The House Impeaches Andrew Johnson

Representatives John Bingham and Thaddeus Stevens Announce that the House Impeached President Andrew Johnson/tiles/non-collection/b/bingham_stevens_senate_2009_049-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives After impeaching a President for the first time in U.S. history, Representatives John Bingham of Ohio and Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania announced the House’s action in the Senate Chamber. Standing with a cane, Stevens reads the House’s message.

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“The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
— U.S. Constitution, Article II,
section 4

The Constitution gives the House of Representatives the sole power to impeach an official, and it makes the Senate the sole court for impeachment trials.

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On February 21, 1868, when the United States House of Representatives met as it usually did at noon, there was no sense that the long-simmering struggle between Congress and President Andrew Johnson was about to tip into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

After gaveling in and lazily dispensing with a handful of private relief bills, the House settled into a long debate on the annual naval appropriations bill. “The calm of the forenoon had been nigh unto sluggishness,” a New York reporter observed.1

But by midafternoon a low murmur rippled across the House Floor when several Representatives darted in with shocking news they had just heard while visiting the Senate Chamber.

Within minutes Speaker Schuyler Colfax announced that the House had received several communications from the executive branch. All of them were routine, except one—a letter from the embattled Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton—that had sparked the commotion in the Senate, the gist of which was now spreading by word of mouth across the House Chamber. Stanton had forwarded a curt order from President Johnson that he had received that morning from General Lorenzo Thomas. In it the President summarily informed Stanton that he was “hereby removed from office.” Thomas, a feckless desk officer, would act as the interim Secretary.2

Johnson’s decision to fire the Secretary of War was not a routine personnel decision, however. By replacing a Cabinet member without first consulting Congress, the President had violated the Tenure of Office Act, a law meant specifically to curtail Johnson’s unilateral exercise of power.

Johnson’s decision to remove Stanton came after nearly three years of conflict between the White House and Congress. Johnson, a Senator from Tennessee when the Civil War broke out in 1861, had remained loyal to the Union. Nevertheless, he was a Democrat and slaveholder who wanted to readmit the former Confederate states to the Union with few conditions. Congress, meanwhile, was controlled by Republicans—many of whom were northern abolitionists—with a very different vision for the future of the country. Among those Republicans, a small but influential and vocal faction of Radical Republicans had taken steps to commandeer the party’s agenda in the late 1860s. The Radicals hoped that from the ashes of the Civil War would rise a new nation, one built on a foundation of racial tolerance and equal opportunity. Johnson, however, had routinely circumvented Congress, issuing an almost blanket amnesty proclamation that reconstituted the political rights for former Confederates across the South. The President also wielded his veto pen with devastating efficiency to stymy the Republicans’ legislative agenda—known as Congressional Reconstruction—when he assumed office after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865.

With the former Confederacy under martial law, Stanton was pivotal to Congressional Reconstruction plans; as Secretary of War, Stanton controlled the military forces keeping the peace in the South. But with Stanton gone—and with Johnson having already re-enfranchised the very rebels who had tried to overthrow the federal government during the Civil War—the President believed he had the support to withdraw the Union Army from the South and put into place his far more lenient policies. If Johnson succeeded, he would also be risking the lives of millions of emancipated black men and women who, without federal protection, would be subject to the abuses of their former masters.3

The House Chamber in 1868/tiles/non-collection/h/house_chamber_stereoview_2005_159_000-4.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The House Chamber, seen here in 1868, served as the backdrop as Members debated impeachment in late 1867 and early 1868.
When the House learned Johnson had removed Stanton, Radical Republicans were momentarily stunned and unusually subdued by the news. This, however, was not the first time Johnson had attempted to fire Stanton. Johnson had tried something similar a few months earlier during a long congressional recess, but the Senate ultimately forced the President to return the seat to Stanton. Few imagined the President would defy Congress directly and replace Stanton again. Elihu Washburne of Illinois, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, for instance, simply moved that Stanton’s communication be referred to the Select Committee on Reconstruction, which the House had created in July 1867 to ensure that the Johnson administration adhered to the blueprint Congress laid out for the readmission into the Union of the former Confederate states. Washburne then steered the House back to naval appropriations.

But as the gravity of Stanton’s letter sank in, Radicals found it difficult to think about anything else, and halted work on the naval spending bill that afternoon as Representatives chatted and milled about the chamber. Some consulted law books. Others expressed disbelief that the President had acted so recklessly. When news of Stanton’s removal reached Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, the ailing Radical leader hurried to the chamber to whip Members who had previously shrunk from confronting Johnson directly. A brooding and caustic abolitionist, Stevens chaired the Reconstruction Committee and was in effect the Republican floor leader in the House. Leaning on the arm of a moderate leader, John Bingham of Ohio, Stevens shuffled among the small knots of Members conversing on the floor, striking the same refrain to anyone within earshot. “Didn’t I tell you so?” he demanded. “What good did your moderation do? If you don’t kill the beast, it will kill you.”4

“We have, it appears, two Secretaries of War, one by law and one by usurpation,” bellowed the fiery Radical Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts, a first-term Member and former major general in the Union Army, who had earned the moniker “Beast Butler” for his iron-fisted rule of occupied New Orleans during the Civil War. Butler demanded that the next morning—a Saturday, originally set aside to celebrate the birth of George Washington—be reserved to discuss what Johnson had done, and which laws he had violated.5

As the House voted to approve Butler’s motion, Maine’s Frederick Pike—a moderate up to that point—shouted, “Up now, all who are for impeachment!” En masse, Republicans rose to their feet. Butler walked up to Pike with a broad smile on his face and patted the Mainer on the back.6

As tensions quickly escalated in the House, Pennsylvania’s John Covode reached into his desk and pulled out a small sheet of paper he had kept there for months. Demanding to be recognized for a privileged question, Covode commanded the floor. “I offer the following resolution,” he thundered. “Resolved. That Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, be impeached of high crimes and misdemeanors.”7

John Covode's One-Sentence Resolution/tiles/non-collection/w/web_Covode_Impeachment_Resolution_Andrew_Johnson_HR_40A-B4.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
About this record
The one-sentence impeachment resolution, drafted by John Covode of Pennsylvania, was referred to Stevens’s Select Committee on Reconstruction: “That Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, be impeached of high crimes and misdemeanors.”
“The impeachers think they now have Mr. Johnson in a net from which he cannot possibly escape, and their spirits have risen in consequence,” concluded the Baltimore Sun correspondent as he looked on from the House galleries.8

A moment of immense constitutional import—the first impeachment of a President in American history—had arrived.

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1“War Department,” 22 February 1868, New York Times: 1. See also “Washington: Secretary Stanton Removed,” 22 February 1868, New York Tribune: 1.

2Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (21 February 1868): 1326.

3Richard White, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and The Gilded Age, 1865–1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017): 50–55.

4Hans L. Trefousse, Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997): 224.

5Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (21 February 1868): 1328.

6The quotation attributed to Pike has many permutations. This one comes from a contemporary source: “Removal of Mr. Stanton,” 22 February 1868, Baltimore Sun: 1. See also Michael Les Benedict, A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction, 1863–1869 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974): 297.

7Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (21 February 1868): 1329.

8“Removal of Mr. Stanton.”