Book review: “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation”

I finished The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew John and the Dream of a Just Nation by Brenda Wineapple published in 2019. This was another library roulette book for me; I filtered the books at my local library by availability, eBook format, and history/biography. The book itself seems very relevant, no? In fact, when telling others what book I was currently reading, I just said The Impeachers to see how they would react. No, no, this is current events, this takes place in 1868.

Like Donald Trump, Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House, but was not convicted by the Senate. He missed conviction by a single vote. While you may have remembered that Andrew Johnson was the first president to be impeached and you may even remember that he had a reputation as a really bad president, the veil of history has removed the urgency and the political infighting of the event itself. What was Andrew Johnson actually impeached for?

Andrew Johnson became the target for impeachment because in the eyes of many, he was losing any of the gains made by the Union after winning the Civil War. To name a few:

  • One of the open questions after the Civil War was when could the Southern states rejoin the Union as equal states. Andrew Johnson believed this should happen without delay and without any punishments or conditions because “the Southern States never left the Union because they never seceded. The Constitution forbids it.” If secession was invalid according to the Constitution, how could we punish them for seceding?
  • Because of this crooked interpretation, President Johnson, without giving Congress its prerogative, reorganized the southern state governments by executive order appointing governors as if nothing had happened. Congress was furious and viewed it as presidential overreach.
  • When Congress convened, they began their own reorganization of the South by organizing military districts of multiple states. The south would still be under martial law. But the president could appoint this military governors of these districts. While Johnson went along with it, he did not acknowledge their legitimacy, as Congress has not allowed the senators from the southern states to be seated. Through the whole tussle with Congress, he would not acknowledge its legitimacy.
  • Andrew Johnson pardoned all Confederate soldiers if they came and asked for a petition. Many Southerners who had fought against the Union were being accepted back into the halls of power as if nothing had happened.
  • Johnson openly tried to hinder the goals of Congress by appointing men opposed to reconstruction and black civil rights. In this way, he undermined the southern military districts as well as the Freedman’s Bureau.
  • Perhaps to summarize it most succinctly in his own words, Andrew Johnson believed “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men.”

How had Andrew Johnson even become president? Why was he picked as Abraham Lincoln’s running mate? Well, Abraham was a politician, and he had to play political games to try to appeal to the broadest base. Andrew Johnson was a senator from Tennessee. He was the only senator from a southern state to oppose secession. He was a Democrat and a slaveholder, but he believed in the Union and would not fight against it. He was despised as a traitor, and in many ways was noble in his fight to preserve the Union. Though a Democrat, Lincoln’s party figured that a pro-Union southerner would even out the ticket. It certainly caused tears in the Republican party after Lincoln was shot.

The book does a masterful job at painting the context of impeachment, the character of the man as well as the figures of the day who were involved. There are some surprise appearances of famous figures you may not realize were contemporaries. Mark Twain was a journalist at the time in D.C. where he wrote updates on the trial. Walt Whitman, the poet, was around too and had his opinions on the matter.

The book to me outlines an important question I have always asked: how did the party of Lincoln that stood for fighting against slavery become the Republican party today that, more often than not, seems at-best ambivalent to making strides in civil rights? They don’t seem the same at all. The impeachment of Andrew Johnson doesn’t explain it all, but it does show that the seeds were already there. You realize that the Republican party didn’t uniformly stand for black civil rights. It was only the “radical” Republicans of the day that provided the moral compass of the party and who believed that black Americans were deserving of equal respect and equal rights. Many Republicans of the north were find giving civil rights to blacks in the south as a kind of punishment, but didn’t want to consider extending those same rights to blacks in the north. The sentiment that held the party together post-war at least initially was that the gains of the war should not be lost, whatever that meant. Once civil rights became a political liability, they were sacrificed. I also look at how pro-business interests begin to take a hold in the Republican party in my review of The Great Dissenter at about the same time here.

The other aspect of impeachment that wasn’t clear to me until reading the book was how new it was. It was scary territory, the equivalent of regicide in a democratic country. Impeaching a President implies mistakes, grave ones, in electing or appointing officials, and that these elected men and women might be not great but small– unable to listen to, never mind to represent, the people they serve with justice, conscience, and equanimity. Impeachment suggests dysfunction, uncertainty, and discord– not the discord of war, which can be memorialized as valorous, purposeful, and idealistic, but the far less dramatic and often squalid, sad, intemperate conflicts of peace, partisanship, race, and rancor. Impeachment implies a failure– a failure of government of the people to function, and of leaders to lead. And presidential impeachment means failure at the very top.

The Constitution gives very little to go off of, so these men had to interpret what the Constitution actually meant. A few questions that had to be resolved:

  • Is the Senate acting as jury in a trial? Or as a legislative body?
  • The Constitutions says that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is to lead the trial; how much decision power does he have over the proceedings? Does the Senate make decisions about admissibility of evidence, or does he?
  • Does the President have to actually break a law on the books to be convicted of impeachment?

That last question in particular isn’t clearly resolved to this day, and it popped up again in the impeachment of Donald Trump. Many insisted he hadn’t actually committed a crime, while others argued he had demonstrably violated his prerogatives as president. Because there was disagreement in Congress about this issue, Congress had to pin impeachment on a technicality, the Tenure of Office Act. President Johnson had dismissed his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, when the an act of Congress said he first had to get congressional approval. It all seemed like a joke, as the issues at stake were much larger than that: all of reconstruction was at stake.

Reconstruction lasted another eight years under the tenure of President Grant. But after federal troops were withdrawn from the south with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, black Americans would have to wait decades to gain their full civil rights. The failure of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment was one of the early signs that Reconstruction was starting to fail.

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