In light of ~recent events~ I am going to write three extra posts about the presidents who have faced impeachment – AND LIVED! First up, the man who only had Abraham Lincoln’s legacy to live up to.
Democrat (split ticket candidate)
In Office 1865-1869
How Did He Become President?
Andrew Johnson was born to a poor family in North Carolina and was trained as a tailor. They eventually moved to Tennessee, where he got involved in politics. He was a US representative, then Tennessee’s governor, then a senator. He was a strong advocate for poor, working class southerners. He disliked the rich plantation owners, though not enough to fully support African American rights.
When Tennessee seceded from the Union, Johnson was the ONLY Democratic senator from the South to not resign his position. This made him an attractive running mate for Lincoln’s second term. In 1864, Lincoln and Johnson ran as a split ticket for the “National Union Party.” The election was an easy win. Johnson was kind of a jerk, but the VP doesn’t really do anything anyways. What’s the worst that could happen!
Johnson got off to a rough start, even as VP. He was very likely drunk at his inauguration, and gave a rambling and embarrassing speech. This was followed by Lincoln’s Second Inauguration Address, one of his best speeches ever. Rough. Just a few weeks later, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Two other men were involved in the assassination plot. One man attacked Secretary of State William Seward in his home, though Seward lived. The third was meant to kill Johnson. Instead, he got drunk and fell asleep. Andrew Johnson was sworn in as president on April 15th, 1865, just a few hours after Lincoln’s death.
Where Did He Go Wrong?
As a Democratic president with a Republican-led Congress, Johnson didn’t really stand a chance. Their main conflict, as you might expect, was over Reconstruction and how to re-admit the Confederate states back into the Union. Johnson’s goal was to let the Southern states in as soon as possible, without providing protections for the newly-freed slave population. He opposed the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves. When the Southern states started reelecting their government leaders, they were staffing many of the same racists that had supported secession in the first place. The Radical Republicans, as they were known, did their best to overrule these actions.
Johnson also pissed people off by going on a national campaign tour for the 1866 midterms to trash-talk the Radical Republicans. National campaigns were a big foux-pas in the Nineteenth Century, so this was a bad look for someone who was already pushing his popularity.
By this point, the Radical Republicans had had enough of Johnson’s BS. To flex their power over him, they passed the Tenure of Office Act in 1867, which prevented the president from firing cabinet members without congressional approval (a law later ruled unconstitutional). Johnson couldn’t resist calling their bluff. During Congress’s recess that year, Johnson suspended Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (a supporter of the Radical Republicans). He appointed General Ulysses S. Grant as the acting Secretary. When Congress made Johnson reinstate Stanton, Grant immediately complied and resigned the position. This betrayal of Johnson caused a huge argument between the two, but positioned Grant to become the favorite candidate for the upcoming Republican presidential nomination. Johnson tried again to replace Stanton, this time with General Lorenzo Thomas. When Thomas went to deliver the news, Stanton barricaded himself in his office and Thomas was arrested. The Radical Republicans were in an uproar and used Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act to justify impeachment.
How Did He Avoid Removal?
On February 24th, 1868, the House of Representatives voted in favor of impeaching Johnson for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The Senate trial took place in March. Since this was the first time a president had been impeached, the rules at to be determined on the spot. Chief Justice Salmon Chase presided over the trial and often came into contention with the Senate on how it should be run.
The defense argued various technicalities of the Tenure of Office Act in order to save Johnson. Generals Lorenzo Thomas and William Sherman testified in his favor. The final vote was 35-19, one short of the 2/3rds majority needed to remove Johnson from office (some Southern states still had not officially re-joined the Union). Seven Republicans unexpectedly voted against their party to save Johnson. Many believed that they had been bribed, though follow-up investigations didn’t reveal anything substantive. None of the flipped Republicans ever served in an elected position again.
Even though he survived impeachment, Johnson couldn’t get much done in the final year of his presidency. He issued one final amnesty for Confederates still awaiting trail, including Jefferson Davis (most others had received this earlier in his term). He also pardoned Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted for treating Booth’s broken leg after his fall from the theater balcony. Johnson lost the 1868 Democratic nomination to former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, who in turn lost to General Grant.
Post-presidency, Johnson went back to Tennessee and, after several failed attempts, returned to the Senate in 1875 (the only president to do so). Just a few months later, he died of a stroke.
What Did It Say About America?
People missed Lincoln! But at least the Republicans still had the power in the federal government. They tried to make the right decisions in Reconstruction, but a lot of people were still standing in the way. Johnson was simply never meant to be president. Congress tested its impeachment powers, but it also proved that removing the president was no easy task. For better or worse, Johnson’s unpopularity was not enough to find him guilty of “high crimes.”
Was It The Right Decision?
Andrew Johnson sucked. He is definitely in the bottom-five presidents of all time. Buuut, the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional and an obvious trap for impeachment. For that specific reason, I agree that Johnson should not have been removed from office. But I don’t blame them for trying.