The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation

By Brenda Wineapple
London Review of Books, September 24, 2020

It seems like ages have passed, not just nine months, since the all-consuming public issue in the United States was the impeachment of Donald Trump. The trial was a giant anticlimax, of course, its proceedings lacking witnesses, its outcome predetermined. That Trump remains in the White House reminds us that there is almost no way of unseating an American president, even one manifestly unfit for office. Apart from a cumbersome process outlined in the constitution's 25th Amendment, whereby the vice president and a majority of the cabinet can oust a president who becomes physically or mentally incapacitated, the only mode of removal – other than an election – is impeachment.

The constitution provides that a majority of the House of Representatives may impeach (that is, indict) the president for 'treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours'. A trial then takes place in the Senate, where conviction and removal requires a two-thirds vote. As on numerous other matters, the constitution is frustratingly opaque when it comes to details. Most people think they can recognise treason and bribery when they see them, but what constitutes a high crime or a misdemeanour? In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton described impeachment as a political process, not a criminal one – a way of punishing 'an abuse or violation of some public trust'. But generally, Congress has assumed that impeachment requires the president to have violated a specific law. The constitution says nothing about the way an impeachment trial is to be conducted, other than that the chief justice of the Supreme Court presides. History shows that impeachment is a blunt instrument. The threat of it led Richard Nixon to resign, but all three presidents tried before the Senate have been acquitted.

In contrast to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998, which arose from a sexual escapade, that of Andrew Johnson 130 years earlier involved some of the most intractable problems in American history. How should the nation be reunited after the Civil War? Who is entitled to American citizenship and the right to vote? What should be the status of the four million emancipated slaves? As Brenda Wineapple shows in The Impeachers, Johnson's problem was his failure to rise to the challenge of Reconstruction after the Civil War.

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Johnson, the vice president, succeeded him. Like his predecessor, Johnson started out at the bottom of the social ladder. As a young man he was an indentured servant. But while in Lincoln early deprivation sparked open-mindedness, political dexterity and fellow feeling for the downtrodden, including slaves, Johnson was not only stubborn and self-absorbed, but incorrigibly racist. During the Civil War he came to embrace emancipation, but mostly because he believed it would liberate poorer white farmers from the tyranny of wealthy planters, whom he called the slaveocracy. His sympathy didn't extend to the slaves themselves.

Johnson didn't lack for personal courage. As a senator from Tennessee he remained loyal to the Union and continued to occupy his seat after his state seceded in 1861. Appointed military governor by Lincoln, he won plaudits in the North for denouncing secessionists as traitors and taking vigorous action against them, jailing local officials and newspaper editors. The Republican Party nominated him as Lincoln's running mate in 1864 in the hope of attracting a large cadre of white Southerners who opposed secession.

When Johnson became president, Congress was not in session – in the peculiar political calendar of the 19th century, a Congress did not meet until more than a year after it was elected – and for several months he had a free hand in developing Reconstruction policy. He seized the opportunity to set up new governments in the South controlled entirely by whites. These abolished slavery – they had no choice – but enacted a series of laws called the Black Codes to define the freedom African Americans now enjoyed. They had virtually no civil or political rights, and all adult black men were required to sign a labour contract with a white employer at the beginning of each year or be deemed a vagrant and sold to anyone who would pay the fine. Abandoning his hatred of the slaveocracy, Johnson handed out pardons indiscriminately to wealthy Confederates and ordered that land the federal government had allocated to former slaves be restored to the previous owners.

Johnson's policies alarmed the Republican Party, which controlled Congress, leading it to think that the South was trying to restore slavery in all but name. Early in 1866 lawmakers enacted measures to extend the life of the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency charged with overseeing the transition from slavery to freedom, and passed the first Civil Rights Act in American history, which extended citizenship and basic legal rights to blacks, overturning the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857 which had insisted that only white persons could be citizens of the United States. Johnson vetoed both bills. This was the start of an increasingly acrimonious conflict with Congress, in which, Wineapple writes, Johnson succeeded in 'unifying the entire Republican Party against him'. Meanwhile anti-black violence erupted across the South, including racial massacres in Memphis and New Orleans by mobs composed, in part, of white policemen (there is nothing new about the forces of law and order committing atrocities against blacks). In mid-1866, Congress approved the Fourteenth Amendment, which constitutionalised the principle that virtually anyone born in the United States, regardless of race, is a citizen, entitled to the equal protection of the laws. Johnson denounced the measure and embarked on the 'Swing around the Circle', a speaking tour of the Northern states to drum up votes for congressional candidates who opposed Republican reconstruction policy. When Republicans won a sweeping victory in the congressional elections, they moved to replace Johnson's Southern governments with ones in which black men enjoyed the right to vote and hold office. This inaugurated the era of Radical Reconstruction, a remarkable experiment in interracial democracy.

For many decades, historians viewed Reconstruction as the lowest point in the saga of American democracy, a period, allegedly, of corruption and misgovernment imposed on the South by vindictive Radical Republicans in Congress once they overturned Johnson's supposedly more statesmanlike white supremacist Reconstruction policies. The cardinal error was granting suffrage to black men, said to be by their nature incapable of exercising democratic rights intelligently. This interpretation formed part of the intellectual legitimation of the Jim Crow South, which in the late 19th century began abrogating the rights blacks had gained during Reconstruction. The supposed horrors of Reconstruction offered a stark warning of what would happen if Southern blacks were able to exercise their right to vote. But after the civil rights revolution (sometimes called the Second Reconstruction), a wholesale shift in historical outlook took place. Today, Reconstruction is seen as a noble effort to create the foundation of racial justice in the aftermath of slavery. The tragedy is not that it was attempted, but that it failed.

Johnson's reputation has fluctuated along with historians' views of Reconstruction. Long celebrated as a heroic defender of the constitution against the Radicals, he is today a leading contender for worst president in American history, condemned both for his utter inability to work with Congress and his intense racism. It is difficult to think of a president who voiced his prejudices in starker language. Johnson told one reporter that under the Reconstruction Acts the white population of the South would be 'trodden under foot to protect niggers'. In his annual message to Congress of 1867, he declared that blacks had 'shown less capacity for government than any other race of people'. They had never produced any civilisation and when left to themselves relapsed into 'barbarism'.

Wineapple fully shares current historians' disdain for Johnson and sympathy for the Radical Republicans, especially their leader in the House of Representatives, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. Born with a club foot, Stevens was depicted by earlier historians as 'the crippled, fanatical personification', in John F. Kennedy's words, 'of the extremes of the Radical Republican movement'. Today, he is admired for his fierce commitment to racial equality, which long preceded the Civil War. As a delegate to the 1837 Pennsylvania constitutional convention, Stevens refused to sign the final document because it stripped the state's free black community of voting rights. During Reconstruction, he advocated confiscating the land of Confederate planters and distributing it to the emancipated slaves. Stevens fully grasped the gravity of the moment, with its rare opportunity to remake American institutions. 'If we fail in this great duty now, when we have the power,' he proclaimed, 'we shall deserve and receive the execration of history.'

Wineapple's other books include lives of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, and a study of the relationship between Emily Dickinson and the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The Impeachers is structured around brief, insightful sketches of the key actors in the titanic struggle over Reconstruction. It begins with the 43 'dramatis personae', including high officials in the administration and Congress, journalists, and lawyers for and against the president. Mini-biographies of these and other figures are scattered through the text.

Very few of them are household names today and Wineapple deserves praise for raising them from obscurity. Yet, perhaps inevitably, her sketches focus on those who occupied prominent positions in Washington. Only two of the 43 are black – Frederick Douglass and the restaurateur and political activist George T. Downing. This is a problem, as Reconstruction was a national crisis, not one restricted to the capital. Current scholarship emphasises that grassroots black activism, including public meetings and mass demonstrations throughout the South in favour of equal rights, helped to shape the political agenda and set the stage for Johnson's impeachment. Yet blacks play almost no role in Wineapple's narrative.

By 1867, most Republicans in Congress had concluded that Johnson was intransigent, incompetent and racist, and doing all he could to obstruct the implementation of Reconstruction policy. But a majority remained convinced that a clear violation of the law was required for impeachment, and the House rejected a number of efforts to move towards it without one.

The events that finally overcame their doubts arose from a peculiarity of the Reconstruction programme Congress enacted in 1867. The South had been placed temporarily under the control of military commanders, to oversee the registration of black voters and the establishment of new state governments. But the president is commander-in-chief of the military, and Johnson used this power to relieve of command any military officials who worked too diligently to register black voters. To protect the secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, the leading Radical in the cabinet, from the risk of being removed, Congress enacted the Tenure of Office Act, mandating that cabinet members remain in office for the term of the president who appointed them, unless the Senate approved their replacement. When Congress was out of session, taking advantage of a provision that allowed appointees to be temporarily replaced, Johnson suspended Stanton, in the autumn of 1867. The following January, the Senate, having reassembled, overruled this action. Johnson then fired Stanton and replaced him with the weak-willed General Lorenzo Thomas, whom he assumed would do his bidding. In response, the House voted overwhelmingly to impeach the president.

The trial took place in May 1868. Wineapple's account of it fully displays her talents as a storyteller: she keeps the suspense alive to the very last Senate vote. She also illuminates the complex motives in play. The chief justice who presided, Salmon P. Chase, was hoping to capture a nomination for president – from either party; it made no difference to him. (There was an election due in November.) Many Republicans who would ordinarily have been happy to be rid of Johnson hesitated because he would be succeeded by Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio, the president pro tem of the Senate. Wade, among other things, favoured votes for women and the issuance of paper currency to stimulate the economy, both anathema to many Republicans. In 1867 he had delivered a speech declaring that with the battle between slavery and freedom decided, the next fight would pit labour against capital. (Marx quoted Wade in the first volume of Capital, published that year, to illustrate the growing awareness of the class struggle.) Some Republicans felt that a few more months of Johnson would be preferable to Wade assuming the presidency, being re-elected, and serving four years.

Wineapple points out that the House-appointed impeachment managers and the president's attorneys seemed to swap strategies as the trial went on. All but two of the 11 articles of impeachment approved by the House dealt with the removal of Stanton (the last two accused Johnson of abuse of power and disgracing the office of president through vituperative speeches). The managers, who were expected to focus on the big picture of Johnson's failed Reconstruction policy and the political crisis over black rights, instead spent most of their time on his violation of the Tenure of Office Act, seemingly accepting the idea that only a criminal offence, not political malfeasance, justified conviction. The defence seemed unable to decide whether to admit that Johnson had violated the Tenure of Office Act. They argued both that he dismissed Stanton in order to test the act's constitutionality, and that it did not apply to him anyway, as Stanton had originally been appointed by Lincoln. Mainly, rather than sticking to narrow legal arguments, as expected, they emphasised the broader claim that conviction would upset the constitutional balance between Congress and the presidency. In the end, the Senate failed by a single vote to muster the two-thirds necessary for conviction. Seven Republicans supported the president. Johnson remained in office until 1869, when Ulysses S. Grant moved into the White House after winning the Republican nomination during Johnson's impeachment trial and then the election in November 1868. In a somewhat surreal postscript to his presidency, Johnson reappeared in Washington in 1875 as a senator from Tennessee. He died from a stroke after serving for five months. Characteristically, he used his brief term to castigate Grant as a military dictator.

Reconstruction ended in 1877, when the last Southern state fell under the control of white supremacist Democrats. As time went on, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was all but forgotten, or recalled simply as a bizarre episode. In the 1950s it enjoyed a brief resurgence in public consciousness when John F. Kennedy, then the junior senator from Massachusetts, included a chapter on Edmund G. Ross, one of the seven Republicans who voted to acquit Johnson, in his book Profiles in Courage. Most of the volume was drafted by Kennedy's speechwriter Theodore Sorensen and edited by the historian Allan Nevins. This did not stop Kennedy being awarded the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography, doubtless the only author to receive the honour who contributed next to nothing to the actual text.

The chapter on Ross in Profiles in Courage repeated many of the myths about Reconstruction then prevalent in historical scholarship. Among other things, it claimed that no state 'suffered more' during Reconstruction than Mississippi under Adelbert Ames, a Union army general who owed his election as governor to the state's black voters. Kennedy didn't know it but Ames's daughter, Blanche Ames Ames – an artist and women's rights activist who married a man with the same surname – was still alive. She bombarded Kennedy with demands to revise the disparaging treatment of her father. Her grandson was the writer, actor and man about town George Plimpton. At a White House dinner, the president pulled an astonished Plimpton aside with the words: 'George, I'd like to talk to you about your grandmother.' He implored Plimpton to persuade Ames Ames to stop besieging him with letters about her father. Kennedy never revised Profiles in Courage, but he did change his mind about Reconstruction. In 1962, when two people were killed during rioting at the University of Mississippi after the enrolment of James Meredith as its first black student, Kennedy remarked: 'It makes me wonder whether everything I heard about the evils of Reconstruction is really true.' Southern resistance to integration, he added, gave him a new appreciation of Thaddeus Stevens.

Senator Ross's reputation, like Johnson's, has fallen precipitously. According to Wineapple, he distinguished himself in the Senate only by the way he parlayed his vote for acquittal into government jobs for his cronies. Less than two weeks after the trial ended, Ross requested that Johnson install a friend in the lucrative position of Southern superintendent of Indian affairs. There followed numerous other patronage appointments, including his brother as a special mail agent in Florida, a political ally as an internal revenue commissioner, and a friend as surveyor general of Kansas.

Donald Trump does not appear in The Impeachers. As Wineapple explained at a book launch at the City University of New York, she became interested in Johnson's impeachment long before the current president arrived on the political scene. Yet in some ways Trump is a lineal descendant of Andrew Johnson. Johnson repeatedly referred to his approach to Reconstruction as 'My Policy', as if no one else was involved in its inception or implementation. Trump insists 'I alone' can solve the nation's problems. Johnson's speeches during the 'Swing around the Circle', Wineapple writes, contained 'a startling chain of venomous epithets' for his enemies; the same can be said of Trump in his campaign rallies and Twitter posts. Most important, Johnson was a pioneer of the white nationalist politics today exemplified by Trump. Johnson's comment that blacks have never produced civilisation has its counterpart in Trump's description of African nations as 'shit-hole countries'. In the repeated claim that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, which first made Trump a national political figure, there is an echo of Johnson's rejection of black citizenship. More than a century and a half since his impeachment, the ghost of Andrew Johnson still haunts our discussions of race.