The Trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868

During Andrew Johnson's rise to political power, the former senator and Abraham Lincoln's vice-president fought for the small farmers against the large planters. He shared the racist attitudes of most white yeomen farmers. He talked tough about the rebel leaders initially, but he argued that the southern states had never seceded from the Union and therefore there was no need for Reconstruction.

When Congress met in December of 1865, all the states except for Mississippi accepted Johnson’s lenient requirements for readmission. The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was approved by the Congress. The Southern states restored the old elite to power and sent all-white delegations to Washington, including many former confederate leaders. Outraged Radicals simply omitted them from the roll call, denying them and their states admittance.

By 1866 Johnson’s power and influence were declining. He vetoed a bill to extend the life of the Freedman’s Bureau, which provided relief to destitute blacks and whites. The Senate overturned his veto. The extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Civil Rights Act that negated the Black Codes showed that Johnson was losing favor with the Republicans. In 1867 he vetoed the Military Reconstruction, Command of the Army, and Tenure of Office Acts, and also publicly attacked Congressional challenges to his powers. The foundation for a constitutional showdown was laid.

Johnson deliberately violated the Tenure of Office Act in a test of whether the House Judiciary Committee had sufficient grounds for his impeachment. Johnson had removed Secretary of War Stanton and replaced him with General Ulysses Grant without receiving consent from the Senate as required by law. When the Senate refused to approve the move, the House had grounds to vote for impeachment.

The Senate trial opened March 5 and lasted until late May. On May 16, enough Republicans joined the pro-Johnson senators to prevent his conviction by one vote. The Republicans who opposed conviction feared the consequences of removing a president for largely political rather than criminal reasons. They also opposed the economic and social agenda of the Radicals. After the trial Johnson agreed not to obstruct the process of Reconstruction, thereby allowing Congressional Reconstruction to begin in earnest. The failure to remove Johnson dealt the Radicals a political blow, damaging their morale and support. It ultimately led to their downfall.

Source: The Trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868
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