Impeachment, Congress’s remedy to oust a sitting president, has only been initiated three times in American History: 1868, 1974 and 1998. None of those men, however, Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, were actually removed from office under the impeachment provisions in the U.S Constitution. One, Nixon, resigned from office ahead of an almost certain conviction.
Note: each of these former leaders of the United States faced a congress controlled by the political party of the opposition.
This article is the first of three that will give capsule stories about each of those impeachment attempts mentioned above. It is the initial effort to provide an historical background as dissatisfaction with the Donald Trump administration deepens and calls for the president’s removal increases. So, in that light, let’s take a look at America’s first impeachment attempt.
When the South seceded from the Union in 1861, Andrew Johnson, a Democratic Senator from Tennessee, refused to follow the secessionist movement and into civil war. And for his loyalty, President Lincoln, a Republican, appointed him as military governor of Tennessee in 1862. In 1864, Lincoln ran for a second term as president with Johnson as his running mate, mostly to show the South good faith.
By the time Lincoln and Johnson took office in March of 1865, the American Civil War was drawing to a rapid close. But when Lincoln was assassinated in April, Johnson found himself installed as the new president.
Pugnacious and always believing he was right, Johnson was also much more sympathetic to the defeated South than were the northern Republicans who were in control of Congress. Much to their consternation, Johnson’s softer policies on reconstructing the shattered South allowed the old slave-holding class to keep their authority and condemned former slaves in the region to yet another form of violent servitude.
Those policies ignited a long-term firestorm of protest and opposition from congressional Republicans and those who served on the president’s cabinet, men originally appointed by Lincoln. And in 1867, fearing the removal of Lincoln’s appointees to the cabinet by Johnson, especially Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, Congress, over the president’s veto, enacted the Tenure of Office Act. This new law prohibited the president from firing any of his cabinet members without the approval of Congress.
Infuriated by this radical move to curtail his authority, Johnson decided to test the new law by twice attempting to fire Secretary Stanton and inserting new people in that office, including Ulysses S. Grant. But Congress would have none of that and in 1868 it initiated impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. The House then drafted and approved 11 Articles of Impeachment by a simple majority vote, most of which had to do with the Tenure of Office Act. In the Senate, however, those 11 articles were culled to 3, those that seemed most likely to meet the high bar of gaining a 2/3 majority approval.
The trial of an impeached president in the Senate was a public sensation since it was the first time such a thing had occurred in the short life of the United States. As provided in the Constitution, the Supreme Court Justice. Salmon P. Chase, presided with events starting on March 4, 1868 and ending on May 26, of that same year.
Drama reigned, witnesses were called, evidence was presented, and passions flared, but in the end, Andrew Johnson won the day. Although a large senate majority voted against the president, that was 1 vote short of the 2/3 majority needed. Each Article of Impeachment was voted down separately by the same margin, 35 to 19. At the time, there were 27 states with 2 senators each for a total of 54.
Even some of Johnson’s foes voted against conviction in brave philosophical disagreement with their fellows. In what would today be labeled a statement of bi-partisan support, one of those foes, Senator James Grimes of Iowa, said “I cannot agree to destroy the harmonious working of the Constitution for the sake of getting rid of an Unacceptable President.”
It had taken 3 years for this conflict of wills and constitutional authority to be resolved, and even though he won, Andrew Johnson served out the rest of his term in office a more subdued and cooperative man.
And as for the Tenure of Office Act, it died a slow but complete death, first by partial repeal, then by full repeal and eventually, in 1926, the Supreme Court of the United States declared it unconstitutional. This gradual eventuality exposed the true political nature of the law regardless of any good intentions the congressional lawmakers back in 1867 may have had.
Sources for Further Information
Videos and articles
Andrew Johnson Biography (Biography.com 2:08)
(History 103 10:14)
Articles & Books
A Short History of Impeachment: Johnson, Nixon and Clinton (Infoplease.com)
The Case for Impeachment (HarperCollins Publishers)
Removal of a President Under the Constitution (Indivisible of Central Florida)
The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson  (The U.S. Senate)