Following up on my column from a few weeks ago, let’s take a look at the first presidential impeachment trial.
The first President to face the wrath of Congress was Andrew Johnson in 1868. Johnson had the unfortunate luck to assume the office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. No one could fill the shoes of the Great Emancipator, so the deck was stacked against him from day one.
Johnson was simply not up to the job of healing the nation after the Civil War. Johnson was from Tennessee, and even though he opposed southern secession, opposed slavery, and remained loyal to the union during the war, he had very little sympathy for the plight of the freedmen in the south.
He faced a Congress dominated by Radical Republicans who were hell bent on punishing the south for their sins. Republicans were also determined to help the freedmen gain access to private property, voting rights, and education.
Even though Johnson opposed slavery, did not believe in racial equality or equal opportunity. He was deeply racist and did not want to strip political or economic power from the old power structure in the south. He did everything he could to slow walk Reconstruction.
Fed up with his intransigence, Congress decided to set him up for a fall. They passed a bill that made it illegal for the President to fire any member of his cabinet without Senate approval. Knowing full well that Johnson wanted to fire Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, they felt their chance to impeach would come very soon.
Sure enough, Johnson fired Stanton without the consent of the Senate, and the House drafted articles of impeachment. The House easily impeached him, and most thought the Senate would quickly oust him from office.
The trial gripped the nation, and it had all the right ingredients. Drama, conflict, power, gossip, pettiness, celebrities, etc. Much in the same way we follow the Astros or a good TV show, the nation obsessed over newspaper reports.
After hearing the evidence, it looked like the Senate had enough votes to give Johnson the boot. In 1868, there were only 54 Senators, so 36 guilty votes would do the trick. Initially, 37 Senators were ready to pull the trigger, but on the final vote, only 35 voted to convict.
There is some debate among historians as to why two Senators changed their votes. One explanation is pragmatic politics, and the other is petty, but both are plausible.
Johnson was in the last year of his term, and he was so politically weakened at this point that it was easy to just keep him in office. Republicans had super-majorities in both houses of Congress, and they regularly overrode his vetoes, so why replace him with someone stronger?
Others have suggested that two Senators changed their votes because they hated the man next in line for the presidency. Given what we know about politicians and human beings in general, it is a fun and intriguing narrative.
This episode also teaches us about the real tragedy of Lincoln’s death. Had Abe lived, the nation would have had a much better chance to heal.
Dr. Steve Showalter is a government professor at Lee College in Baytown.