Skip to contents
Opinion Columns

Opinion: The Trump impeachment inquiry doesn’t begin to compare to the mayhem of the very first one

With impeachment a mainstay of current news cycles, much discussion has focused on both the Nixon and Clinton episodes. 

Arthur T. Downey

The process and politics of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, however, were far more interesting, especially against the backdrop of post-Civil War Reconstruction and the little-known twist at the end.

Starting with the Gettysburg Address and until his assassination on April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln laid the foundation for the reunification of our young and devastated country. 

Tom Downey

While most of his fellow Republicans pushed for harsh treatment of the South, Lincoln planned to warmly welcome his once and future countrymen. Vice President Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat, vowed to continue Lincoln’s path. 

In the early days of his presidency, Johnson granted amnesty to most of the recent rebels and allowed former Confederate officers to hold key positions in the Southern states’ new governments.  

In the 1866 mid-term elections, the Republicans took over veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress, severely limiting Johnson’s ability to steer post-war policy. 

The newly empowered supermajorities passed the Tenure of Office Act, requiring Senate approval for the president to discharge a cabinet member.

Ignoring the law, Johnson tried to replace Lincoln’s hold-over Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. The battle over congressional versus presidential authority included the farcical scene of Secretary Stanton barricading himself in his office and resulted in Johnson’s impeachment process. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Within days of Stanton’s firing, the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of 11 articles of impeachment. The trial in the Senate began within two weeks, February 1868, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding. Ironically, Lincoln had appointed Chase within six months of his assassination as a nod to the Radical Republicans.  

The political and legal repercussions of the Civil War were enmeshed with Johnson’s impeachment. John Surratt, Jr. was facing charges of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Lincoln, and Jefferson Davis was in criminal jeopardy for the rebellious Confederacy. 

While he was sitting in jail, Surratt was approached by President Johnson’s congressional opponents and offered a deal.

He would receive favorable settlement terms, if he agreed to testify that either then-Vice President Andrew Johnson or CSA President Jefferson Davis were involved in the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln. 

Surratt rejected the offer. Meanwhile, William Evarts was on the team prosecuting Jefferson Davis, when he was engaged to defend President Johnson in his impeachment trial, and the Davis matter was delayed due to the scheduling conflict.  

Andrew Johnson’s chief defender in the impeachment trial was Maryland Sen. Reverdy Johnson, who was a highly successful attorney. U.S. Attorney General under President Taylor, he later won the Dred Scott case, which exacerbated the slavery issue, rather than settling it. In 1860, he supported his fellow Democrat, Stephen Douglas, for president against Lincoln. 

After the war, he failed in his defense of assassination conspirator Mary Surratt. Interestingly, septuagenarian Reverdy Johnson was legally blind during the Surratt and impeachment trials.

Early in the Senate trial, Reverdy Johnson inquired whether Sen. Benjamin Wade should remove himself from the trial, since Wade was the president pro tempore of the Senate, and so Wade would become president, if Andrew Johnson were convicted. (Years later, in 1947, the succession following the vice president was reversed, putting the Speaker of the House ahead of the Senate president pro tempore.)

Wade was the leading Radical Republican, disliked by Democrats and those wanting softer treatment for the former Confederates. Although Wade refused to recuse himself, the point was made to the senators: if you convict Andrew Johnson, the most radical Republican in the Senate would become president.

Near the end of the trial, Reverdy Johnson quietly arranged a meeting between President Andrew Johnson and a key Republican senator. In the parlance of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “Hamilton,” the room where it happened was Reverdy Johnson’s house. No one knows what was said or offered, but the Republican senator agreed to vote for acquittal.  

In May 1868, the Senate failed by only one vote to reach the two-thirds majority required to convict and remove Andrew Johnson. 

With this closest possible margin of victory, it is safe to presume that Andrew Johnson remained president because at least one of his detractors disliked Johnson’s potential successor more than he disliked Johnson. 

Though his power and influence were greatly diminished for the rest of his term, President Johnson did issue, in essence, a full pardon and amnesty to all former Confederates, including Jefferson Davis.

In 1926, the Supreme Court noted, as an aside to an unrelated case, that the Tenure of Office Act of 1867 — the core of Johnson’s impeachment — was unconstitutional.

It is easy to think the climate surrounding today’s news is bizarre and unprecedented, but it still doesn’t compare to the mayhem of the first impeachment a century and a half ago.  

Arthur T. Downey was on the National Security Council staff in the White House, a law professor and is the author of “Civil War Lawyers: Constitutional questions, courtroom dramas, and the men behind them.” His son, Tom Downey, was a congressional aide, an Assistant Attorney General and is a regulatory attorney in Colorado.