The Author of a New Book About Andrew Johnson on the Right Reasons to Impeach a President
In 1868, the House of Representatives deemed it appropriate to impeach President Andrew Johnson. Johnson, who served as Abraham Lincoln’s Vice-President and assumed the Presidency upon his assassination, was a Democrat from Tennessee, who had opposed secession but went on to thwart Republican plans for Reconstruction. In response, the Republican Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which prevented Johnson from removing members of his Cabinet without approval from the Senate; when Johnson defied the new legislation, by firing his Secretary of War, the House voted to impeach the President, though the Senate ultimately chose not to remove him.
As Brenda Wineapple recounts in her new book, “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation,” the impeachment of Johnson has traditionally been seen as an overreach by Congress, with Republican lawmakers privileging partisan considerations over the separation of powers. Wineapple thinks that this argument overlooks House members’ real, stated reasons for impeaching Johnson: that his opposition to basic tenets of Reconstruction, including the enfranchisement of former slaves, and his contempt for Congress, rendered him unfit to be President.
This debate is newly relevant after the release of the Mueller report, with some Democrats arguing that, despite Mueller’s decision not to charge President Trump with obstruction, Trump remains unfit for the office. To discuss how Johnson came to be impeached, I recently spoke by phone with Wineapple. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the similarities between Johnson and Trump, the charges against Johnson, and what history tells us about what impeachment can and cannot accomplish.
You write, “To reduce the impeachment of Andrew Johnson to a mistaken incident in American history, a bad taste in the collective mouth, disagreeable and embarrassing, is to forget the extent to which slavery and thus the very fate of the nation lay behind Johnson’s impeachment.” That is not the version of Johnson’s impeachment that is usually taught. Are you trying to offer a corrective?
I certainly hope it offers a corrective, and more than that I hope it’s convincing. I don’t know how you were taught, but I certainly wasn’t taught much about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. I was taught that it was preposterous. It was engineered by fanatics. Even recently, when I gave a talk, a very literate, intelligent man asked me if the Tenure of Office Act hadn’t been cooked up in order to ensnare Johnson, which I think was a kind of standard view.
But, when I read through the Congressional record, when I went back to newspapers, when I went into old files and letters and archives, it became clear, to my mind, that the cause of it, that what was being debated, was the way in which the country would go forward and not just get rid of slavery, which the Thirteenth Amendment did, but get rid of the lingering effects of the slavery, which were huge.
Why do you think Andrew Johnson was impeached? Was it over the violation of the Tenure of Office Act, or was it a much larger question?
It was both. The reason that the House voted overwhelmingly to impeach, when it finally did, in February of 1868, was that he violated the Tenure of Office Act. Congress felt that, by breaking the law, that particular law, Johnson was thumbing his nose at them and the rule of law. That was the immediate reason.
But it’s also true that there were people in Congress and outside of it, but primarily we’re talking about Congress, who had rejected the direction Johnson was taking the country in and felt that he was squandering the outcome of the war, or what the war promised. So the larger issues were extant.
The Judiciary Committee had been investigating Johnson, but it hadn’t really got to the point of voting for impeachment, because it was floundering on the question of, Should impeachment occur because of broad issues, like abuse of public trust, or should it be for specific violations of law? So it had been going between those two things, and the Constitution doesn’t make clear which is preferable. So that’s why there were two themes or two strands. They come together on the Tenure of Office Act, which was actually passed to protect Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, who was protecting the military, which was protecting the registration of blacks and whites at the polls in the South.
The Tenure of Office Act was later declared unconstitutional, and some of the defenses of Johnson have rested on the idea that he was impeached for violating an Act that was then found unconstitutional—
Exactly. And that’s where I got the person saying, “Well, wasn’t this just sort of cooked up to impeach him?” Well, no, that Act was cooked up to inhibit him, to prevent him from firing Stanton and undoing the Reconstruction Laws. I don’t think Congress really thought he was going to break that law. So they weren’t trying to impeach him at that point. They were just trying to do an end run around him.
Just to play devil’s advocate for a minute here: if he had been removed from office for violating a law that was then found to be unconstitutional, or that people thought was an undue check on the President’s prerogatives, do you think that that could have had negative consequences?
I understand your question. But there were eleven articles of impeachment, and not all of them dealt with the Tenure of Office Act. The eleventh article, for example, the one that was mostly promoted by Thaddeus Stevens, who really wanted Johnson impeached for much broader issues, was called the Omnibus Article. And, in that sense, what they were trying to do was say, “Look, this is really why he’s impeached.”
If he had been removed from office, then Benjamin Wade [a Radical Republican and the president pro tempore of the Senate] would have come into the Presidency, and then the writing of history, or the writing of Johnson in history, might have been different, because Wade might have dealt with the Presidency and race and the effects of slavery in a whole different way.
So Johnson is impeached, and then he’s not removed. And we know he’s followed very soon after by a new President, Ulysses S. Grant. What else might have been different if his trial in the Senate had gone the other way?
You would have had a different transition period between Johnson’s removal and what probably would have been the election of Grant in any case. But the difference might have been that then Wade would have been a bigger player on the Republican platform going forward, no matter how helpful Grant was in making sure that black men got into office and had the vote and that the military was protected. Wade surely would have had a group of radicals around him, who would, I think, have helped the South rebuild in a way that didn’t allow the Ku Klux Klan and the white supremacists to take over states as powerfully as they did.
Regarding Johnson the man, your book traces the ways in which he both changed and remained consistent. This is someone who had opposed secession and was Lincoln’s Vice-President, but by the later stages of this book, by 1868, he’s really almost fanatical in his hatred of Radical Republicans who want to bring about change in the South. How do you understand the ways in which he changed, or the ways in which he always was the person that he was at the end?
It’s an interesting question, because it’s a larger question about whether people change or just become more themselves. I think both are true. The fact of the matter was that he really hated the idea of secession, and, when he stood up in the Senate and said that he was against it, he was basically saying that to preserve the Union, because the Union protects slavery. So, from a Northerner’s point of view, it seems like, Oh, he’s wonderful, he’s courageous, he’s against secession, but that didn’t mean he was against slavery. He was a white supremacist, in Congress, in the Senate, and then he was a white supremacist later. So that remains very much the same.
He was also brave. It was a brave thing to do when Southerners were going along with what were called the fire-eaters, and he wouldn’t go along with them, and it meant cutting ties with people he may very well have admired. I think I say in the book, and I really do mean it, that at a certain point bravery becomes a form of stubbornness—stubbornness and the refusal to tailor his views to a changing situation.
When people get in positions of power, many things change. He’d grown up in poverty. His father died young. He really had to make his way in the world. For him, politics was a way of changing classes. He always was an outsider to the so-called planter class, or the white aristocracy of the South. I think he felt that very keenly. Suddenly, not only had he changed classes by getting into politics but he’d become the President of the United States. So, in some ways, he can use that position of power to solidify his—you wouldn’t call it his base, that’s too contemporary—but to solidify an alliance he always really wanted with the planter class, the Southern aristocracy. Then he always felt people were out to get him.
Yes, to read from your book: “Johnson worked himself up to a pitch, and whatever veneer of composure he had adopted cracked wide open. Mixing self-pity with pride, he balefully described his origins, his diligent life as a tailor, his fixed devotion to the Constitution, and the fact that he was cut from the same patriotic cloth as the noble George Washington. Whatever the charms of the White House, he raved on, they held no charm for him.” You also talk about Johnson’s “penchant for martyrdom” at another point in the book. Were there modern parallels on your mind when you were writing passages like that?
It’s impossible to close out the world you’re living in. I could look at his speeches, or how they were reported, and see him talking about himself as Jesus Christ being persecuted. You think, what is going on here!? It’s not that I’m taking in the world or present day to look at Johnson. I’m looking at Johnson, and then I’m reading the newspaper, or turning on the news, and it’s the same. Oh, my God! You know what I mean? So, it kind of worked like that for me. I tried to just see him as he was. I understand the impossibility of that position, but he was a demagogue.
So, just to be clear, your book is not a winking attempt at talking about the present day.
No. It really isn’t.
I was impressed by the degree to which the people who were making a case for impeaching Johnson wanted to base it not simply on the intricacies of the law or whether a specific law was violated but on this larger argument that he was fundamentally a racist, erratic person who could not carry out his duties, had poor values, and at some level should not be allowed to be President. Did that surprise you?
Yeah. I had never even thought of that, because I was kind of force-fed the idea that the people who were against Johnson were themselves partisan fanatics. And of course they were partisan, but they actually had a principled position that they were taking, and the overly simplistic view of that is that this is a man who’s unfit for office in any time, and most spectacularly in this particular time when we have an opportunity that we can’t squander, because we’re still burying the dead for a civil war fought to eradicate a dreadful institution that had to be abolished. So they were making that principled argument, and the irony is that, to a certain extent, because of what happened in subsequent years, into the twentieth century, that argument was lost. I think that has less to do with those particular times, 1865 to 1868, than with the way history came to be taught in the twentieth century, which is an interesting phenomenon.
Yeah, you quote people like John F. Kennedy basically taking a pro-Johnson—
Well, I mention him, and also something called the Dunning school. One of the exciting things to me was that William Archibald Dunning, who taught at Columbia University in the first two decades of the twentieth century, and who influenced enormous numbers of historians, called Reconstruction a failure, and called people like Charles Sumner or, outside of Congress, Wendell Phillips, crazy fanatics. When Dunning was working on Reconstruction, he got in touch with this man Manton Marble, an incredible name, who was the editor of the New York World, a very rabidly Democratic paper, during the Civil War. Marble was still alive and gave him certain kinds of information, so you could see, really, behind the scenes, you can lift up the curtain and see who’s talking to who.
You say that you thought the impeachment process worked, even though Johnson stayed in office. Why?
There was no revolution. This is right after a war. Johnson and some of his people were talking about amassing troops outside of Washington, creating a kind of insurrection. He was trying to roil people. He wanted to go out and speak to go do another stumping tour. People kept him from doing that.
And the people who were making the impeachment arguments, even though I happen to personally favor one argument over the other, I felt that they were making reasoned, impassioned arguments. The work of the nation still went on. The country didn’t fall apart. There wasn’t another war. There was a smooth process. It was reasonable. It was not ideal, but I think it was kind of like jury duty. There were people in Congress, not all of them, who were doing the best that they could to figure out the issues as they saw them at the time.
Do you think the Johnson era has some lessons for either citizens or members of Congress who are thinking about impeachment right now?
Well, yeah. I think we as the citizenry have to understand that you can argue from a broad interpretation and a narrow interpretation. The narrow interpretation in a sense saved Johnson. The broad interpretation of what impeachment is—abuse of public trust—ironically, saved Clinton. But it’s an interesting phenomenon. Clinton clearly lied. He clearly committed perjury. That’s illegal, right? But, in that particular sense, he was not thought to have abused the public trust.
It seems essential that people understand that there are two ways of arguing for impeachment and a vote. Everyone should be clear about what’s being argued and why. Sometimes, even now, I feel that the discussion is muddied because those kinds of questions are not clarified. I really do think that the way the Johnson impeachment played itself out helped clarify it, because, as I said, and I do believe, the larger issue was raised, and that issue cannot be made small. Once you say, Look, this guy is an unresponsive person who is abusing the public trust, disregarding Congress, ignoring the Constitution and the separation of powers, and squandering the effects of the war, turning back the clock, recreating slavery with a different name—you can’t distill that into a single law.