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Lessons for our riven time from that of the first impeachment

Senators discuss impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.Associated Press/US Senate Historical Society

Next to “treason,’’ the most forbidding word in the Constitution is “impeachment.’’ Contemplated only a handful of times, achieved only twice, the word is in the air once more, and suddenly a nearly forgotten name and a nearly forgotten time are being recalled. Andrew Johnson and his impeachment and trial are surging back into popular consciousness.

The appearance of Brenda Wineapple’s “The Impeachers’’ will only accelerate the process. Approachable, dramatic, even riveting, Wineapple’s volume is both guidebook and cautionary tale for our times. Then as now, impeachment was a grim process with grim prospects, enhancing none of its principals, endangering all of them.


Johnson’s impeachment was the country’s first, conducted, like Bill Clinton’s, on a pretext, because in the view of the 19th century impeachers Johnson’s real crime wasn’t a bureaucratic technicality but racism, intransigence, and incivility. He was a Democrat at a time of Republican ascendancy, a white supremacist at a time of rapidly changing racial views, and most of all he wasn’t Abraham Lincoln, the martyred president he succeeded.

For all those reasons the Republican House of Representatives, led by the firebrand Thaddeus Stevens, went ahead and impeached him. Hardly anyone knew how to do it (the Constitution offered scant guidance), hardly anyone understood the historical implications of it (there wouldn’t be another one until 1998), and hardly anyone knew what the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors’’ meant (we still don’t).

“The multitude of strangers were waiting for impeachment,’’ wrote Mark Twain, as mystified as everyone else. “They did not know what impeachment was, exactly, but they had a general idea that it would come in the form of an avalanche, or a thunder clap, or that maybe the roof would fall in.’’

But into the drama the Congress charged, its passion fired by having a target of unusual vulnerability and venality. Wineapple tells us that congressional Republicans “knew, or wanted to believe, that impeachment implied hope, the glimmering hope of a better time coming, a better government, a fairer and more just one.’’ Good luck with that.


Indeed, the portrait of Johnson that emerges from Wineapple’s pages isn’t pleasant (but may feel eerily familiar to many), which is why the 17th president, along with Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, are virtually alone in not enjoying even a breath of revisionism. (It is now possible to hear a pleasant word about even Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon, but not Johnson.) Indeed, Wineapple begins her account with a multipronged indictment:

“Andrew Johnson assumed powers as President that he used to thwart the laws he didn’t like. He disregarded Congress, whose legitimacy he ignored. He sought to restore the South as the province of white men and to return to power a planter class that perpetuated racial distrust and violence.’’

And yet Wineapple tells us that Johnson was more complicated than the villainous cardboard character that has been passed down in history for generations. He had a decent sense of humor. He was not unintelligent. He had what she describes as a streak of “scrappy populism’’ and powerful twin instincts, one for appealing to the common people, one for infuriating the swells. Above all he was a portrait of contradictions, a slaveholder dedicated to the preservation of the Union.

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts set down the challenge facing the president: “If you are not ready to be the Moses of an oppressed people, do not become its Pharoah.’’


He couldn’t help himself. He vetoed a civil-rights bill, and all hell broke loose, and then Congress for the first time in its history overrode a presidential veto on a major piece of legislation. He was indifferent to anti-black violence in Memphis and New Orleans. He tried to fire Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in contravention of the Tenure of Office Act, a bizarre piece of congressional confection that required Senate approval for such a dismissal. It was that firing, which ignited the impeachment process. Every Republican voted to launch proceedings.

Now the fate of an unelected president moved to the Senate, with Chief Justice Salmon Chase — in Wineapple’s assessment “a peculiar amalgam of humility, vanity, and voracious ambition’’ — presiding.

The senators debated the chief justice’s role, what evidence could be entered, whether the Tenure of Office Act even applied, whether Johnson’s actions were more about Stanton than about the controversial law, even about whether an acquittal would boost the Ku Klux Klan, then a mysterious but clearly menacing organization. “Both the impeachers and the defenders of the President expressed confidence and then doubt and then confidence again about the outcome of the trial,’’ Wineapple reports.

In the end seven Republican senators — including Edmund Ross, whom many readers first encountered in the pages of John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage’’ — voted not guilty, and Johnson and his presidency were saved, except in the history books. Stanton, honoring a public pledge, resigned his office.


The episode was over, and Congress didn’t seriously entertain another presidential impeachment until Richard Nixon made it impossible to ignore his crimes, and until special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr made it impossible to ignore Clinton’s comportment in the Oval Office. Whether current events provide a fourth example right now is theory. In a generation it will be history.

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.