response, an impeachment resolution was introduced in the House by Representatives Thaddeus Stevens and John Bingham. Expressing the widespread sentiment among House Republicans, Representative William D. Kelley declared:


On February 24, 1868, three days after Johnson's dismissal of Stanton, the House of Representatives voted 126 to 47 in favor of a resolution to impeach the president for high crimes and misdemeanors. Thaddeus Stevens addressed the House prior to the vote. "This is not to be the temporary triumph of a political party," he said, "but is to endure in its consequence until this whole continent shall be filled with a free and untrammeled people or shall be a nest of shrinking, cowardly slaves."
One week later, the House adopted 11 articles of impeachment against the president. The articles alleged that Johnson had:



On March 4, 1868, amid tremendous public attention and press coverage, the 11 Articles of Impeachment were presented to the Senate, which reconvened the following day as a court of impeachment, with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding, and proceeded to develop a set of rules for the trial and its officers. The extent of Chase's authority as presiding officer to render unilateral rulings was a frequent point of contention during the rules debate and trial. He initially maintained that deciding certain procedural questions on his own was his prerogative; but after the Senate challenged several of his rulings, he gave up making rulings. On one occasion, when he ruled that Johnson should be permitted to present evidence that Thomas' appointment to replace Stanton was intended to provide a test case to challenge the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act, the Senate reversed the ruling.
When it came time for senators to take the juror's oath, Thomas A. Hendricks questioned Benjamin Wade's impartiality and suggested that Wade abstain from voting due to a conflict of interest. As there was no constitutional provision at the time for filling an intra-term vacancy in the vice presidency, the office had been vacant since Johnson succeeded to the presidency. Therefore, Wade, as president pro tempore of the Senate, would, under the Presidential Succession Act then in force and effect, become president if Johnson were removed from office. Reviled by the Radical Republican majority, Hendricks withdrew his objection a day later and left the matter to Wade's own conscience; he subsequently voted for conviction.
The House impeachment committee was made up of: John Bingham, George S. Boutwell, Benjamin Butler, John A. Logan, Thaddeus Stevens, James F. Wilson, and Thomas Williams. The president's defense team was made up of Henry Stanbery, William M. Evarts, Benjamin R. Curtis, Thomas A. R. Nelson and William S. Groesbeck. On the advice of counsel, the president did not appear at the trial.
The trial was conducted mostly in open session, and the Senate chamber galleries were filled to capacity throughout. Public interest was so great that the Senate issued admission passes for the first time in its history. For each day of the trial, 1,000 color coded tickets were printed, granting admittance for a single day.


On the first day, Johnson's defense committee asked for 40 days to collect evidence and witnesses since the prosecution had had a longer amount of time to do so, but only 10 days were granted. The proceedings began on March 23. Senator Garrett Davis argued that because not all states were represented in the Senate the trial could not be held and that it should therefore be adjourned. The motion was voted down. After the charges against the president were made, Henry Stanbery asked for another 30 days to assemble evidence and summon witnesses, saying that in the 10 days previously granted there had only been enough time to prepare the president's reply. John A. Logan argued that the trial should begin immediately and that Stanbery was only trying to stall for time. The request was turned down in a vote 41 to 12. However, the Senate voted the next day to give the defense six more days to prepare evidence, which was accepted.
The trial commenced again on March 30. Benjamin Butler opened for the prosecution with a three-hour speech reviewing historical impeachment trials, dating from King John of England. For days Butler spoke out against Johnson's violations of the Tenure of Office Act and further charged that the president had issued orders directly to Army officers without sending them through General Grant. The defense argued that Johnson had not violated the Tenure of Office Act because President Lincoln did not reappoint Stanton as Secretary of War at the beginning of his second term in 1865 and that he was, therefore, a leftover appointment from the 1860 cabinet, which removed his protection by the Tenure of Office Act. The prosecution called several witnesses in the course of the proceedings until April 9, when they rested their case.
Benjamin Curtis called attention to the fact that after the House passed the Tenure of Office Act, the Senate had amended it, meaning that it had to return it to a Senate-House conference committee to resolve the differences. He followed up by quoting the minutes of those meetings, which revealed that while the House members made no notes about the fact, their sole purpose was to keep Stanton in office, and the Senate had disagreed. The defense then called their first witness, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas. He did not provide adequate information in the defense's cause and Butler made attempts to use his information to the prosecution's advantage. The next witness was General William T. Sherman, who testified that President Johnson had offered to appoint Sherman to succeed Stanton as secretary of war in order to ensure that the department was effectively administered. This testimony damaged the prosecution, which expected Sherman to testify that Johnson offered to appoint Sherman for the purpose of obstructing the operation or overthrow, of the government. Sherman essentially affirmed that Johnson only wanted him to manage the department and not to execute directions to the military that would be contrary to the will of Congress.


The Senate was composed of 54 members representing 27 states at the time of the trial. At its conclusion, senators voted on three of the articles of impeachment. On each occasion the vote was 35–19, with 35 senators voting guilty and 19 not guilty. As the constitutional threshold for a conviction in an impeachment trial is a two-thirds majority guilty vote, 36 votes in this instance, Johnson was not convicted. He remained in office through the end of his term on March 4, 1869, though as a lame duck without influence on public policy.
Seven Republican senators were concerned that the proceedings had been manipulated to give a one-sided presentation of the evidence. Senators William P. Fessenden, Joseph S. Fowler, James W. Grimes, John B. Henderson, Lyman Trumbull, Peter G. Van Winkle, and Edmund G. Ross, who provided the decisive vote, defied their party by voting against conviction. In addition to the aforementioned seven, three more Republicans James Dixon, James Rood Doolittle, Daniel Sheldon Norton, and all nine Democratic senators voted not guilty.
The first vote was taken on May 16 for the eleventh article. Prior to the vote, Samuel Pomeroy, the senior senator from Kansas, told the junior Kansas Senator Ross that if Ross voted for acquittal that Ross would become the subject of an investigation for bribery. Afterward, in hopes of persuading at least one senator who voted not guilty to change his vote, the Senate adjourned for 10 days before continuing voting on the other articles. During the hiatus, under Butler's leadership, the House put through a resolution to investigate alleged "improper or corrupt means used to influence the determination of the Senate." Despite the Radical Republican leadership's heavy-handed efforts to change the outcome, when votes were cast on May 26 for the second and third articles, the results were the same as the first. After the trial, Butler conducted hearings on the widespread reports that Republican senators had been bribed to vote for Johnson's acquittal. In Butler's hearings, and in subsequent inquiries, there was increasing evidence that some acquittal votes were acquired by promises of patronage jobs and cash bribes. Political deals were struck as well. Grimes received assurances that acquittal would not be followed by presidential reprisals; Johnson agreed to enforce the Reconstruction Acts, and to appoint General John Schofield to succeed Stanton. Nonetheless, the investigations never resulted in charges, much less convictions, against anyone.
Moreover, there is evidence that the prosecution attempted to bribe the senators voting for acquittal to switch their votes to conviction. Maine Senator Fessenden was offered the ministership to Great Britain. Prosecutor Butler said, "Tell that if he wants money there is a bushel of it here to be had." Butler's investigation also boomeranged when it was discovered that Kansas Senator Pomeroy, who voted for conviction, had written a letter to Johnson's postmaster general seeking a $40,000 bribe for Pomeroy's acquittal vote along with three or four others in his caucus. Butler was himself told by Wade that Wade would appoint Butler as secretary of state when Wade assumed the presidency after a Johnson conviction. An opinion that Senator Ross was mercilessly persecuted for his courageous vote to sustain the independence of the presidency as a branch of the federal government is the subject of an entire chapter in President John F. Kennedy's book, Profiles in Courage. That opinion has been rejected by some scholars, such as Ralph Roske, and endorsed by others, such as Avery Craven.
Not one of the Republican senators who voted for acquittal ever again served in an elected office. Although they were under intense pressure to change their votes to conviction during the trial, afterward public opinion rapidly shifted around to their viewpoint. Some senators who voted for conviction, such as John Sherman and even Charles Sumner, later changed their minds.
presided over the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial

Later review of Johnson's impeachment

In 1887, the Tenure of Office Act was repealed by Congress, and subsequent rulings by the United States Supreme Court seemed to support Johnson's position that he was entitled to fire Stanton without congressional approval. The Supreme Court's ruling on a similar piece of later legislation in Myers v. United States affirmed the ability of the president to remove a postmaster without congressional approval, and stated in its majority opinion "that the Tenure of Office Act of 1867...was invalid."
Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, one of the 10 Republican senators whose refusal to vote for conviction prevented Johnson's removal from office, noted, in the speech he gave explaining his vote for acquittal, that had Johnson been convicted, the main source of the president's political power—the freedom to disagree with the Congress without consequences—would have been destroyed, and the Constitution's system of checks and balances along with it:
Once set the example of impeaching a President for what, when the excitement of the hour shall have subsided, will be regarded as insufficient causes, as several of those now alleged against the President were decided to be by the House of Representatives only a few months since, and no future President will be safe who happens to differ with a majority of the House and two thirds of the Senate on any measure deemed by them important, particularly if of a political character. Blinded by partisan zeal, with such an example before them, they will not scruple to remove out of the way any obstacle to the accomplishment of their purposes, and what then becomes of the checks and balances of the Constitution, so carefully devised and so vital to its perpetuity? They are all gone.