Government and Politics


Why was President Andrew Johnson impeached?

In late February 1868 nine articles of impeachment were brought against Andrew Johnson over political and ideological differences between the president and Congress.

Johnson—self-educated, self-made, and outspoken—inspired people to either love or hate him. A Southern Democrat in the U.S. Senate, he broke bonds of home and party when he swore allegiance to the Union after the outbreak of the Civil War (1861–65). This he did because of his strong personal belief that the Southern states had violated the U.S. Constitution when they seceded from the Union. Soon this Tennessean and former Democrat shared the Union Party ticket with Republican Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) as he ran for re-election to the presidency in the fall of 1864. Inaugurated in March, Vice President Johnson became President Johnson that fateful mid-April day when Lincoln was shot as he sat watching a play at Washington, D.C.’s Ford’s Theater. But Johnson’s troubles had already begun: As he and Lincoln took the oath of office in March, Johnson appeared to be drunk. Some attributed this to the fact that he was recovering from typhoid fever, but one journalist labeled him a “drunken clown,” and a group of senators began calling for his resignation. Lincoln met with his vice president for the first—and what would turn out to be the last—time on April 14, just hours before Lincoln’s life was claimed by assassin John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865).

As president, Johnson’s true colors shined through. Again allegiant to his homeland, his policies toward Southern states were lenient; ever class-conscious, he used the power of his office to demonstrate to the Southern aristocrats, whom he openly despised, just how far a poor man from North Carolina had come; as a states’ rights advocate, he was ever-watchful of any congressional bills that might impinge upon the freedoms of the individual states; and as a racist, he proved reticent to grant rights or protection to blacks.

All of these traits combined to create sticking points between Johnson and Congress: In February 1866 Congress voted to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a War Department agency that assisted blacks and whites. But Johnson vetoed the measure, and Congress was unable to overturn his veto. Later that year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, a bill that extended citizenship to freed slaves and guaranteed them “equal protection of the laws.” Believing this piece of legislation overstepped the boundaries of central government (he felt this sort of lawmaking was up to each state), he again vetoed it. But this time Congress mustered the votes it needed to overturn a presidential veto. It was the first of many veto overrides during Johnson’s administration. Feeling Johnson was ill-equipped to run the nation, Congress moved its meeting time so that it could keep an eye on the executive branch. Meantime, Congress was guiding Reconstruction policy. The Southern states were being run by their military administrators, reporting to General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885).

In 1867 Congress passed a law, the Tenure of Office Act, preventing the president from removing any cabinet member without Congress’s permission. By this time, Congress has already begun to consider whether Johnson ought to be impeached. That fall, President Johnson pardoned many Confederate generals and officials, further raising the ire of Congress—and the nation. Johnson’s popularity was waning. The following February, Grant attempted to replace Edwin Stanton (1814–1869) as secretary of war. Stanton, who was favored by Congress, refused to leave his office, physically chaining himself to his desk. Congress viewed Johnson’s move as a violation of the Tenure of Office Act and proceeded to hold impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives. Within a few days, the House approved a resolution of impeachment. On March 13, the trial began in the Senate. On May 19 the Senate voted on one of the articles of impeachment—it was considered to be the one most likely to receive the two-thirds majority vote required to convict the president. The measure failed—by one vote. Subsequent votes resulted in the same tally.

While many believe Johnson was an inadequate and unpopular president who made numerous mistakes while in office, many others believe he was not guilty of the high crimes and misdemeanors called for in Article 2 (Section 4) of the Constitution. In fact, the law that he was accused of breaking, the Tenure of Office Act, was later overturned as unconstitutional.


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