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The Trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868

During Andrew Johnson's rise to political power, the former senator and Abraham Lincoln's vice-president had become an advocate of the small farmers over the large planters, and shared the racial attitudes of most white yeomen farmers. He talked tough about the rebel leaders initially, which delighted the Radical Republicans. They changed their minds when Johnson revealed his beliefs about readmitting the Southern states to the Union. The Radicals, long involved in the antislavery cause, were not pleased to hear Johnson argue that "there is no such thing as reconstruction.”

When congress met in December of 1865, all but Mississippi had accepted Johnson’s lenient requirements for readmission. The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was approved by the Congress, however, the Southern states had 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, effectively denying them and their states admittance. Johnson argued that the states never left the Union.

The year 1866 saw the decline of Johnson in terms of power and influence. In February, his veto of a bill to extend the life of the Freedman’s Bureau, which had provided relief to destitute blacks and whites, was upheld by the Senate. The overturning of his vetoes of a new Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the Civil Rights Act that negated the Black Codes later that year signaled his fall from favor with the Republicans. His vetoing of the Military Reconstruction, Command of the Army, and Tenure of Office Acts in 1867, along with his public attacks on Congressional challenges to his powers and his continued defiance of their wishes, laid the foundation for a constitutional showdown in 1868.

When Johnson deliberately violated the Tenure of Office Act in order to test its constitutionality it gave the House Judiciary Committee enough 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 the law. When the senate refused to approve the move, the House had grounds to vote impeachment.

The Senate trial opened March 5 and lasted until late May. On May 16, enough Republicans joined the pro-Johnson colleagues to prevent his conviction by one vote. They broke ranks mostly because they feared the consequences of removing a president for largely political rather than criminal reasons, and they opposed the economic and social agenda of the Radicals. To blunt further opposition, Johnson agreed not to obstruct the process of Reconstruction, thereby allowing Congressional Reconstruction to begin in earnest. Ironically, the failure to remove Johnson dealt the Radicals a political blow, damaged their morale and support, and ultimately led to their downfall.


Source: The Trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868
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