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The First Impeachment Trial: Andrew Johnson in 1868 By Roland Sheppard (February 1999)
For the second time in United States history there is an impeachment trial in the Senate. The defenders of President Clinton, including the Congressional Black Caucus, argue that Clinton is not guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors. They state that Clinton is the victim of partisan politics just like Andrew Johnson was over 130 years ago. They equate today’s Republicans with the Radical Republicans of 1868 who tried to impeach President Andrew Johnson. Maxine Waters even stated: “. . . they [the GOPers on the HJC] have decided to discard our history… to ‘get’ our president when they say they are doing the opposite. . . . In 1868 it was also Radical Republicans who abused impeachment.” . . . Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a disservice to Thadeus Stevens and the rest of the Radical Republicans, and the historical record, that this is being done.
The Radical Republicans were fighters for racial equality. Their position was that the former slaves (freedmen), who were homeless, landless, and not educated had to be rewarded for their loyalty to the union and needed to be made whole in order to have equality. They tried to enforce the Confiscation Act of July 1862. This act included giving land to the former slaves (“40 acres and a mule”). They also set up the Freedmen’s Bureau, designed to provide education, health, and welfare for Black people in the transition from slavery to freedom.
President Andrew Johnson defended the Southern slavocracy and violated the law of the land as passed (over Johnson’s veto) by the Radical Republicans in Congress. Johnson’s argument was that Congress was illegal, for it did not include the former Confederate states. Johnson ended the Freedmen’s Bureau and opposed all actions to give freed male slaves the right to vote. He refused to enforce the law when former slaves were prevented from exercising their rights by force and violence by the Southern police forces and/or the Ku Klux Klan, which was formed in 1865. Johnson also supported the Black Codes passed by several Southern states. These codes said that unemployed Blacks were vagrants, who could be arrested and hired out to the highest bidder and forced to work for that person for a prescribed time. Employers were also given the right to physically punish these workers. These codes also made it illegal for Blacks to bear arms.
To thwart Johnson’s refusal to enforce the laws of the land, the legislature passed the Tenure of Office Bill-over Johnson’s veto. This was done to protect the remaining cabinet officers and government officials that had been appointed by Lincoln and who tried to carry out the laws that Congress had passed. When Johnson violated this law, even the moderate Republicans were for impeachment. If Johnson had been impeached, Benjamin Wade would have become President. Wade was an advocate for land reform (“40 acres and a mule”), Black and women’s suffrage, and radical Reconstruction.
February is Black History month. An important part of Black history is the destruction of Reconstruction and the establishment of Jim Crow and racial segregation. Those who today support the fact that Johnson was not impeached are, in reality, giving backhanded support to the establishment of Jim Crow. In present circumstances, the radical Republicans of the 1860s and advocates of Black civil rights would be advocating the impeachment of Clinton for the unconstitutional bombing of Afghanistan, the Sudan, and Iraq!
My 2010 addition to this essay:
Many people still consider John Fitzgerald Kennedy to be an advocate for civil rights, but one of his heros in his book, Profiles in Courage, was Edmund Ross, who cast the deciding vote against the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and consequently for the establishment of Jim Crow.
From the Kennedy Library’s Summary of the Chapter on Edumund Ross in John Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage:
Edmund Ross, a Kansas Republican, cast the deciding vote that ended the impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson. The proceedings began because doctrinaire ‘Radical Republicans,’ then in control of the Senate, passed a Tenure of Office Act to prevent a president from firing cabinet members without Senate consent. This was done to try to stop Johnson from firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Johnson believed Stanton was a tool of the Radicals who wanted to establish a military dictatorship in the South. Johnson felt the wiser course would be to reconstruct the Confederate states back into the Union as quickly as possible without unnecessary military intervention, as Lincoln had intended. When Johnson fired Stanton, the impeachment began.
The House voted for impeachment and the trial then moved to the Senate. As the trial went on it became clear that the Republicans had no intention of giving Johnson a fair trial; rather, their emphasis was on convincing enough Senators to find Johnson guilty. Ross was overheard saying that while he had no sympathy for Johnson, he would do his best to see that he was fairly tried. Because Ross had previously been such a partisan Republican, he became the principal target of abuse from the press, the public, and his fellow Republican legislators. Nonetheless, Ross voted against convicting Johnson, reasoning that if a president could be forced out of office by insufficient evidence that was based on partisan disagreement, the presidency would then be under the control of whatever congressional faction held sway. Ross’s action unleashed relentless criticism. Neither he nor any other Republican who voted to acquit Andrew Johnson was reelected to the Senate, and Ross and his family suffered ostracism and poverty upon their return to Kansas in 1871. Eventually, Ross was vindicated by the Supreme Court, which declared the Tenure of Office Act to be unconstitutional, and praised by the press and the public for having saved the country from dictatorship.