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.
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Gail Jarvis is a Georgia-based free-lance writer. He attended the University of Alabama and has a degree from Birmingham Southern College. His writing is influenced by 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.