• Susannah Colt

THROUGH THE LENS OF THE JOHNSON IMPEACHMENT




At the House Rules Committee on Impeachment Resolution held on Jan. 13, 2021, Congressman Dan Bishop, Republican from North Carolina, discussed the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. He said, “Once before the House impeached the president within a week of the alleged offense – that was President Johnson days after he removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in 1868. Over 50 years later the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Tenure of Office Act that President Johnson had refused to obey. The House was hasty and it was wrong in punishing non-compliance with an unconstitutional law.”


Bishop then went on to argue that the current rush to impeach Trump was equally as reprehensible because the facts do not support the well-settled law regarding the crime of Rebellion or Insurrection. He cherry-picked 22 of Trump’s words out of an hour-long harangue about how he won the election by a landslide and it was being stolen from him. Those words were: “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” By the way, how did Trump know everyone was going to be marching down to the Capitol building if it had not been pre-planned?


Bishop also argued the First Amendment protection of free speech. Of course, Bishop conveniently ignored Trump’s repeated lies about the “fraudulent” election followed by calls to “show strength,” “get tough,” “fight,” and at the end of the speech, he encouraged the crowd to “fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”


What infuriates me is the way Johnson’s impeachment was used by Bishop to defend Trump. Bishop is not the only one to misrepresent the truth about that impeachment. Ever since Bill Clinton was impeached, the Johnson impeachment has been brought up to provide historical context. The problem is hardly anyone talks about the real reason Johnson was impeached.


Johnson was not impeached just because he fired his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and in doing so violated the Tenure of Office Act, which has been passed into law the year before. The truth is Johnson was impeached for how he proceeded with the reconstruction of the Union after the Civil War ended. How he dealt with the four million men and women freed from the bondage of slavery is what lay behind his impeachment. Nobody ever talks about that. They only talk about how Johnson was attacked in a purely partisan manner when he violated a law that was found to be unconstitutional nearly 60 years after the fact.


It is time to set the record straight.


Within a year of being sworn in to the presidency after Abraham Lincoln was tragically assassinated on April 14, 1865, Congress began to call for the impeachment of Johnson.


The two branches of the government had been quarreling about the best way to reconstruct the Union. Shortly after he was sworn in, Johnson began his own policy of reconstruction while Congress was in recess. The result of his plan essentially restored the rebel states with Southern governors with Confederate sympathies. Black Codes were enacted to prohibit Blacks from voting, serving on juries, travel freely, own property, or work in occupations of their choice. The Black Codes in effect reestablished slavery under a different name. Johnson was not troubled by this at all because he believed Black people were an inferior race incapable of governing. He would have preferred that they were colonized far away.


When the newly elected representatives from the newly organized Southern states, elected by white people only, sought to return to Congress in December of 1865, Congress prohibited their readmittance. That is when the fireworks between Johnson and Congress began to light up the Washington skies.


Congress passed a civil right bill in an attempt to nullify Black Codes and to grant citizenship to freed slaves as well as provide due process and equal protection of the law. The protection would come from the federal level. Johnson opposed this as trespassing on states’ rights. Johnson’s position was to let the Southern states deal with the “negro problem” in the way they saw fit. Congress overrode his veto, which would be the first of several times Johnson would try to thwart the will of Congress, only to have all his vetoes overridden.


There was a huge backlash in the South to the civil rights bill resulting in violence and murder of Blacks and Republicans who supported Black civil rights and the right to vote. Grant who was in charge of the federal army tried to suppress the violence, but the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations overwhelmed federal troops. Major massacres of Black people in Memphis and New Orleans were widely reported in the newspapers all over the country inspiring investigations by Congress.


The Tenure of Office Act was passed in March of 1867 in response to Johnson’s propensity to fire federal employees without cause or to suit his personal agenda. It was a rather ambiguously worded law, but nonetheless it was the law of the land at the time that Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on Feb. 21, 1868.


Efforts to impeach Johnson had been afoot since 1866, but this one obvious snubbing of the law was the catalyst that propelled the nation toward the first impeachment and trial of a president. Eleven Articles of Impeachment were passed by Congress. Eight of them dealt with the Tenure of Office Act.


Article 9 involved a violation of the Military Appropriations Act.


Article 10 charged Johnson with being “unmindful of the high duties of his high office and the dignity and proprieties thereof, and of the harmony and courtesies which ought to exist and be maintained between the executive and legislative branches.” This Article quoted several speeches Johnson made in which he attempted “to excite the odium and resentment of all good people of the United States against Congress.” Specifically on August 18, 1866, Johnson made “with a loud voice, certain intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues, and therein utter loud threats and bitter menaces [he said that certain members of Congress should be hung] amid the cries, jeers and laughter of the multitudes then assembled in hearing.”


Article 11 was the catchall article written primarily by Thaddeus Steven, a Radical Republican. It ranged from Johnson’s refusal to recognize that Congress was a legitimate body of government because it refused to admit the Southern states and his refusal to abide by any laws enacted by the 39th Congress to reiterating Johnson’s specific violation of the Tenure of Office Act.


The impeachment trail started on March 5 and lasted until the Senate voted on Impeachment Article 11. Johnson was acquitted by just one vote. Johnson’s entire presidency was on trial but the main issue underlying the impeachment was slavery and the future of the freed slaves. Johnson’s insistence on creating a white man’s government and leaving it to the states to resolve the “negro problem” was on trial as much as how he thumbed his nose at the Tenure of Office Act and violated it in plain view of the Congress and the public.


It turned out the major hurdle to gaining a conviction was who would step into the presidency if Johnson were removed. There was no vice president so the job would go to the president pro tempore, Benjamin Wade, who was more radical than your typical radical republican. He would have pushed for voting rights for not only Blacks, but women as well. Black suffrage was a highly unsettled matter at this point (the 15th Amendment would not be ratified until Feb. 3, 1870). So, back door negotiations and allegations of brides of the seven republicans who voted against Johnson’s conviction fit into the long narrative about the first impeachment of the president of the United States.


When Bishop compared Trump’s impeachment to Johnson’s impeachment I wonder if he knew he was comparing Trump to an unapologetic white supremacist who fought like hell to restore the South to its formal glory of slavery, albeit under a different name. Johnson sought to withhold suffrage from Black people just as fervently as Trump has tried to throw out the votes of millions of Black people who voted in the 2020 election. When Trump did not succeed in throwing out the votes, he incited his white supremacist supporters to overthrow the government and for this he should be held accountable.


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