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Andrew Johnson: a little man in a big job

If it were not for his impeachment on 24 February 1868, and the subsequent trial in the Senate that led to his acquittal, Andrew Johnson would probably reside among the faded nineteenth century presidents that only historical specialists now remember. Succeeding to the White House after the murder of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, Johnson proved to be a presidential failure whose opposition to Republican plans for reshaping the South after the Civil War rested on a noxious brew of state rights ideology and outright racism. Put on the ticket of the Union Party in 1864 with Lincoln as a loyal war Democrat, Johnson had nothing in common with the triumphant Republicans who sought to implement their victory in the Civil War. When he faced the defeated southern states in 1865, he hurried through a plan of presidential Reconstruction that would have allowed the former Rebels a quick return to power and a resumption of their part in American politics. If they failed to repudiate secession and imposed Black Codes on the newly liberated slaves, Johnson saw nothing wrong with those outcomes since he believed in the inherent inferiority of African Americans. “This is a country for white men,” Johnson declared, “and by God as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”

Lewis L. Gould - Andrew Johnson
President Andrew Johnson. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Johnson’s policies did not sit well with Republicans in Congress in 1865-1866, who expected contrite submission from the South, protection for the former slaves, and a chance for their party to gain a foothold in the South. The Congressional Republicans rallied around a Civil Rights bill in 1866 which Johnson vetoed. To make the gains of the Civil War permanent, the Republicans coalesced behind the Fourteenth Amendment, making everyone born or naturalized in the United States a citizen entitled to due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment emerged as the de facto peace terms of the late war. President Johnson attacked the amendment and urged the southern states to oppose ratification. He made it an issue in the 1866 Congressional elections and suffered a humiliating defeat. Nothing daunted, Johnson opposed the Republicans as they sought to implement Reconstruction after 1867. Frustrated at Johnson’s efforts to forestall what they wanted to do, Republicans, led by those who styled themselves “Radical Republicans,” decided that the only way to eliminate Johnson was to remove him through impeachment, a device never before used against a sitting chief executive.

While the Republicans had ample anger against Johnson, demonstrating that he had committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as the Constitution specified, proved less easy to establish. The eleven articles of impeachment passed by the House on 24 February 1868 said that he had committed such offenses. The basic case against Johnson was political — not criminal — with ambiguous evidence. After all, his term would end in nine months whether he was convicted or not. In the end, Johnson was acquitted. The Republicans who voted to find him not guilty, while not profiles in courage, did not think it was worth disturbing the constitutional system to remove him.

For a long time that was also the historical verdict on the Johnson impeachment. It was seen as an example of Congressional overreach. With the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, scholars took another look at Johnson, condemned his racism, and rehabilitated his critics.

The Watergate controversy also sparked another look at Johnson’s case as participants in that episode sought to learn from the earlier example. While understanding better the motives of the impeachers in 1868, lawyers and historians did not come to see the Johnson impeachment as wise or unnecessary. That assessment survived the unsuccessful effort to convict President Bill Clinton in 1998-1999. So Johnson lingers on, a presidential failure who made the least of his historical moment. Specialists may remember 24 February as a key point in the life of a politician raised by chance above his talents. For other Americans, Andrew Johnson probably deserves his obscurity. He avoided removal by a narrow margin in the Senate, served out his term, won election to the Senate in 1875, and died before he could make any other mark on American history. A little man in a big job, Andrew Johnson falls in the bottom ranks of presidents where he belongs.

Featured image: “The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the Trial of Andrew Johnson.” Illustration in Harper’s Weekly. 11 April 1868. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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