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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

An impeachment long ago: Andrew Johnson's saga

By Adam Cohen

TIME magazine

If there had been a TV show Andrew Johnson: Presidency in Crisis, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley would have been the star. Greeley, king of the pro-impeachment sound bite, called Johnson "an aching tooth in the national jaw, a screeching infant in a crowded lecture room," and said, "There can be no peace or comfort till he is out." And plenty of Congressmen would happily have offered up the 19th century version of talk-show rant. One Republican Representative denounced Johnson as "an ungrateful, despicable, besotted traitorous man--an incubus." Be grateful, Bill Clinton.

Political character assassination was alive and well long before cable TV and the Internet. Forget Vince Foster conspiracy theories--1860s Republicans charged that Johnson, when he was Vice President, aided in Abraham Lincoln's assassination so he could move up to the top job. Monica Lewinsky pales beside Jennie Perry, who blackmailed Johnson with charges that he fathered an illegitimate son. And Johnson's critics claimed he was conspiring to help the defeated Confederacy rise again. If Clinton were to channel Johnson, the two men--each born in poverty in the South, raised by a widow, elected Governor before he became President and tormented by Republican foes--would have a lot to talk about. The drive to impeach Johnson, the only President to be impeached and tried in the Senate, was really about the politics of post-Civil War Reconstruction. The Radical Republicans who controlled Congress took a hard line toward Dixie. Johnson was no Confederate; he was the only Southern Congressman not to secede when his state did. But he vetoed bills that he viewed as too punitive against former slave owners, and he resisted military rule over the Southern states. Republicans were so irate, said Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, that they would have impeached Johnson "had he been accused of stepping on a dog's tail."

Technically, Johnson was impeached for firing his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, who was a Radical Republican sympathizer. Johnson's enemies said the dismissal violated the Tenure of Office Act, a law that was later judged to be unconstitutional. The legislators threw in a few other charges, including conspiracy and bringing Congress into disrepute. "A shaggy mountain of malice had panted, heaved and labored," an early Johnson biographer fulminated, "and this small and very scaly mouse was the result!"

If the charges against Johnson were weak, his defense was at times Clintonian. His lawyers argued he could not have "conspired" with Stanton's successor because a Commander in Chief gives orders, which his subordinate has no choice but to accept. And they argued that the federal conspiracy law did not apply, because it covered only states and "territories," and Washington was neither. Johnson tried to build popular support by launching a speaking tour--dubbed his "Swing Around the Circle"--but he was heckled in St. Louis, Mo., and told by an Indianapolis, Ind., mob to "shut up." Like some of Clinton's televised explaining and finger wagging, Johnson's p.r. offensive hurt his cause.

The debate in the House was boisterous and nasty. A Congressman said Johnson had dragged the robes of his office through "the purlieus and filth of treason." Another called his advisers "the worst men that ever crawled like filthy reptiles at the footstool of power." The outcome was never in doubt. On Feb. 24, 1868, Johnson was impeached by a party-line vote of 126 to 47, and 11 articles of impeachment were sent to the Senate.

Johnson was tried there, with the proceedings presided over by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. The House sent a "board of managers," heavy with Radical Republicans, to argue for impeachment. Johnson, defended by a bipartisan team of lawyers, did not attend. The trial was a great spectacle--the galleries were packed--but few new facts came to light.

To get the two-thirds needed to convict, the Republicans could afford only six defections from their ranks. It all came down to Senator Edmund Ross, a Kansas Republican and the only fence-sitter. Ross was "hunted like a fox" by both sides, the New York Tribune wrote. In the end, he backed Johnson, who was kept in office by a single vote.

Defecting to Johnson came at a cost. None of the seven Republican Senators who crossed party lines was re-elected. Ross was shunned by friends--one wire from home declared that "Kansas repudiates you as she does all perjurers and skunks"--and he ended his life in near poverty. But history has sided with Ross and his fellow defectors. Nearly a century later, John F. Kennedy put Ross in his book Profiles in Courage. By rising above partisanship and the passions of the day, Kennedy wrote, Ross "may well have preserved for ourselves and posterity constitutional government in the United States."


Cover Date: December 21, 1998

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