Impeachment Rejected, November to December 1867

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton/tiles/non-collection/w/web_stanton_edwin_LC-DIG-ppmsca-19671.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Secretary of War Edwin Stanton served under President Abraham Lincoln and continued under President Johnson. He was an ally of Republicans in Congress and an irritant to Johnson, who twice tried to fire him.
In July, about a month after the vote in the Judiciary Committee, Congress went on a four-month recess that lasted until November 1867. But before departing, Republicans passed the Third Reconstruction Act—over Johnson’s veto—to solidify the U.S. military’s control over the southern states to help the millions of formerly enslaved men and women get a foothold in freedom and to guide Congressional Reconstruction after Johnson’s administration had tried to subvert the process.

On August 12, with Congress out of town, an enraged Johnson retaliated against Republicans by removing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and replacing him with Ulysses S. Grant, the popular war hero who had commanded the Union Army. Stanton was an ally of congressional Republicans and as Secretary of War, Stanton controlled the military’s presence in the South, including the Freedmen’s Bureau, meaning he was key to ensuring that Congress would be able to carry out its Reconstruction agenda.34

When Johnson fired Stanton he had alerted the Senate as per the requirements set out in the Tenure of Office Act. But since it was August and Congress was on recess, Johnson had found a loophole: so long as the Senate was out of town, the President could effectively circumvent Congress and there was little the Senate could do. With Stanton gone as Secretary of War, Johnson moved quickly. Against Grant’s advice, Johnson removed two important military commanders in the South who had protected policies that extended civil rights to African Americans: General Philip Sheridan, in charge of Texas and Louisiana, and General Daniel Sickles, who oversaw the Carolinas.35

When Congress came back into session in late November 1867, three months after Johnson removed Stanton, the mood regarding impeachment had changed considerably, as had the political calculus in the House Judiciary Committee. Despite having voted against impeachment before the recess, the committee had not yet sent its report to the full House, meaning its investigation had not yet been closed.

Johnson’s heavy-handed decision to sidestep Congress over the summer led one committee member, John C. Churchill, a moderate Republican and judge from upstate New York, to reconsider his stance on impeachment. In June, Churchill had voted with other moderates on the Judiciary Committee against impeachment, and he had hoped that his vote might ease the clash between the executive and legislative branches. But Johnson’s persistent meddling with the congressional framework for Reconstruction had dimmed Churchill’s hopes. When Churchill returned in November, he reversed his vote. The Judiciary Committee was now 5 to 4 in favor of impeachment.

Churchill explained why he changed his mind in a lengthy letter published in the New York Times. “The President in the exercise of his constitutional powers, by such changes of military commanders, or such withdrawal of troops from the reconstructed States, or such other acts as should destroy the confidence of loyalists and freedmen in prompt military protection in the exercise of their suffrage, at any time before the new State Governments shall have been established, and shall have set in operation a machinery of their own for the protection of their citizens, would make it impossible to carry a single Southern State in accordance with the views of a majority of Congress.” Churchill’s vote moved impeachment from the committee room onto the House Floor.36

On November 25, 1867, the Judiciary Committee submitted its report to the House. In all, the committee produced three reports: the majority’s report in favor of impeachment, and two dissenting reports. One dissent was written by the two Democrats on the committee. The other dissent was written by two moderate Republicans—the committee’s chairman, James F. Wilson of Iowa, and Frederick E. Woodbridge of Vermont—who opposed impeachment but believed the President nonetheless “deserves the censure and condemnation of every well-disposed citizen.” Let the American people vote Johnson out of office, they argued.37

“Andrew Johnson’s reconstruction and how it works”/tiles/non-collection/w/web_Johnson_reconstruction_LC-USZ62-114830.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress This Thomas Nast cartoon titled “Andrew Johnson’s reconstruction and how it works” depicts the President as the villain Iago from Shakespeare's Othello. In the play, which deals with themes like jealousy and race, the white Iago betrays Othello who is widely understood to be a person of color, and likely of African descent.
The committee’s majority report was written by Radical Thomas Williams of Pennsylvania and backed by fellow Radicals George Boutwell of Massachusetts, Francis Thomas of Maryland, and William Lawrence of Ohio, and the moderate Churchill.38 The report listed 17 instances in which Johnson reached the threshold of impeachment. The primary issue, Williams wrote, “the great salient point of accusation, standing out in the foreground, and challenging the attention of the country, is the usurpation of power, which involves, of course, a violation of law.” The President, Williams continued, had undermined Congress with “the purpose of reconstructing the shattered governments of the Rebel states in accordance with his own will, in the interests of the great criminals who carried them into the rebellion.” By treating former Confederates so leniently, Williams said, Johnson had robbed “the people of the loyal States of all chances of indemnity for the past or security for the future.” The President pardoned Confederate “offences”; he gave rebels back “their lands”; and with Confederate “hearts unrepentant, and their hands yet red with the blood of our people” Johnson tried to usher former rebels back into Congress “where they could once more embarrass and defy, if not absolutely rule the government which they had vainly endeavored to destroy.” That, Williams concluded, was “the great master-key which unlocks and interprets all of” Johnson’s other “special acts of mal-administration.”39

Of course, Republicans remained divided on whether Johnson’s conduct merited impeachment, a reality underscored by the dissent from two moderate Republicans on the committee, including the chairman. Many moderates still mustered little enthusiasm for such a course and had grown even more hesitant following a series of developments back home across the North. Elections held earlier that fall had included a major push to amend several state constitutions in the North to allow for African-American voting rights—a major policy favored by Radicals. All lost by large margins. Overall, Republican support for Congressional Reconstruction—and by extension, the pitched impeachment battle with Johnson—seemed to be eroding. Northern newspapers concluded that voters had grown tired of the endless conflict over Reconstruction and the exclusion from Congress of the southern states.40

With that as a backdrop, President Johnson defiantly denounced the Radicals’ plan for Reconstruction, especially their push to create a more equitable society, in his written Annual Message submitted to Congress on December 3, 1867. “The plan of putting the Southern States wholly and the General Government partially into the hands of Negroes is proposed at a time peculiarly unpropitious,” he wrote. Johnson was a former slaveowner and held deeply racist beliefs about the inability of newly emancipated slaves to govern and participate in the political process. Extending the ballot to African Americans, he judged, would result in ruin and chaos. Johnson warned in paranoid and ominous terms, “all order will be subverted, all industry cease, and the fertile fields of the South grow up into a wilderness. Of all the dangers which our nation has yet encountered, none are equal to those which must result from the success of the effort now making to Africanize the half of our country.”41

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Footnotes

34White, The Republic For Which It Stands: 41, 49, 92.

35McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: 530–531; Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson: 99–100.

36“Impeachment: Letter from Hon. J. C. Churchill, of New York, in Regard to His Change of Vote in Committee,” 6 December 1867, New York Times: 2; Stewart, Impeached: 102; Trefousse, The Impeachment of a President: 111.

37Trefousse, The Impeachment of a President: 107; Stewart, Impeached: 106.

38Stewart, Impeached: 103–105; Trefousse, The Impeachment of a President: 107.

39Italics in the original. See House Committee on the Judiciary, Impeachment of the President, 40th Cong., 1st sess., Rep. Com. No. 7 (25 November 1867): 2; Randall and Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction: 602.

40Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson: 70–71.

41Andrew Johnson, Third Annual Message, 3 December 1867, in The American Presidency Project, ed. Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/201999.