Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Pictures of an Impeachment

On February 24, 1868, the House of Representatives impeached President Andrew Johnson. This first-ever presidential impeachment captured the public’s attention, and mass-produced images—the up-and-coming visual media—fed the hunger for details. The famous Mathew Brady studio published cartes-de-visite of the impeachment managers, central characters in the drama. While visitors flooded into the U.S. Capitol to see the historic events unfold, illustrations of the exciting goings-on inundated popular weekly magazines—from dramatic speeches and solemn ceremonies to quirky incidental scenes.

The drama that culminated in impeachment was some years in the making. Radical Republicans in Congress and President Johnson were long at odds. His resistance to Congress’s efforts to establish rights for Black citizens during the Reconstruction Era created a parade of vetoes, overrides, and disagreements between the executive and legislative branches. From 1866 onward, Republicans in Congress explored avenues for removing Johnson from office, but nothing he did seemed to meet the bar of an impeachable offense. This stalemate broke when the President dismissed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on February 21, 1868. The House of Representatives deemed that action—Johnson’s second attempt to remove Stanton in the prior six months—to be a violation of the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited the President from replacing a Cabinet member without first consulting Congress. That very day an impeachment resolution was introduced and the process of formally impeaching the President began. This put Washington in a state of what newspapers described as “intense excitement.” February 22 was called “a day of exciting and momentous interest. Even the papers have agreed that nothing like it has been witnessed since Lee’s surrender. . . . The hotels and the streets were filled as rapidly as the exciting events followed each other.”

House Managers for the Impeachment Trial of Andrew Johnson Carte-de-Visite

House Managers for the Impeachment Trial of Andrew Johnson Carte-de-Visite/tiles/non-collection/8/8-30-Johnson-images-2020_025_000-001.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Top row, left to right: James Falconer Wilson, George Sewel Boutwell, John Alexander Logan. Bottom row, left to right: Benjamin Franklin Butler, Thaddeus Stevens, Thomas Williams, and John Armor Bingham.
Mathew Brady’s studio produced this carte-de-visite of some of the most prominent players in the impeachment drama. Several were involved from its earliest stages, and together they formed the House’s impeachment managers, charged with conducting Johnson’s trial in the Senate. This image, which Brady mass-produced and sold to the public, offers a piece of market-based evidence of America’s avid interest in this rare political event.

Cartes-de-visite were invented in 1854 by French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri. He came up with the idea to print a grid of small images on a single sheet of albumen paper, which he mounted on cardstock and cut apart into individual 2.5 x 4 inch, calling-card-sized images. This created efficiencies in the manufacturing process, letting photographers churn out lots of photos quickly, without compromising the image quality.

People enthusiastically embraced the inexpensive pictures, collecting them in mass quantities. Cartes-de-visite of celebrities—popular theatrical performers, royalty, and as here, political figures—were in-demand, with economies of scale working efficiently for photographers’ profit. A few years before the Johnson impeachment, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said of the craze for accumulating cartes-de-visite that they “have become the social currency, the sentimental ‘Green-backs’ of civilization.” The sentiment was still true when this image of the impeachment managers was published and sold.

The House Committee Drafting Articles of Impeachment, on Thursday, Feb. 27, in the Committee Room, House of Representatives, Washington, DC, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 14, 1868

The House Committee Drafting Articles of Impeachment/tiles/non-collection/8/8-30-Johnson-images-2007_345_006.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Popular Republican-leaning publications like Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper featured another overlapping group of stars on the cover of its March 14, 1868, edition—the Representatives on the Committee of Seven, who drew up the articles of impeachment. The heap of papers and scattered books on the floor by the globe in the foreground imply that the Representatives have been hard at work. They look to Thaddeus Stevens, who commands their Capitol committee room. In the universe of impeachment images taken around the Capitol, Stevens is a constant. Although aged and in poor health, Stevens led the charge in the impeachment of his longtime adversary. The caption names each committee member, and the story above announces that the House has formally impeached the President. As it had since the Civil War, Frank Leslie’s made no pretense of neutrality. The story declares that while the President’s previous actions did not clearly violate the Constitution, “Morally he no doubt deserved impeachment for his dereliction of duty in not carrying out in their letter and intent the Reconstruction Laws of Congress, thereby keeping the country in turmoil, and the lately rebel States in disorganization.”

Scene in the House - Apathy of the Members - A Race for the Wires - Energy of the Reporters - The Last Speech on Impeachment - Thaddeus Stevens Closing the Debate in the House, Harper’s Weekly, March 21, 1868

Harper’s Weekly Vignettes/tiles/non-collection/8/8-30-Johnson-images-2009_129_001.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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The following week, Harper’s Weekly's text continued to give a blow-by-blow account of the proceedings, but the illustrations took a different tack. Illustrations that stretched beyond the main narrative were common in illustrated news magazines like Harper’s Weekly. Although photography advanced considerably in the 20-odd years since its invention, printing methods were relatively unchanged, and news magazines continued to rely on artists to create illustrations. For their impeachment coverage, the illustrators added sketches of informal moments to those of specific steps in the process. The accompanying article’s description tells readers that “After the anger and indignation which were first kindled at the usurpation of the President in removing Mr. Stanton without the consent of the Senate subsided. . . . The House has, without passion, and with . . . no expression of malice, proceeded calmly with the preliminary steps to impeachment.”

Apathy of the Members Detail/tiles/non-collection/8/8-30-Johnson-images-2009_129_001-apathy.xml Image detail, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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The first image, entitled “Apathy of the Members,” shows readers exactly what Harper’s said was not happening during the impeachment proceedings. As the adjacent description states, “Our correspondents and artist at Washington unite in describing the serious and earnest composure of both Houses in acting upon the subject of impeachment, and the notable absence, whenever impeachment is discussed, of all the apathy and levity which is usual on other occasions.” The image here showed Representative Albert Burr lounging lazily during a debate on the Indian Appropriation Bill on February 26.

Energy of the Reporters Detail/tiles/non-collection/8/8-30-Johnson-images-2009_129_001-energy.xml Image detail, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Also, somewhat at odds with the alleged self-control in the Capitol is the second image, “A Race for the Wires - Energy of the Reporters.” The scrum shown here occurred when a “crowd of correspondents rushed at” the printer delivering the articles of impeachment. Allegedly, the press “pushed him and his bundles violently through an open door into a committee-room, where a House committee was discussing some weighty subject . . . grasped the bundles from the hands of the printer . . . rifled them of their contents. . . . The precious documents having been secured by the rival reporters, a race was made for the nearest telegraph office.”

The Last Speech on Impeachment - Thaddeus Stevens Closing the Debate in the House Detail/tiles/non-collection/8/8-30-Johnson-images-2009_129_001-lastspeech.xml Image detail, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Unlike the other vignettes on the page, “The Last Speech on Impeachment” does exemplify the “serious and earnest composure” the article describes. On March 2, 1868, Representative Stevens stood in the House and delivered the last impeachment speech before the action shifted to the Senate. The scene “was one of the most interesting ever witnessed in the House.” According to Harper’s Weekly, “even the noisy galleries became quiet, and a deathlike stillness reigned throughout the House.” Representatives and Pages alike tiptoed to the front of the chamber and “gathered near the old man, perhaps more to gaze upon than to hear him.” Interestingly, the story does not comment on the content of the speech, but only the response of the crowd to it.

Scenes and Incidents at the National Capitol During the Impeachment Excitement, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 4, 1868

Scenes and Incidents at the National Capitol During the Impeachment Excitement/tiles/non-collection/8/8-30-Johnson-images-2020_035_000-001.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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A National Nuisance Detail/tiles/non-collection/8/8-30-Johnson-images-2020_035_000-001-ashes.xml Image detail, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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This print from the Senate portion of the impeachment proceeding is all about setting the scene with anecdotal details, giving the reader a fuller impression of the experience of being at the Capitol, and it was not all solemn speeches and ceremonial paperwork delivery. Although the impeachment narrative was central, curiosity about what it was like to be in the proverbial “room where it happened” was also a consumer itch that illustrated news journals scratched. The leading image shows how visitors approaching the Capitol would encounter a less-than-ideal view, what Frank Leslie’s described as “petty outrages, due simply to negligence and want of system in the management of mechanical details.” During this time, ashes from coal-fired furnaces were unceremoniously dumped on the Capitol grounds. Adding insult to ash heap, efforts to collect the refuse for recycling as fertilizer, landfill, or for brick-making material generated clouds of debris and added to the embarrassingly unattractive scene.

Leaving this aesthetic issue that obviously was close to the heart of the writer, the reader progresses into the Capitol, to the Senate, where the action shifted following the House’s vote. Runaway interest in gallery seats prompted the introduction of gallery passes to control entrance and manage the crowds. African Americans in particular gathered in the Capitol, a place from which they were largely banned before the Civil War, to witness the proceedings.

Details of Gallery and Painting Vignettes/tiles/non-collection/8/8-30-Johnson-images-2020_035_000-001-galleries-painting.xml Image details, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Two illustrations visualize Harper’s Weekly’s support for the vision of a multiracial government in the years after the Civil War and emphasize the engagement of the Black community. An illustration on the page’s right shows Black citizens’ interest in the impeachment, depicting “a group of these new-made ‘sovereigns’ listening to the reading of the Articles of Impeachment.” The illustration below furthers this narrative by showing four men and a boy looking at a monumental painting outside the Senate galleries. Their style of dress varies: one man wears a top hat and overcoat, while another wears a cap and patched trousers. The text fortifies the idea that all citizens should enjoy the art of the Capitol, noting that “our colored fellow-citizens at Washington find plenty of leisure to enjoy the sites at the Capitol and make the best use of their opportunities. They may at all hours be seen gratifying their taste for the fine arts.”

Thad Stevens' Headquarters in the Appropriation Committee Room Detail/tiles/non-collection/8/8-30-Johnson-images-2020_035_000-001-stevens.xml Image detail, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Rounding out the impeachment illustration suite is the ever-present Thaddeus Stevens. Here, he rests on a chaise in the Capitol, still gaunt, grim, and determined as he reads the latest news. The newspaper on his lap adds a cheeky circular reference to Stevens’s presence in every issue. The congressional leader can read about his role even as the proceedings are still unfolding. Likewise, citizens across the nation were following along from their own armchairs, absorbing the epic press coverage of a constitutional drama Stevens helped orchestrate: the first-ever impeachment of a U.S. President.

Sources: Louisville Daily Journal, 24 February 1868; Harper’s Weekly, 21 March 1868; Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 4 April 1868.