On February 21, 1868, a one-sentence resolution in the House of Representatives brought thousands running to the Capitol: “That Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, be impeached of high crimes and misdemeanors.” The snowy city buzzed as the news reached every corner. Presidential impeachment—an idea circulating in the Capitol for months—was suddenly becoming reality.
And alongside the national consequences of impeachment, massive public interest caused a smaller development: the introduction of gallery passes. Newspapers reported in astonishment on the crowds that packed the House’s galleries from the day impeachment news circulated on February 21 through the shift in action to the Senate just four days later. At the other end of the Capitol, official records illustrate the Senate’s reaction to the hordes of citizens pressing in on the House proceedings. Typically considered the more sedate body of Congress, it was unsettled by the public’s urgency and rowdiness. Ultimately, the Senate took organizational action and introduced a ticketing system to control the crowds, the forerunner of the passes that provide access to the galleries today.
The impeachment resolution fascinated congressional observers. Johnson opposed the Republican majority in the House’s entire Reconstruction agenda, and supported Southern states’ desire to control formerly enslaved people. He was deeply unpopular with the civil rights supporters who controlled the House and had fought with Johnson for three years as he stymied their efforts to build a racially tolerant nation.
The news was the talk of the Capitol, and clatter joined chatter as a dozen or more telegraph machines sent bulletins across the country in a crescendo of anticipation. Rumors circulated that the President had summoned the army to Washington. Reporters noted the rising worry and tension, fueled by gossip and ominous omens, as cold fog darkened the city. A skylight in the House Chamber shattered, injuring Iowa Representatives Hiram Price and Josiah Grinnell and making everyone jumpy. It became clear that general debate over impeaching the President would take place the next day, the 22nd. As the news ricocheted across town, citizens made plans to witness the debate. It would be history in the making, and the only place to see it unfold was from a seat in the House Chamber’s galleries.
February 22, George Washington’s birthday, saw crowds massed along Pennsylvania Avenue where “long processions of men and women,” observed Mark Twain, a reporter as well as novelist, “were wending their way toward the Capitol in the nipping winter air.” “When I reached there at noon,” wrote Twain, “it was difficult to make one’s way through the wide lobbies and passages, so great was the throng.” The House Press Gallery was so overrun with visitors that reporters complained to the Speaker.
Reporters noticed the interest of Americans who were generally shut out of political participation. Women came and found seats on the gallery steps and in the back corners. African Americans, who had the greatest stake in the outcome of a racist President’s impeachment, found themselves excluded from the chamber altogether as white visitors commandeered the segregated gallery.
Fiery abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens opened the debate. His zeal and triumph burned brightly despite his failing body. Clutching his impeachment papers in one hand and in a voice “feeble but yet distinctly audible because of the breathless stillness,” as Mark Twain described it, the old man read out the resolution. Stevens wanted an immediate vote, but his colleagues all wished to speak, and late in the evening the House recessed to complete the debate and vote two days hence. Stevens’s would be the final word before the vote.
Early Monday morning, February 24, visitors entered the Capitol and shook off their snowy cloaks, only to find the House had locked the gallery doors. Fifty members of the local Washington police preserved order. An hour before the House opened, doorkeepers threw wide the galleries’ doors. One reporter described the scene with horror and fascination, as “a torrent of people, men, women, and children, as streamed in through every door, filled every seat, and mercilessly ran over each other, and against each other, and on top of each other.” Attempts to limit the gallery crowd proved useless and within five minutes every step and spot of flooring was occupied.
Seat-holders settled in for the long day, unpacking their lunches and jealously guarding their perches. After nearly seven hours of speeches, Stevens closed the debate. He argued that the House’s choice was not a partisan one. It was whether to preserve the democratic rights of African Americans and by implication democracy itself. As twilight began to darken the House Chamber, Stevens concluded and called for a vote on whether to impeach the President.
While the lamps were lit in the chamber, the Clerk called the roll. Not a whisper came from the galleries. Every response was distinct as the House overwhelmingly voted to impeach Johnson. It was as one observer recorded, a sign to the African Americans who had come to witness the vote that “Emancipation is not a lie, a snare, and a cheat to them and their race, and that personal freedom and political equality have opened wide their doors.” It was also the first impeachment of a President of the United States. The crowds, so boisterous earlier, seemed stunned by the weight of what they witnessed. They filed from the galleries onto the Capitol steps and stood silently in the falling snow.
The next day, the House officially informed the Senate of Johnson’s impeachment, and the Senate began its trial preparations, including how to avoid a mob scene in the galleries, “leaving the steps and passages entirely free.” After almost a week of arguing, the Senate adopted a plan to issue tickets for admission to the gallery, with a complicated system of who received tickets to distribute, and how many.
Senators who predicted that constituents would bother them with requests for passes were correct. The effect on Senator Henry Anthony was particularly painful. A mistaken report that he held all the gallery tickets brought hordes to his lodgings. The passes were also universally panned by the public. “The indignation about the tickets is great,” one Washingtonian wrote in her diary. “The only really odious thing connected with the trial,” another proclaimed, “is the ticket system.”
Despite public indignation, the tickets, a different color for each day, provided the decorum the Senate craved. As one correspondent described the scene for readers back home, “The Senate chamber, always chilly in comparison with the warm, leaping blood of the House, is now wrapped in judicial robes of coldest gray.” Although the House never aspired to such an atmosphere, they did appreciate the Senate’s orderliness. A decade later, during the contentious joint sessions to decide the winner of the 1876 presidential election, the House adopted the same gallery pass system. The practice evolved to encompass daily admittance to the Visitor’s Gallery and continues to the present.
Sources: Emily Edson Briggs, The Olivia Letters; being some history of Washington city for forty years as told by the letters of a newspaper correspondent (New York: Neale Publishing Company 1906); Mary Henry Diary, 1864-1868, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7001, Box 51, Folder: 3; Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd. sess. (24 February 1868); Congressional Globe, Senate, 40th Cong., 2nd. sess. (4 March 1868); Congressional Globe, Senate, 40th Cong., 2nd. sess. (10 March 1868); Baltimore Sun, 22 February 1868; New-York Tribune, 22 February 1868, 24 February 1868, 25 February 1868; Louisville Daily Courier, February 23, 1868; Louisville Daily Journal, 24 February 1868; New York Times, 25 February 1868; Louisville Courier Journal, 26 February 1868; Mark Twain, “Letter from Washington,” Chicago Republican, 1 March 1868; Mark Twain, “Letter from Washington Number 10,” Territorial Enterprise, 13 March 1868.Follow @USHouseHistory