May 16, 1868: First Acquittal of Impeached US President

Upon the assignation of President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the 17th President of the United States. The choice of Johnson as Lincoln’s running mate was more of a political compromise than anything else. There was no love lost between Lincoln and Johnson, largely due to Johnson have been a senator from the slave state of Tennessee. To be more precise, there was no love lost between Johnson and most of Lincoln’s Cabinet, especially with Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. The relationship between Johnson and Stanton was like the relationship between a white, traditionally married conservative Christian male and Barack Obama.

After assuming the White House, Johnson enacted reconstruction laws for the south that were far more lenient than the northern Republican controlled Congress wanted. Don’t forget that Johnson was a southerner himself. His reconstruction laws opened the door for some local governments in the south to enact their own ‘Black Codes’ which in fact legalized slavery without calling it slavery, causing further friction between Johnson, Congress and some of Lincoln’s Cabinet members.

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.

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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 House brought 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson. Nine of the articles revolved around Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act by his attempts to remove Stanton as Secretary of War. Other charges leveled against Johnson claimed that he violated several of the Reconstruction Acts and that he was slanderous against members of Congress for using ‘inflammatory and scandalous harangues.’

On February 24, 1868, the Senate began hearings on the articles of impeachment. After six weeks of trial, none of which was attended by Johnson, the first of 11 verdicts were voted upon.

On this day, May 16, 1868, 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, 1868, 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 Senator 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.

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


Sources for the above includes: Articles of Impeachment Against President Andrew Johnson; Today, March 13, 1868: Impeachment Trial Begins for President Andrew Johnson; Why Was Andrew Johnson Impeached?; The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson; President Andrew Johnson impeached; Senate acquits Johnson of high crimes and misdemeanors; The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson (1868) President of the United States; The Impeachment Trial of President Andrew Johnson; The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson; Andrew Johnson and Impeachment.


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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