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The timeline of the first presidential impeachment

Contributed • Nov 25, 2019 at 11:32 AM

We recently asked historians at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site and National Cemetery in Greeneville to answer a number of questions about President Andrew Johnson's impeachment in 1868.

The following is a collaborative response from the staff of the National Parks Service.

What events led to the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson?

Impeachment. Never before in the nation’s brief history had this Constitutional provision been used to indict and attempt to remove a president. But the nation had also never gone through a Civil War before.

The bitter divisiveness that played out on the battlefield transferred to the political arena and continued between the legislative and executive branches of the government after the war.

Positions changed from whether the Southern states could secede to form their own government and maintain their own way of life, including slavery, to how to incorporate those states back into the Union without slavery.

Fear was rampant, and each side lived with uncertainty as to whether the other was trying to usurp the power of the other. There needed to be a means to prove the balance of powers was still intact. In an odd way, the constitutional caveat of impeachment was a way for that to happen.

Before Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, he had formulated a plan of reconstruction that would be lenient toward the defeated South as it rejoined the Union. In this wartime measure, he planned to grant a general amnesty to those who pledged an oath of loyalty to the United States and agreed to obey all federal laws pertaining to slavery.

(The exclusion to the general amnesty would be high-ranking Confederate officials and military leaders.)

Lincoln's plan also stated that when a tenth of the voters who had taken part in the 1860 election had agreed to the oath of loyalty within a particular state, then that state could formulate a new government and start sending representatives to Congress.

Johnson was intent on carrying out this plan when he assumed the presidency. This policy, however, did not prove stringent enough in practice and possibly would have been revised by Lincoln himself.

The policy’s amnesty proclamations emboldened former Confederate leaders to regain their former seats of power in local and national governments, fueling tensions with freedman in the South and Republican lawmakers in the North.

Johnson’s uncompromising, fierce determination to limit the power of the federal government and maintain the sovereignty of state control over their own affairs was proving unsustainable for a country that had evolved so radically during the last four years. The nation was shifting from these “united states” to the “United States of America.”

The Republican majority in Congress passed their own Reconstruction Acts, setting up military governments and implementing more stringent terms for readmission of the seceded states. One of the driving forces for Congressional Reconstruction — the push to franchise the freedman — came with the abolition of slavery. The 3/5 clause in the Constitution had become obsolete.

The former slaves now counted as a “full person,” which ironically gave the South more power. They could now claim 28 more congressional representatives and 28 more electoral votes.

The Republicans wanted to ensure that the former Confederate leaders did not return to power and subjugate the freedmen even further than the South’s adopted Black Codes had already done under Johnson’s Restoration plan. Consequently, they refused to seat the returning Southern Congressmen under Johnson’s plan.

Congressional Reconstruction provided protection and aid to the freedmen so desperately needed after the war (this disappeared for a century once reconstruction formally ended). Their implementation of the ironclad oath and dis-enfranchisement of former rebels, however, played its own part in fanning the flames of what Johnson labeled a “class war.”

While compromise and mediation may have yielded viable alternatives, neither political side nor section of the country was willing to do either. With radicals on both ends of the government spectrum, the scene was set.

On what grounds did the House decide to begin the impeachment inquiry?

The political backing to begin impeachment came when Johnson breached the Tenure of Office Act by removing Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, from his cabinet. The Tenure of Office Act had passed over Johnson's veto in 1867 and stated that a president could not dismiss appointed officials without the consent of Congress, during the term of the president who appointed them.

Both Lincoln and Johnson had experienced problems with Stanton, an ally of the radicals in Congress. Stanton's removal, therefore, was not only a political decision made to relieve the discord between the president and his cabinet, but a test for the Tenure of Office Act as well. Johnson believed the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional and wanted it to be tried legally in the courts. It was the president, himself, however, who was brought to trial.

Note: The Tenure of Office Act was repealed in 1887 after President Grover Cleveland challenged its constitutionality. Even though repealed, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional in 1926 in the Myers v. US case.

What precedent or rules did the House leaders use in the proceedings?

There had been no precedent for a presidential impeachment. Johnson was the first president to be impeached. The House members used the rules set forth in the Constitution:

IMPEACHMENT AND THE CONSTITUTION

"The House of Representatives shall ... have the sole power of Impeachment." Article I, Section 2

"The Senate shall have the power to try all Impeachments ... When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside. And no person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two thirds of the members present." Article I, Section 3

"The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors." Article II, Section 4

How long did the process take in the House?

There had been several impeachment queries — three — between 1866 and 1868 that did not materialize before the one in 1868. The House actually announced impeachment before they had formulated the Articles of Impeachment.

Feb. 21, 1868
: Andrew Johnson issues an order removing Edwin Stanton from the office of Secretary of War without the consent of Congress, thereby breaching the rules set forth in the Tenure of Office Act.

Feb. 24, 1868: 
The U.S. House of Representatives passes a resolution impeaching the President of "high crimes and misdemeanors" by a strict party vote of 128 to 47. After the vote, the House appointed a committee to draw up specific charges.

Feb. 25, 1868
: The House informs the Senate of impeachment.

Feb. 29, 1868
: The House committee reported 10 articles of impeachment. After debate, the number of articles were reduced to nine. All but two were based on Johnson's alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act. After the House adopted these charges, it added two more articles of Impeachment.

March 2, 1868
: The House approved the 11 articles of impeachment and House managers were appointed.

March 4, 1868
: The House managers deliver and exhibit the articles of impeachment to the U.S. Senate.

How did President Johnson and his staff react to the impeachment?

Col. W.H. Crook was Andrew Johnson’s bodyguard, so he was often in the White House with the family.  In his book, “Memories of the White House,”  Crook writes “to me the remarkable thing was that in spite of constantly increasing anxiety neither the president nor his wife seemed to show any fear as to the final outcome. The daily routine was unbroken at the White House; here was the same calmness and cheerfulness about the family life; and know, as I did, what was going on, and the storm that was threatening the president, I marveled at it.” 

However, David O. Stewart writes in his book, “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy,”  that Johnson “was beset by fears of all sizes” and the “president brooded over his fate.” 

How did the Senate act on the impeachment? 

The Senate presided over the trial, often taking time to define actions, roles and ambiguities.

March 5, 1868
: The court on impeachment convenes and Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, takes the oath as presiding officer of the impeachment trial.

March 23, 1868
: President Johnson's counsel responds to the articles.

March 30, 1868: 
The trial begins with the prosecution presenting their case against the president.

April 4, 1868
: The House managers conclude the presentation of their case.

April 9, 1868: 
The president's attorneys begin their defense.

May 6, 1868: 
Closing arguments end.

May 12, 1868: 
The first vote on the articles is scheduled, but postponed until May 16 due to the illness of Sen. Jacob Howard of Michigan.

May 16, 1868: 
The first vote is taken on the 11th article, which was considered to be the one to have the most support for conviction. The vote was 35 to convict and 19 to acquit, one vote short of the two-thirds necessary to convict.

Seven Republican senators voted for acquittal, one of whom was Sen. Edmond Ross of Kansas. He was the last undecided Republican, and it was his vote in the impeachment trial that determined the fate of the president.

The Chief Justice announced, "Two-thirds not having pronounced guilty, the president is, therefore, acquitted of this article."

The Senate adjourns for 10 days.

May 26, 1868
: The second and third votes on the first and second articles are taken with the same result as the first vote on May 16. The majority gave up and a motion to adjourn carried. The trial was over.

What was the impeachment fallout for the Johnson administration? 

Toward the end of the Impeachment trial, “Johnson … helped his cause by trying to cooperate with Congress. On May 4, he received the new constitutions for South Carolina and Arkansas, completed under the congressional system, and forwarded them to Congress with no comments, delays or reservations. Then … Johnson nominated John Schofield, a moderate general, as secretary of war. Schofield had dutifully enforced the Reconstruction Acts in Virginia … and Johnson followed appropriate procedure by transmitting the nomination to the Senate for approval.” (Andrew Johnson, A Biographical Companion.)

He was heartened by some Democratic election returns but disappointed that his name was not chosen for the presidential nomination for the next election. He issued a broad amnesty for former Confederates on Christmas Day in 1868. And he celebrated his 60th birthday at the White House with a “Juvenile Soiree.”

What lessons from the Johnson impeachment can we apply today?

Even as the president and Congress disagreed on Reconstruction methods, the Constitution served as their guide on balance of powers, vetoes and impeachment. In the end, it evolved as a living document with pivotal amendments on freedom, citizenship and voting rights — topics still vital today.

After the structured process of the trial, both sides accepted the legality of the decision, which was ultimately an important and stabilizing outcome for the country.

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