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Today, March 13, 1868: Impeachment Trial Begins for President Andrew Johnson

Have you ever heard the name Benjamin Wade? He was a Republican Senator from Ohio narrowly missed becoming the 18th President of the United States by one single vote in an election that had nothing to do with him.

It all started with the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln’s assassination, the reconstruction of the South, Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Andrew Johnson.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, appointed US Senator Andrew Johnson (D-TN) to be the new Military Governor of Tennessee. Two years later, Lincoln shocked many members of the political world by selecting Johnson to be his Vice-President running mate for his 1864 re-election bid. Lincoln picked Johnson to win the vote of Democrats and it worked.

Lincoln’s Democratic opponent in the 1864 election was Gen. George McClellan and his running mate George Pendleton. By choosing Johnson as his running mate, Lincoln won 55% of the popular vote carrying 22 of 25 states. The electoral vote was 212 for Lincoln and only 21 for McClelland. On March 4, 1865, Lincoln was inaugurated for his second term and Johnson was sworn in as the Vice President. Barely a month later on April 14, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Lincoln died the next morning on April 15, 1865 and Johnson was sworn in as the 17th President of the United States the same day.

At the time of Lincoln’s assassination and Johnson’s inauguration, there were two prevailing ideas of how to carry out a reconstruction of the southern states. One idea believed that the states maintained the same boundaries, constitution and sovereignty they had before their secession. The only role of the federal government was to help put down any insurrection and help establish new leadership for each state. After that, each state was responsible for its own rehabilitation.

The second idea for reconstruction considered the Confederacy to be a conquered nation without any state borders or any rights of statehood. It would be up to the federal government to determine future state borders and admission to the nation as a new state. This view of reconstruction placed the people and lands of the Confederacy at the complete mercy and rule of the federal government.

Many hard core Republicans supported the second form of reconstruction, but after Johnson was sworn in as president, it became known that he supported the first and most sympathetic form of reconstruction. This angered many Republicans and set them at odds with Johnson from then on.

When Johnson proposed a reconstruction plan for North Carolina, it didn’t set well with many within his own Cabinet. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, appointed by Lincoln, said that Johnson’s proposal seemed fixed. This started the tension between Johnson and Stanton.

In January 1866, Johnson shocked the political world of Washington by vetoing two bills introduced by Sen. Lyman Turnbull. Many of the politicians didn’t believe Johnson would be so confrontational by vetoing the bills, but he was. Congress tried to override the vetoes. They fell short of the necessary votes to override the veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, but they were successful in overriding Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act with a 33-15 vote.

The battle lines had been drawn between Johnson and most of the Republicans in Congress. The more radical Republicans started saying that Johnson was ‘an outlaw underserving of quarter.’

In March 1867, Congress took action to hobble Johnson’s executive powers and passed the Tenure of Office Act. It meant that any member of a president’s administration that first required the approval of the Senate could not be fired by the president without the approval of the Senate. One of the main reasons for the Tenure of Office Act was to protect Secretary of War Stanton.

Naturally, Johnson vetoed the Tenure of Office Act, but Congress had no problems coming up with enough votes to override his veto. Later that year, Johnson tested the constitutionality of the act by demanding the resignation of Stanton and replacing him with Ulysses Grant. Stanton refused to submit his resignation and the case quickly went to the US Supreme Court, but they refused to rule. Grant went home and left the office to Stanton.

Talk of impeachment had circulated on the floor of the House for months, but no one was ready to formally take action, at least not until Johnson defied Congress again.

On February 21, 1868, Johnson again defied the Tenure of Office Act and appointed Gen Lorenzo Thomas to be Secretary of War. Stanton refused to leave office again and this time barricaded himself in his office.

This was the final straw for Congress and on February 24, 1868, the House voted to charge President Andrew Johnson with 11 articles of impeachment. Nine of the articles dealt with Johnson’s violations of the Tenure of Office Act. One of the articles of impeachment dealt with Johnson’s opposition to the Army Appropriations Act of 1867 which drastically limited the powers of the president as commander in chief of the US Army. The other article of impeachment charged that Johnson brought ‘into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt, and reproach the Congress of the United States.’

On March 13, 1868, the Senate, according to Article I, Section 3 of the US Constitution, started the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. Presiding over the trial was US Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, who was governor of Ohio when Lincoln appointed him to be Secretary of the Treasure on March 7, 1861 and then nominated by Lincoln to the Supreme Court in 1864 and sworn in as Chief Justice on December 6, 1864.

The trial lasted over 2 months and was often described as a theatrical performance. Anti-Johnson senators acted like he was the worst enemy America ever had. Tempers flared and voices were often raised.

On May 16, a vote was taken on Article 11 of the impeachment charges. The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote of the Senate to find a president, or anyone else being impeached, guilty. The vote 35-19, one vote short to convict.

On May 26, the Senate voted two more times and again, the votes were 35-19, one short of the necessary two-thirds. The 19 votes to acquit Johnson was made up of 12 Democrats and 7 moderate Republicans.

Had just one of the moderate Republicans voted to convict, Andres Johnson would have been removed from office and Senate Benjamin Wade, who at the time was serving as President Pro Tempore of the US Senate, would have been sworn in as the 18th President of the United States.

Instead, Andrew Johnson served out the remainder of his one term as president. He then returned to Tennessee. In 1872 he ran for the US Senate in Tennessee but lost. In 1874, he again ran for the US Senate and won.

On March 4, 1875, Johnson was sworn in as the US Senator from Tennessee and almost defiantly strided onto the floor of the Senate, where he was nearly impeached just seven years earlier.

However, Johnson’s senatorial career was short lived as he suffered a stroke on July 28 and then again on July 30 and died the next day, July 31, 1875.

Sources for the above include: The Andrew Johnson Impeachment Trial; The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson; Impeachment Trial of Andrew Johnson Begins; President Andrew Johnson impeached; The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson; The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson; Andrew Johnson;

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Dave Jolly

R.L. David Jolly holds a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and an M.S. in Biology – Population Genetics. He has worked in a number of fields, giving him a broad perspective on life, business, economics and politics. He is a very conservative Christian, husband, father and grandfather who cares deeply for his Savior, family and the future of our troubled nation.

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