It promised to be a spectacle in a period that had seen its share of them. Three years after the end of a bloody civil war that had sundered the Union, and nearly three years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the government of the United States had triggered the most serious process in the constitutional mechanism: the power of impeachment.
On February 24, 1868, the House of Representatives voted along party lines, 126 to 47, to impeach President Andrew Johnson for having committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Days later, a House committee drew up nine articles of impeachment against the 17th president. They would later add two more. The vast majority of the articles were related to the main charge against Johnson: that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited the president from removing, without Senate approval, any official who had been appointed to office “with the advice and consent of the Senate.”
Congress had enacted the law to check Johnson’s behavior. The Tennessean, who had remained loyal to the Union, called Southerners who rebelled “traitors” and said forcefully that “treason must be punished,” changed his harsh tune once he became president after Lincoln’s death. He embarked upon a program of conciliation toward the white South, emboldening the former Confederates in ways that angered members of Congress and many Northerners as well. His decision to fire the secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, with whom he had political disagreements, was simply the last of what Congress considered to be Johnson’s long train of abuses.
After the House vote, the action moved to the Senate, to fulfill its duty to conduct a trial and determine whether Johnson would remain in office. Trials have always been a spectator sport. For centuries, the public has followed them in newspapers and by attending the proceedings. The trial of Andrew Johnson was no different. It began on March 5, 1868, and the country was riveted. “The newspapers,” according to historian Hans L. Trefousse, “reported every incident with relish and huge crowds sought admission to the Senate.” Access to the Senate trial was limited to ticket holders, and a fortunate few members of the public crowded into the gallery to hear the senators make their cases. (The ticket shown here is in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.) Some legislators had developed reputations as great performers in a courtroom setting, and could be counted on to entertain the rapt audience.
Obviously, this was about much more than an entertaining trial. The confrontation between Johnson and the men who wanted to remove him from office, the so-called Radical Republicans, was a fight over the future direction of the United States; a fight with implications that reverberate to this day. Johnson’s real crime in the eyes of opponents was that he had used the power of the presidency to prevent Congress from giving aid to the four million African-Americans freed after the Civil War. Johnson’s deep antipathy toward black people, not his view of the Constitution, guided his actions.
What did it mean for the country’s future that the man at the head of the government—at a moment when black people’s fortunes were being decided—hated blacks? Johnson had opposed slavery because he thought it hurt the class of poor whites from which he had come. Blacks were to be freed but left to the mercy of white Southerners. His plan of action—to put whites back in charge in the South—set him on a collision course with the Radical Republicans, who believed that the South must be transformed to incorporate blacks into American society as equals.
Johnson opposed congressional measures adopted to try to help African-Americans become productive members of society with the dignity accorded to whites. He opposed black suffrage, land reform and efforts to protect blacks against the violence that Southern whites unleashed upon them after the war’s end. Because he had no vice president, if Johnson had been removed from office—he was impeached, but not convicted and removed from office—Benjamin Wade, the president pro tempore, would have taken his place. A President Wade—Radical Republican and champion of black rights—might have altered the course of American history, perhaps for the better.