The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

On February 24, 1868, for the first time in history, the United States House of Representatives impeached a sitting president, Andrew Johnson. He then had to face a trial before the U. S. Senate. If convicted, he would be removed from office.

Vice President Johnson assumed office after the assassination of Lincoln. He was a Union man, but had roots in the South. "This is a country for white men," he reportedly declared, "and as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men." Johnson failed to win favor with the Radical Republicans, who wanted to guarantee the rights of the freedmen. They tried to do this by passing the Reconstruction Acts, laws that provided suffrage to freed slaves and prevented former Southern rebels from regaining control of the state governments.

Johnson believed the Acts to be wrong and unconstitutional and repeatedly blocked their enforcement. He gave pardons to ex-Rebels, and hampered military commanders' efforts to block the rise of Southern leaders to power. Johnson publicly expressed his defiance of the Radical Republicans. They knew their program for reconstruction of the South could not succeed with Andrew Johnson in office.

The final blow came after the passage of the Tenure of Office Act in 1867. This law made it impossible for the president to dismiss important government officials without the permission of the Senate. In a move that infuriated Congressmen, Johnson defied the act. He had long wanted to dismiss the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton—the only member of Johnson's cabinet who supported the Radical Republicans' program for reconstruction. In Stanton’s place, Johnson appointed the popular General Ulysses S. Grant, Secretary of War. By doing so, Johnson hoped to challenge the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act.

When Congress reconvened, they overruled Stanton’s suspension and Grant resigned from the position. The House of Representatives were angered by Johnson’s defiance and they formally impeached him on February 24 by a vote of 126 to 47, charging him with violation of the Tenure of Office Act. It was then up to the Senate to try Johnson.

Johnson's trial began on March 4th and continued for 11 weeks. During that time, the president's enemies had time to reconsider the Stanton dismissal, many were impressed with Johnson's good behavior during the trial. Johnson promised to enforce the Reconstruction Acts and to give no more speeches attacking Congress. He also appointed a man well-liked by most Republicans, General John M. Schofield, as the new Secretary of War.

On May 16, 1868, President Johnson escaped removal from office by just one vote. For the remainder of his time in office, he continued to veto reconstruction bills, but Congress overrode his vetoes.

Source: The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
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