Andrew Johnson, our 17th President, has become little more than a statistic of history: the first president to be impeached. But his impeachment trial was a crucial test for the viability of the U.S. Constitution and the story of his ordeal contains important lessons for contemporary society. It also contains the elements of high drama: a script filled with skullduggery, and a cast that includes a victim, a hero and assorted villains.
First, a brief look at the defendant and the prosecution.
The defendant, Andrew Johnson, the man Lincoln chose as his running mate for his second term, overcame poverty and illiteracy to attain the highest office in the land. He never attended school and reached his 14th birthday unable to read or write. However, his powerful ambition motivated him to educate himself and when only 19, he opened his own tailor shop. As a very young man, Andrew Johnson began dabbling in local politics and by age 44, he was elected Governor of Tennessee.
The prosecution, the Radical Republicans, were similar to today’s liberals: smug, elitist and "control-oriented." They viewed themselves as the preeminent authority on how society should be structured. Accommodating newspapers not only upheld the Republicans political positions but also vilified anyone who opposed them. These Radical Republicans were the driving force behind two of our worst congresses: the 39th and 40th.
On April 15, 1865, Andrew Johnson, an unsophisticated man without Lincoln’s oratorical and political skills, had to replace a martyr — a martyr whose death was blamed on Southern sympathizers. Inexplicably, although Johnson had opposed secession, publicly denounced slavery, and remained loyal to the Union throughout the War, the Radical Republicans still viewed him as a Southern supporter.
The Radical Republicans’ problem with Andrew Johnson had actually begun with President Lincoln: a disagreement on the conditions for re-admitting Southern states back into the Union. Lincoln favored a "malice toward none" approach which basically meant that Southern states should renounce secession, take an oath to support the Constitution and abolish slavery. Because he had been Lincoln’s Vice-President, Johnson felt obligated to continue Lincoln’s policies.
However, Congress considered these re-admission policies too lenient. They insisted that the existing governments of the Southern states be abolished. Also, to the Radical Republicans, the defeated Southern states offered a unique opportunity for a large-scale social experiment. They viewed the population of the South as simply a human chessboard. Central planners in Washington could micromanage the region and Federal troops would force compliance with their dictates. It was a bureaucrat’s dream come true.
Radical Reconstruction laws, which were passed over Johnson’s vetoes, consolidated the 10 excluded Southern states into 5 "military districts." The responsibility for most civic functions, including elections, was removed from local communities and assumed by military governors. These governors were appointed by the Federal government and given unheard of powers. Registered voters, suspected of having aided or abetted the Confederate war effort, could be removed from voting lists at the discretion of the appointed governor. He could also add voters to the list if he believed they had been incorrectly omitted.
Entrances to polling places were controlled by Federal troops. When voting was complete, ballots were sealed and transported to military headquarters to be counted. Next, the ballot tally had to be certified behind closed doors by the military governor and his appointees known as a "returning board" who would determine the "intent" of the voters. Needless to say, the Republican ticket carried every election in the occupied Southern states.
These extreme Reconstruction laws dramatically indicate Congress’ obsession with converting the South into a populist Camelot. To the press and public these bills were promoted as "humanitarian" laws to redress inequities. But the Radical Republicans inserted provisions that neither Johnson nor the South would accept. For example, although the 14th Amendment was publicized as protecting voting rights of freed slaves, it could deny the right to vote or hold public office to anyone who had participated in or aided the Confederate war effort. In other words, Southern states were asked to ratify an amendment that would exclude the majority of white Southerners from the political process.
But the crafty Republicans didn’t leaving anything to chance. After passing the 14th Amendment over Johnson’s objections, they created another law requiring ratification of the Amendment as a condition for a state’s readmission to the Union. This placed the majority of white Southerners in a no-win situation. Under Reconstruction restraints, most were not permitted to vote, and if their State ratified the 14th Amendment, its restrictions would also prevent them from voting. This clever ploy insured that only the military, Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and freedmen could vote. The Republicans had cleverly legislated their perpetuation in office.
Andrew Johnson’s presidential vetoes were based on his belief that the extreme measures contained in these Reconstruction bills violated the Constitution and concentrated too much power in the Federal government thereby usurping rights reserved to the states. Although Congress had the voting strength to override Johnson’s vetoes, they began to view the President as an obstruction that must be removed. However, the President couldn’t be impeached unless he committed a high crime or misdemeanor and Johnson had done neither. So, as incredible as it may sound, the House Judiciary Committee was instructed to do two things: 1. Conduct a covert investigation of the President for the purpose of finding an offense that could be construed as impeachable, and 2. Begin drafting Articles of Impeachment.
Like most elitists, the Radical Republicans underestimated the shrewdness of their opponent. The supposedly secret proceedings of the Judiciary Committee were closely monitored by the famous detective, Allan Pinkerton, who kept President Johnson informed of all developments.
On March 2, 1867, Congress passed, over Johnson’s veto, the Tenure of Office Act. This dubious piece of legislation, which was later declared unconstitutional, forbade the President from removing a cabinet member without the approval of Congress; a violation of the act would constitute a "high misdemeanor." Secretary Edwin Stanton now became more obstreperous during cabinet meetings, openly defying the President and publicly criticizing Johnson behind his back.
It must have taken immense willpower for Andrew Johnson to control his temper in the face of Stanton’s escalating abuses. But Johnson knew firing Stanton would trigger an impeachment trial. Finally, however, Johnson was pushed over the brink when he learned that Stanton had committed an act that can only be described as despicable.
In the rush to judgement following Lincoln’s assassination, suspected conspirators were hastily convicted by a military tribunal and sentenced to death by hanging. A controversy continues to this day concerning the guilt of Mrs. Mary Suratt who owned the boarding home where some of the conspirators had occasionally stayed. Although the case against her was weak, Mrs. Suratt was nonetheless convicted along with the others.
Five of the nine members of the military commission that conducted the trial sent a written request to President Johnson pleading, because of her age and sex, for a commutation of Mary Suratt’s sentence from death to life in prison. This letter, possibly because it was transmitted via the War department, was withheld from the President by Edwin Stanton. So Mary Suratt was hooded and publicly hanged along with the others. When Johnson learned about the intentional concealment of this written appeal, he flew into a rage, and on February 21, 1868, fired Secretary Stanton.
This is what the Radical Republicans had been waiting for. Now the impeachment machinery could begin in earnest. Three days after Stanton’s dismissal, the House passed the Articles of Impeachment that it had been compiling for over a year. The charges, other than the violation of the Tenure of Office Act, revolved around petty offenses such as bringing Congress into disrepute by inflammatory speeches. To the original ten Articles, an eleventh one was added at the last minute as a "fail-safe" device. It was a composite of all the other charges, written in such a way as to almost compel a guilty vote.
Reports of Johnson’s impeachment were carried on front pages of newspapers across the nation. At that time there were no movies, TV or radio and no professional sports teams. Essentially, political figures were the celebrities of the day and the shenanigans of Washington’s elite provided material for many gossip columns.
To the Radical Republicans, the trial was simply window-dressing for the press and public. They felt they had the votes necessary to oust Johnson. However, before the trial began they held a caucus to take a straw vote. There were 54 members of the Senate; twelve of them were Democrats who had publicly stated that they would not vote to remove the President. But it only took a two-thirds majority, 36 votes, to convict the President and there were 42 Republican senators. The initial straw vote indicated that 35 would vote for removal and six would vote to acquit, and these six could not be moved.
In his 1955 book, "Profiles in Courage", the young Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy chronicles the brave acts of eight United States Senators, including Edmund Ross, who placed integrity above career. Kennedy describes the pressure Edmund Ross endured from the Radical Republicans in their efforts to coerce him into voting to dismiss President Johnson. At first there was amicable persuasion but that gradually evolved into threats. The threats came not only from Senators but also from Ross’ constituents in Kansas. Others tried to bribe Ross and members of his family. The demagogic Senator from Massachusetts, Ben Butler exclaimed, "There is a bushel of money! How much does the damned scoundrel want?"
But Edmund Ross, although an outspoken opponent of Andrew Johnson, made it clear that he would not decide until he had heard the evidence, the testimony and rebuttals, and considered the legal arguments put forth by both sides. He told an acquaintance that a president shouldn’t be removed simply because of his political opinions.
The six Republicans who stated that they would vote for acquittal gave the newspapers high-sounding moralistic reasons for their stance. But other motivations came out in off-the-record discussions. At least three were concerned about Andrew Johnson’s successor. At that time, there was no provision for a selection of someone to serve as a vice-president to a president who assumed office upon the death of his predecessor. This circumstance was not corrected until the ratification of the 25th Amendment decades later.
Should Johnson be removed from office, the Senate President Pro Tem, Ben Wade of Ohio, would become President. Senator Wade had alienated almost all the Republican Senators with his arbitrary decisions and abusive behavior. One of the dissenters said, "I would rather have the President than the shallywags of Ben Wade."
Because none of their threats and inducements had caused Ross to abandon his undecided stance, the Radical Republicans began investigating Ross’ personal life hoping to find some indiscretion that could be used as blackmail. They thought they had struck gold when they found an attractive 20-year-old girl who was rumored to be romantically involved with the 41-year-old Ross, a married man with a family. Vinnie Ream was far different from most females of her age and her time. She was an independent young woman who, at age 18, was awarded a $10,000 federal commission to sculpt a marble statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Capitol Rotunda.
Ross had known the Ream family in Kansas and when they moved to Washington for Vinnie to sculpt the Lincoln statue, Ross became a boarder at the Ream house. Vinnie was subjected to intense scrutiny by investigators but she insisted that she and Ross were good friends and nothing more. But her interrogators implied that there was a relationship and even claimed that Vinnie was using her female wiles to influence Ross to vote for Johnson’s acquittal. Although they continued to badger and threaten her, Miss Ream was unflappable. She calmly denied all their allegations. Unable to break her story, the Republicans eventually tried to evict her from her Capitol studio where she was working on the Lincoln statue. But calmer heads prevailed. She was allowed to finish her work and her statue of Lincoln stands today in the Capitol Rotunda.
As the trial neared its end, the level of tension was taking its toll on the participants. The frustrated Republicans had run out of options. Now they could only hope for the best. After all, an undecided Senator could vote either way.
Although the trial had produced nothing that hadn’t already been covered in newspapers, it had, nonetheless, become a sensational media event. The courtroom galleries were packed with newspaper reporters and ordinary citizens who had paid exorbitant prices to scalpers for standing-room-only space. The voting was scheduled for May 16, 1868 and the Republicans chose to begin with Article number eleven because it would be the most difficult one for Ross to vote against.
Senators were unusually somber as they took their places in the Senate Chamber on May 16th. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Salmon Chase, called the session to order and cautioned spectators against unruly outbursts. Chase issued preliminary instructions and then asked the clerk to call the roll. Each Senator stood as his name was called, and responded to the Chief Justice’s request for his verdict. The first 24 Senators voted "Guilty!" These votes provided no suspense. In fact, the only vote that was not known in advance was the next one.
When the clerk called, "Mr. Senator Ross," many Senators abandoned decorum and turned to get a clear view of the legislator from Kansas. Senator Ross stood and faced the Chief Justice. It was reported that Justice Chase’s voice trembled slightly as he asked: "Mr. Senator Ross, how say you? Is the respondent Andrew Johnson guilty or not guilty of a high misdemeanor as charged in this Article?"
Later, Senator Ross would write that at this moment every person in the room appeared larger than life. He realized that "Friendships, position, fortune, everything that makes life desirable to an ambitious man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth." As these thoughts rushed through his mind, he was temporarily unable to speak.
The awkward silence must have been excruciating to the Senators and spectators. But finally Ross pulled himself together and pronounced his verdict. However his voice was too weak and wavering to be heard throughout the room. Some Senators were now standing; "What?" "What did he say?" The Chief Justice asked Ross to repeat his verdict. Senator Ross cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and spoke in as a firm a voice as he could muster, "Not guilty."
Senators slammed against the backs of their chairs, some banging their fists on their desks. Newspaper reporters stampeded out of the galleries and telegraph lines began humming. The rest of the legal proceedings were a mere formality. Andrew Johnson had been acquitted. The checks and balances between branches of government provided by the Constitution had survived a serious threat. Congress was unable to oust a president simply because it disapproved of his political opinions.
Newspapers excoriated Edmund Ross and Kansas rejected his Senate re-election bid. Former friends and associates spurned him and members of his family were often subjected to verbal abuse during public outings. Eventually Ross had to relocate his family from Kansas to the developing New Mexico territory.
Although Andrew Johnson had been acquitted, newspapers continued to slander him, and Democrats refused to nominate him for a second term. The discredited Johnson returned to Tennessee and ran for State Senator but was defeated.
Radical Reconstruction of the South was one of the Federal government’s first experiments with social engineering and, like the others that would follow, it caused more problems than it solved. The use of Federal troops to coerce a restructuring of Southern society did not have widespread support in the North. Also, the worsening of the national economy caused citizens to question the efficacy of the government’s investment of time and money in the Reconstruction effort. When reliable reports of the corruption and disastrous effects of Reconstruction began reaching the North, all support ended, not only from citizens but also from newspapers and politicians.
This article previously appeared on LewRockwell.com on November 22, 2002.
The dozen films listed below, in no particular order, are among my favorites. Although they might not be outstanding cinematic achievements, most were well received by both critics and the public. Admittedly, some might be little more than escapist entertainment but are still worth watching. I've presented their basic plots with an occasional bit of trivia. Most are American films from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the era before trendy social issues began to dominate film-making, and a time when Southerners were portrayed more fairly. Film settings and characters are now more stereotyped. In fact, Hollywood seems to be atrophying, the quality of actors and actresses has declined, and films are promoting socio/poltical agendas that are not in the best interest of our country. Actually, the best movies are being produced in other countries. Luckily, these recommended films from the past have been preserved.
1. Lady in the Lake – 1946
The interesting thing about this film version of a Raymond Chandler novel is its unusual filming technique. The lead character, Phillip Marlowe, is only seen in the opening and closing scenes and occasionally in a mirror. Throughout the film the camera is always behind him, and the cast speaks into the camera. This involves the viewing audience more directly. You would think this approach to filming wouldn't work but it does. Marlowe is hired by the chief editor of a crime magazine to find the missing wife of her boss who has disappeared from her small California town. The film features a complicated plot as well as an outstanding performance by one of Hollywood's most underrated actresses, Audrey Totter.
In one scene, Marlowe is confused when the missing woman's ex-lover, a transplanted Southerner, uses the word “embrangle.” In the 1940s, the South's culture hadn't been altered by migration from other regions or the influence of TV. Words like “embrangle” might still be heard in the South although they'd fallen into disuse elsewhere. The Southerner informs Marlowe that he doesn't understand the word because he is a Yankee.
2. Shane – 1953
This Western film is quite different from standard Westerns – as one reviewer stated “It has more dialogue than gunfights.” It takes place in largely unsettled Wyoming in the 1880s, where farms and fences of homesteaders impede cattle ranchers from driving herds to railroads for shipment to stockyards in the East. Cattle ranchers have driven their herds unhindered across these lands for years and so they resent homesteaders. But those families are meeting the conditions of the Homestead Acts and legally occupying land granted them by the government. A powerful cattle baron decides to intimidate the homesteaders into leaving, even recruiting a gunslinger. Around the same time, a former gunfighter seeking a new life, has wandered into the region and is hired by one of the farmers. The conflict between cattle ranchers and homesteaders builds to a powerful climax.
Although President Lincoln's Homestead Acts excluded former Confederates from being granted Western land, records of that time made it difficult to determine a person's true regional background. So this film portrays one homesteader as an ex-Confederate from Alabama. He is killed by the cattle men's hired gun and at his burial, one of the farmers plays a slow mournful version of “Dixie” on his harmonica.
3. The Uninvited – 1944
In films involving a ghost, the strange phenomenon is often explained away logically, thus resolving spooky conflicts it has caused. In this case, the ghost is real, accepted as such, and has to be eliminated. Deciding to leave London and resettle on the Cornish coast, a brother and sister find the ideal residence; a remote house on a cliff overlooking the ocean. They wonder why its elderly owner will sell it for a price well below its market value. After taking possession, they encounter bizarre phenomena and a curious noise that sounds like a sobbing woman. The former owner's 20 year old granddaughter was strongly opposed to the sale of the house and she has a troubling emotional attraction to it. The new owners gradually piece together the strange history of their home and are able to purge its sinister spirit.
The background music for this film was one of the many screen scores composed by Victor Young. The thematic melody caught the public's attention, words were added, and it became the popular song “Stella by Starlight”; the title taken from a line in the film.
4. The Southerner – 1945
The title of this film is misleading. Its not actually about Southerners per se. It concerns a poor Texas couple, with children and grandmother, trying to overcome adversities and survive by picking cotton, farming, sharecropping, or whatever is necessary. Actually it doesn't have a storyline in the traditional sense, but simply depictions of various difficulties and catastrophes that have to be overcome. Unfortunately,you might detect a slightly leftist political slant, but the quality of the film is not lessened. The plot might not sound very interesting, however it is a compelling film, highly regarded by critics.
This film is a creation of French director, Jean Renoir, son of the famous Impressionist painter. It is one of five films he made during his six year exile in America when Germany occupied France.
5. Cyrano de Bergerac – 1950
Hollywood wasn't sure how a 20th century American audience would react to a film version of Edmund Rostand's famous play from the 1800s, so they opted for a low-budget black-and-white picture. Indeed, the film was not a box office success, losing a substantial amount of money. But Jose Ferrer's performance as Cyrano, for which he won an Academy Award, has made this movie a classic. Rostand's hero is a writer, poet, and accomplished swordsman who is infatuated with a cousin, the beautiful Roxanne. Self consciousness over his prodigious misshapen nose restrains him from professing his feelings to her. Instead he provides words to a handsome, inarticulate suitor to use in courting Roxanne.
The dialogue is more interesting than the storyline. A soliloquy about independence occurs when Cyrano refuses to allow an influential nobleman edit his writing. Excerpts from this soliloquy : “...To sing, to laugh, to dream. To walk in my own way and be alone, free, to cock my hat where I choose, with a voice that means manhood...” Sadly, today's Feminists are maligning manhood, demeaning it as “toxic masculinity.”
6. Jezebel – 1938
With help from famed director William Wyler, Bette Davis' performance in this film won her an Academy Award. But my focus is neither the acting nor the direction. This is one of the few screenplays involving ante-bellum Southern plantations that portrayed amiable relationships between some slaves and some members of their owners families. This film is set on a Louisiana plantation located on the outskirts of New Orleans. Miss Davis portrays Julie Marsden, an obstinate Southern belle whose disdain for the decorum of her time causes her to lose the man she loves. Even though he has wed another, Julie is determined to get him back using whatever unscrupulous stratagems are necessary - an epidemic of yellow fever curtails her efforts .
Complaisant relationships between some slaves and their masters were also allowed in the 1935 film of Stark Young's novel “So Red the Rose” and “Gone With the Wind”, released in 1939 . But Hollywood depictions of plantation life eventually became rigidly formulaic – all slaves were oppressed and all masters were tyrannical.
7. Till We Meet Again – 1940
You may wonder why this film is on my list of favorites when admittedly the plot is contrived and trite. But it is representative of many films of its time – you enjoy watching it without analyzing it too closely. A couple has their first brief meeting in a bar in Hong Kong. He is an escaped convict, soon to be recaptured and returned to the States to be executed, and she has a fatal illness with only a short time to live. They meet again on a luxury liner and neither informs the other of their hopeless fate. A typical shipboard romance ensues and they plan to meet again, each knowing it cannot happen.
This 1940 movie was a remake of the 1932 version “One Way Passage.” Both films share basically the same script, as well as the same musical theme, the wistful song “Where Was I” , hauntingly rendered. These two films still have a following with fans disagreeing over which is better.
8. White Cargo - 1942
This film was preceded by the popular novel “Hell's Playground” by Ida Simonton, which was also made into London and Broadway stage productions. There had even been a 1929 silent film adaptation with spoken dialogue added later. The operator of a 1910 African rubber plantation is frustrated with the constant turnover of European managers imported to supervise workers. These Europeans seem unable to adapt to the mores and work habits of the workers or the sweltering climate. To complicate matters, a sultry, provocative native girl uses her wiles to exploit these lonely men. A newly arrived manager is beguiled by this local femme fatale, and to prevent her from being banned from the region, he naively marries her. Soon bored with married life, she resorts to perilous extremes in order to be free again.
9. The Scapegoat – 1959
This is a film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel, “The Scapegoat.” Indeed, it would take someone with du Maurier's writing skills to make this offbeat story work. While vacationing in France, a reclusive British university teacher stops at a bar for a drink and is startled to discover a stranger who is his exact double. The teacher and the stranger, a wealthy nobleman, spend the evening drinking and decide to share a hotel room. The next morning, the teacher awakes to find that his clothing, his passport, and his look-alike are all missing. The nobleman's chauffeur arrives and assumes the teacher is his employer, driving the confused man to an estate. The wife, daughter, sister, and mother accept him as genuine and he becomes comfortable in his new lifestyle. However, the nobleman's mistress in the village realizes he is not her former lover but she is content in her relationship with the bogus man. Things move along fairly smoothly until the original master returns and demands his identity back.
Some clever film techniques allow the talented actor Alex Guinness to play both men.
10. Black Narcissus – 1947
This screen adaptation of Rumer Godden's 1939 novel is one of those rare cases where the film is better than the book. The rather odd story-plot is set in the remote Himalayan mountains of India where the son of a deceased ruler donates his father's palace, formerly a harem, to a Calcutta convent of nuns in order to create a school and clinic for local inhabitants. The sisters selected for the project are ill-equipped to deal with the strange environment or the casual lifestyle of the locals. The assistance of the local government agent, one of the few British males in the region, helps them through rough spots until the challenges become too intense. When tragedy takes the life of one of the sisters, the others abandon the project and return to their former convent.
This film is the product of the talented team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger.
11. Swept Away – 1974
Filmmaker Lina Wertmuller, who began her career as Frederico Fellini's assistant, not only directed this film, but also wrote the script. A deckhand on a Mediterranean yachting cruise is mistreated by the wealthy Italian socialites he has been hired to serve. One afternoon he is ordered to lower a boat and take one of the insolent ladies to join others who are visiting a nearby island. The boat's motor soon fails and the couple begins hopelessly drifting. After a long fearful night, the motor begins working, but daylight reveals nothing but a wide empty sea. An island is finally spotted but after landing on it, they find it is uninhabited. The deckhand can catch fish, build a fire, and construct a rudimentary shelter, but his female companion is helpless. Their roles are now reversed. He gives the orders and to survive, she obeys. Over time they develop a passionate love relationship and when they are eventually rescued by a passing ship, they vow to rejoin each other after family and friends are assured of their survival. However, exposed again to the luxury and glamour of her former life, the lady reneges on her vow. Her distraught island lover waits in vain for her to join him.
12. Young and Innocent – 1937
Any collection of popular films should include at least one by Alfred Hitchcock, and this one is my choice. Although this film was made early in his career, Hitchcock places himself in it, fumbling with a small camera outside of the local courthouse. The picture follows a plot-theme Hitchcock would often use; someone is accused of a crime they didn't commit and has to solve it on their own while simultaneously avoiding capture by law enforcement. A man is arrested by police after being found on the beach near the body of a murdered actress with whom he was acquainted. A courthouse mix up allows him to escape the authorities and try to discover the real murderer, assisted by a young lady who ironically is the local police constable's daughter.
The female lead is played by the talented British actress Nova Pilbeam. She first appeared on the stage while still a small child and was given important film roles in her early teens. But this rising star retired from the screen before her 30th birthday and lived a private existence until her death at age 95.
Gail Jarvis is a Georgia-based free-lance writer. He attended the University of Alabama and has a degree from Birmingham Southern College. As a CPA/financial consultant, he helped his clients cope with the detrimental effects of misguided governmental intrusiveness. This influenced his writing as did years of witnessing how versions of news and history were distorted for political reasons. Mr. Jarvis is a member of the Society of Independent Southern Historians and his articles have appeared on various websites, magazines, and publications for several organizations. He lives in Coastal Georgia with his wife.