Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy
As the presidency of Bill Clinton recedes into the halcyon glow of history, his impeachment by the House of Representatives seems less a personal repudiation than an institutional embarrassment for Congress. With the passage of time, the charges against Clinton seem overdrawn, more an extension of a political fight that included the federal government shutdown than a real threat to the sanctity of government.This recent context is important for anyone who reads David Stewart's magnificent account of the first presidential impeachment, "Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy." As the experienced lawyer turned engaging historian describes the specific charges against Johnson, they too seem overdrawn, legally speaking. However, they were simply one weapon in a more consequential struggle over the future of civil rights in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.Johnson, who became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was a southern Unionist and highly sympathetic to southerners who feared the consequences of granting freed slaves any real civil rights. Such an attitude, while appealing to some influential politicians, was contrary to several of Lincoln's public statements, including his address after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, which coupled leniency for rebels and seceded states -- which Johnson took to extraordinary lengths -- with the promise of voting rights for African-Americans who served in the Union Army and Navy.Worse, Johnson's policy of leniency for southern politicians who had served in the Confederate government or army and his aversion to assistance for freed blacks was in direct opposition to the most influential group in the Republican-dominated Congress. The Radical Republicans, who had frequently complained that Lincoln's actions toward slavery were too little and too late, wanted the rebellion leaders, including southern politicians, punished for their involvement in instigating and prosecuting the war and also sought increasing civil rights and government support for freed slaves. The result was significant conflict between Congressional leaders and the President, who drug his feet whenever possible to limit the full execution of laws enacted by the Congress, many of which had been passed by Congress over his veto. Eventually, frustrated Republican leaders began exploring ways to limit Johnson's powers, including the possibility of removing him from office. While the first attempt at impeachment failed, Johnson handed his political enemies a gift when he knowingly violated the Tenure of Office Act, one such Congressional act which limited the president's power to remove appointees confirmed by the Senate and was of questionable constitutionality.In some ways, the precipitating incident was farcical, as Stewart makes clear. Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, but Stanton refuses to physically leave his office. Johnson then appointed an underling to the position, while trying to tempt Gen. William T. Sherman to take the post. As the impasse continued, General-in-Chief Ulysses Grant, who had little use for Johnson and nurtured presidential ambitions in the next year's election, carefully administered the military independent of civilian oversight, careful to not be directly insubordinate of the President.Meanwhile, Radical Republicans pressed for impeachment again, this time succeeding, but only after some difficulty in exactly describing the nature of Johnson's crime in constitutional terms. After this, the main event became the trial of the now-impeached Johnson in the Senate, with the possibility that he could be removed from office by a 2/3 vote. With great style, Stewart discusses the personalities and intrigue behind this trial, including the distressing fact that the prosecution's case was poorly coordinated by the House members selected to argue it.Underlying this analysis, which is consistently strong, Stewart offers a tantalizing, but ultimately unprovable assessment. Despite all of the factors that favored enough people voting to preserve Johnson in the presidency, there is strong circumstantial evidence that the key votes in Johnson's favor -- and the vote for removal fell only one short of the necessary 2/3 -- were bought and paid for by people who benefitted from Johnson remaining in office.If there is a shortcoming in the delightful account, it is that Stewart never adequately explores Johnson's unexpected Republican allies, such as Secretary of State William Seward, who were neither southern sympathizers or politically beholden to Johnson. This, though, is a small quibble in an otherwise excellent book that is both thoughtful in its assessments and dramatically engaging in its writing.