The Legacy of Impeachment

After impeachment, Andrew Johnson served out the remainder of his term and returned home to East Tennessee in March 1869. Not yet ready to retire, Johnson ran for Senate later that year but lost. In 1872, he ran for the House and lost. Three years after that, Johnson ran again for the Senate—and won. He died five months later.

Whatever initial damage Johnson had inflicted upon Congress’s Reconstruction agenda was, arguably, short lived. In 1868 Ulysses S. Grant was elected President and over the next eight years worked with Republicans in Congress to create a more just and equitable America, including the passage and ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment which stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Johnson did not live to see it, but his intolerant, inequitable, and undemocratic vision for the South had, in large part, been realized less than a decade after being impeached. By 1875, the same year Johnson died, southern Democrats had clawed back power both on Capitol Hill and in their state legislatures and stopped whatever progress Grant and Republicans in Congress had managed to achieve. The next 20 years saw the former Confederate states erect a society founded upon a brutal and violent caste system of racial segregation called Jim Crow that demolished the civil and political rights of African Americans for almost a century. In the North, meanwhile, racial discrimination remained woven into everyday life in subtle and often devastating ways.

One historian of the Johnson impeachment recently noted that the episode has been a “Rorschach blot” of American history: scholars, depending on their biases and the context of their times, have drawn very different conclusions from it.90 And if impeachment proceedings in 1868 had not resulted in Johnson’s removal, they had also left unanswered crucial and lingering questions about the constitutional process of impeachment articulated by the Founders 80 years earlier.

The House impeached Johnson for breaking the law and violating the Tenure of Office Act—a law which Congress eventually repealed in 1887. The House had also tried to prove that Johnson’s willful subversion of Congress—and by extension the subversion of the popular will—met the threshold of a high crime and misdemeanor. In both cases, however, the Senate disagreed.91

When it comes to the impeachment of a President, then, what are “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”? Are they illegal acts and broken laws? Or is it behavior that, while noncriminal in nature, suggests a fundamental unfitness for office of such a degree that it inherently poses a threat to the nation’s security or the viability of its governing institutions?

A century later, following a mysterious break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee during the Presidency of Richard M. Nixon, the House would be forced to consider those questions anew.

Footnotes

90Stewart, Impeached: 315.

91“The Impeachment Trial: The Managers’ Argument.”