Johnson Impeached, February to March 1868

Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania/tiles/non-collection/s/stevens_carte_de_visite_2007_315_000pq.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania was the undisputed leader of Radical Republicans in the House and the driving force behind Johnson’s impeachment.

As the presidential election year of 1868 opened, President Johnson continued to wage guerrilla warfare against Congressional Reconstruction. The House’s refusal to go forward with impeachment in December 1867 only seemed to embolden him. While Johnson made sure not to give moderate Republicans any grounds on which to impeach him by violating the law, he walked right up to that line. “The President . . . does continue to do the most provoking things,” complained moderate Republican Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts. “If he isn’t impeached it won’t be his fault.”56

On January 11, 1868, Republicans experienced a brief victory when Grant stepped down as Secretary of War and Stanton resumed his post. The Senate had disapproved of Stanton’s firing when it came back into session in late 1867, and Grant quickly gave up the office. Outraged, Johnson not only opened a public feud with Grant, he began casting about for another replacement.57

Although impeachment appeared to have gone dormant in the House by early 1868, some Members quietly planned to renew the effort. For one, Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican leader, decided to take a more direct role in the impeachment campaign still being stoked by Radicals. Stevens was in the twilight of his life, and his body had started to fail. He was nearly 76 years old and displayed little of the vigor that had made him such a formidable figure in the House. Suffering from severe stomach pain, liver problems, and edema, the fearsome Radical leader was now so infirm that he rarely spoke on the floor. When he did address the chamber, he faded so quickly that he often had to ask the Clerk or another Member to read his remarks. Some speculated that only Stevens’s visceral hatred of President Johnson kept him alive.

His poor health aside, Stevens still had a keen mind and he saw Johnson’s attacks on Grant after the general relinquished the office of War Secretary as another chance at impeachment. On February 10, 1868, the House voted to transfer any further responsibility over impeachment from the Judiciary Committee to the House Reconstruction Committee, which Stevens chaired.58 Striking amid the fallout from Johnson’s rift with Grant, Stevens wrote a new impeachment resolution charging the President with violating the Tenure of Office Act and presented it to his committee. To his outrage, the Reconstruction Committee voted 6 to 3 to kill the resolution. “I shall never bring up this question of impeachment again,” Stevens threatened.59 Many in the House assumed impeachment was dead for good this time.

But less than two weeks later, on Friday, February 21, President Johnson triggered a political earthquake and brought impeachment roaring back to life when he removed Secretary of War Stanton again, replacing him with General Lorenzo Thomas. This time, however, Johnson did so without consulting the Senate and in clear contravention of the Tenure of Office Act. Radicals now had a legal basis to proceed. And for many House moderates who had once urged restraint this latest presidential provocation was the last straw. Within hours of learning of Stanton’s removal for a second time, John Covode introduced and the House approved a one-sentence impeachment resolution which was referred to Steven’s Reconstruction Committee for additional consideration: “That Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, be impeached of high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Reinvigorated by Johnson’s bald challenge to the law, the Reconstruction Committee met the next morning, Saturday, February 22—George Washington’s birthday—at Stevens’s home at the foot of Capitol Hill (not far from the modern Botanic Gardens) for a cursory debate on impeachment.60 At 2:00 that afternoon, after the House was called to order, Stevens presented the spare resolution his committee had considered that morning: “Resolved, That Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, be impeached of high crimes and misdemeanors in office.” It was nearly Covode’s bill verbatim. Crowds had packed the House Gallery and as debate opened Stevens settled into a chair next to the Speaker. Unlike the first attempt at impeachment a few months earlier, Republicans this time around competed with one another to denounce the President. Meanwhile, all Democrats could do was attack Republicans.61

After taking Sunday off, the House continued its debate on Monday, February 24. Following a full day of remarks, Stevens offered a final comment on impeachment. He only managed to get through a few words before handing his speech to the Clerk to finish. Johnson had violated the law, Stevens pointed out. But it was also true, he believed, that impeachment was a political act that did not necessarily require the President to have broken the law. Stevens said the stark choice before Members was not about partisan gain; it was a decision about whether to preserve the form of government the Founders intended. “The God of our fathers, who inspired them with the thought of universal freedom, will hold us responsible for the noble institutions which they projected and expected us to carry out,” Stevens concluded. “This is not to be the temporary triumph of a political party, but it is to endure in its consequence until this whole continent shall be filled with a free and untrammeled people or shall be a nest of shrinking, cowardly slaves.”62

Poster Reproducing a House Vote on Impeaching President Johnson/tiles/non-collection/w/web_Impeachment_Pres_Andrew_Johnson_House_vote_poster-2017-001_ac_small.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives Records Administration This poster reproduced the yeas and nays for the February 24, 1868, vote in the House to impeach President Johnson.
That day, February 24, 1868, following Stevens’s remarks, the House voted to impeach Johnson, 126 to 47, with 17 Members not voting. Nearly every Republican who voted supported impeachment; Samuel Cary who was elected to the House from Ohio as an Independent Republican and Thomas E. Stewart who won election to the House as a Conservative Republican from New York both voted no. Every Democrat who voted that day voted no. It was the first time the House had impeached the President of the United States.63

Before the House adjourned for the evening, Speaker Schuyler Colfax of Indiana placed John Bingham and Stevens in charge of officially informing the Senate of Johnson’s impeachment, which they did the next day.64 Colfax also appointed a Committee of Seven to prepare specific articles of impeachment against the President: Bingham, George Boutwell, and Stevens, each of whom served on the Select Committee on Reconstruction, as well as George Julian, Judiciary Chairman James F. Wilson, John A. Logan of Illinois, and Hamilton Ward of New York.65 From a modern perspective, it may seem as if House Republicans reversed the order of events in 1868—drawing up specific articles of impeachment only after voting to impeach Johnson. But the House followed what appears to have been standard procedure during the nineteenth century. Each of the five impeachments which resulted in a trial before Johnson’s had been conducted the same way.66

The Committee of Seven/tiles/non-collection/w/web_committee_impeachment_2007_345_006.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The cover of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated depicts the Committee of Seven drafting articles of impeachment on February 27, 1868. Thaddeus Stevens is seen standing at the head of the table.
Over the next two days, the Committee of Seven drafted articles of impeachment with Radicals yielding to moderates to limit their scope to Johnson’s violations of law.67 Stevens feared that such narrow resolutions failed to capture the full range of Johnson’s sins—particularly the disrepute he had brought on his own office and the scorn and contempt that he had heaped upon Congress. With no intention to fully acquiesce to the moderates, Stevens quietly sent a letter to Radical stalwart Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts, who had been left off the committee. Stevens urged Butler to develop his own articles of impeachment and to introduce them on the floor during the House debate. “As the Committee are likely to present no articles having any real vigor in them, I submit to you if it is not worth our while to attempt to add at least two others, (and as many as you choose) in the House as amendments, and see whether they will adopt anything worth convicting on,” Stevens wrote. “Had I my usual strength I would not ask you to undertake this movement, but I deem it so important that I send you copies which may serve as hints for you to act upon.”68 Butler, who needed no prompting, set to work immediately.69

The Committee of Seven delivered its articles of impeachment to the House on February 29. By the time the full House debate began on March 2, Members had before them nine “strictly legalistic” articles modeled on a criminal indictment: eight concerned Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act, and the ninth accused the President of violating the Command of the Army Act for pressuring General William H. Emory, who led the Washington garrison, to ignore Secretary of War Grant and to take orders from Johnson directly.70

Thaddeus Stevens's Final House Speech on Impeachment/tiles/non-collection/s/stevens_last_speech_impeachment_2009_129_001crop.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The Harper's Weekly from March 1868, depicted Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens's final House speech on impeachment on March 2, 1868, the day the House adopted nine of the eleven articles of impeachment against Johnson.
After a series of speeches for and against impeachment, Stevens took the floor to criticize the Committee of Seven for letting Johnson off too easily. “Never was so great a malefactor so gently treated as Andrew Johnson,” Stevens thundered. “The people have been unwilling to blot the records of their country by mingling his crimes with their shame—shame for endurance for so long a time of his great crimes and misdemeanors.” The articles of impeachment before the House, Stevens said, failed to address just how much Johnson had endangered America’s governing structure: his abuses of power, his subversion of congressional prerogatives, and his attempts to thwart laws passed by Congress either by refusing to enforce them or by encouraging citizens to disobey them. Nevertheless, Stevens still believed the House would approve the committee’s articles of impeachment. “Unfortunate man!” Stevens concluded. “Thus surrounded, hampered, tangled in the meshes of his own wickedness—unfortunate, unhappy man, behold your doom!”71

When Stevens finished, Benjamin Butler submitted a lengthy impeachment article—inspired by Stevens—which pointed to no violation of the law but charged the President with attempting “to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt, and reproach the Congress of the United States.”72 Loquacious and braggart by nature, Butler quoted at length from the President’s notorious stump speeches in which he attacked the legislative branch. Butler’s prolonged remarks even tested the patience of Stevens, prompting the old man to cut Butler off, warning that his would “be the only amendment we can get in.”73

The House quickly rejected Butler’s article, 48 to 74, and proceeded to vote one-by-one on the nine articles of impeachment proposed by the Committee of Seven. The first, charging Johnson with willfully violating the Tenure of Office Act by removing Stanton on February 21, 1868, passed by a wide margin, 127 to 42. In rapid succession, and by similar vote tallies, the House approved each of the eight remaining articles. To conduct the impeachment trial in the Senate, the House ratified a slate of managers designated by the Republican caucus: Bingham, a conservative lawmaker later tabbed to lead the managers, as well as Boutwell, Butler, Logan, Stevens, Wilson, and Williams. No Democrats were nominated.74

The Impeachment Managers/tiles/non-collection/w/web_harpers_impeachment_managers_2008_033_003.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
On March 21, 1868, Harper’s Weekly ran a front page featuring the House’s seven impeachment managers.
Hoping to strengthen the case they were about to bring before the Senate, the impeachment managers asked the House the very next day, March 3, to consider additional charges. Over the strenuous objections of Democrats, the House called up Benjamin Butler’s controversial article from the day before, quickly reversed course, and approved it as the tenth article of impeachment.75 Then, with little debate, the House approved by a wide margin the eleventh and final article, drafted by Stevens and Wilson, which tried to find a middle ground between Radicals and moderates: that Johnson’s attempt to delegitimize the 39th Congress—because Representatives from the southern states had not been seated—was a clear attempt to overturn and nullify the laws passed during that Congress, including the laws that limited Johnson’s authority. The intent behind everything Johnson had done in 1867, this article suggested, had been criminal.76

On March 4, House Republicans crossed the length of the Capitol to the Senate Chamber. There, Bingham read aloud each article of impeachment.77 The case was now in the hands of the Senate.

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56Italics in the original. See Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson: 56; Randall and Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction: 568; McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: 528.

57McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: 530–531; Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson: 99–100.

58Stewart, Impeached: 123–124; Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 February 1868): 1087.

59Castel, The Presidency of Andrew Johnson: 169; Stewart, Impeached: 124–125.

60Stevens’s residence was listed as 279 South B Street. See, Congressional Directory, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1868): 105.

61Stewart, Impeached: 144; Castel, The Presidency of Andrew Johnson: 175; Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (22 February 1868): 1336.

62Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd. sess. (24 February 1868): 1400; Stewart, Impeached: 148–149.

63Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 February 1868): 1400; House Journal, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 February 1868): 392–393. The Journal lists 128 votes in favor of impeachment, including William H. Koontz of Pennsylvania and Francis Thomas of Maryland. According to the Globe, however, Koontz was absent that day. Thomas, meanwhile, is listed as having not voted in the Globe, and is listed in the Journal as having not voted during any subsequent roll call that day. See also Castel, The Presidency of Andrew Johnson: 176–177; Stewart, Impeached: 149.

64Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 February 1868): 1402; Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson: 112; Trefousse, Impeachment of a President: 151; Castel, The Presidency of Andrew Johnson: 177; Stewart, Impeached: 151–153; Randall and Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction: 571.

65Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 February 1868): 1402; Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson: 112; Trefousse, Impeachment of a President: 138; Randall and Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction: 571.

66Asher C. Hinds, Hinds’ Precedents of the United States House of Representatives, vol. 3 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1907): 645–646, 648–649, 681–684, 716–718, 780, 783, 805–807. In fact, it appears that not until the 1912 impeachment of Robert W. Archbald, Associate Judge of the United States Commerce Court, did the House, by way of the Judiciary Committee, simultaneously offer articles of impeachment alongside an endorsement to impeach. See Elizabeth Rybicki, Michael Greene, and Jennifer Manning, “Description of the Initiation of Impeachment Inquires in the House of Representatives, 1813–2009,” memorandum, 10 October 2019, Congressional Research Service: 15.

67Stewart, Impeached: 154.

68Trefousse, Impeachment of a President: 138; Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson: 112–113.

69Trefousse, Thaddeus Stevens: 226; Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson: 112–113.

70Trefousse, Impeachment of a President: 138; Stewart, Impeached: 156–157.

71Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1868): 1612–1613.

72Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1868): 1615–1616.

73Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1868): 1615.

74Randall and Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction: 571; Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson: 113–114; Stewart, Impeached: 161–162; Trefousse, Impeachment of a President: 139; House Journal, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1868): 440.

75Congressional Globe, House, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1868): 1638–1642; Stewart, Impeached: 162.

76Randall and Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction: 607–608; Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson: 114–115, 188; Stewart, Impeached: 162.

77Stewart, Impeached: 162–163.