Washington's 'Rules of Civility' Can Inspire Us
The chaotic partisanship evident among both parties in the impeachment of
President Clinton seems tame when compared to the trial of President
Andrew Johnson in 1868. The participants in that first presidential
impeachment were quite explicit and unapologetic about their political
purposes. As the prominent Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner
declared, "Impeachment is a political proceeding before a political body
with a political purpose.
Andrew Johnson was an accidental
president with an unusual background. Born in 1808 near Raleigh, he
never attended school, but had a zest for learning and developed an
intense ambition to surmount the poverty of his youth.
fourteen Johnson was apprenticed to a tailor who taught him to read, and
after brief stints with tailors in Laurens and Greenville, South
Carolina, he decided to seek his fortune in the mountains of eastern
Tennessee. In 1826 the penniless wayfarer began walking west from
Raleigh and several weeks later arrived in Greeneville, Tennessee.
found work in the village tailor shop and soon had his own thriving
clothing store. He married a woman who taught him to write, and over the
years he grew quite prosperous, acquiring several slaves in the
Politics, however, became Johnsons passion. Beginning
in the 1830s, he emerged as one of the leading Jacksonian Democrats. A
bitter critic of the "swaggering" planter aristocracy "who are too lazy
and proud to work," Johnson was a fervent populist who promoted free
land for the poor, defended slavery, and promoted white supremacy. A
notoriously stubborn man, he became a self-righteous, hot-tempered
orator who enjoyed strong drink and employed abusive language to
belittle his opponents. His fiery speeches and firm principles helped
him win election as mayor, congressman, governor and senator.
many other whites living in mountainous east Tennessee, Johnson
ardently believed in the Union. In 1861 he was the only southern senator
from a Confederate state to vote against secession, leading critics to
denounce him as a "traitor" to the region. Yet his devotion to the Union
did not include opposition to slavery. He hated the Confederacy because
he hated the planter elite. "Damn the Negroes," Johnson bellowed to a
friend during the war, "I am fighting those traitorous aristocrats,
Abraham Lincoln selected Johnson as his running
mate in 1864 solely for political reasons. He and his advisers thought
that the addition of a southern Democrat and Unionist would strengthen
the Republican ticket in the face of northern impatience with the war
The strategy worked and Lincoln was re-elected, but
Johnson did not get off to a good start as the nations new vice
president. On the morning of Lincolns inauguration, he was not feeling
well, so he drank some whiskeytoo much, as it turned out. As he
delivered his speech at the ceremony in the Senate chamber, it quickly
became evident that he was drunk. A New York newspaper reported the next
day that Johnson was "a drunken boor."
Six weeks later, in April
1865, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln and elevated Johnson to the White
House. At that time, with the long civil war drawing to a close,
Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress. Led by the so-called
Radical faction, including Sumner, Benjamin Wade, and Thaddeus Stevens,
they hoped Johnson would endorse their efforts to use military force to
"reconstruct" the defeated South from top to bottom. "Johnson, we have
faith in you," said Wade of Ohio.
But Wade and his radical
colleagues were soon disappointed. They wanted former Confederates tried
for treason and demanded civil rights, voting privileges, and
confiscated farm land for the freed slaves.
thwarted their efforts. He promoted the quick restoration of southern
state governments without involving Congress. He issued wholesale
pardons to former Confederate leaders, and he fired army generals who
promoted rigid enforcement of the reconstruction acts passed by
Congress. At the same time, he insisted that the South was a "white
mans country" and ordered black families evicted from formerly
white-owned land on which they had been settled by federal troops.
actions outraged the radicals. "Is there no way to arrest the insane
course of the president in Washington?" asked Thaddeus Stevens of
Pennsylvania. Unfazed by such opposition, Johnson vetoed 29 bills passed
by the Republican Congress, including a civil rights bill, and he
opposed ratification of the 14th amendment, which extended full legal
protection to all citizens.
Johnson was a man of limited ability
and narrow vision. He lacked Lincolns resilience and pragmatism. In the
process of promoting his lenient southern strategy, Johnson allowed his
temper to get the better of his judgment. He castigated the radicals as
"factious, domineering, tyrannical" traitors who constituted "a gang of
cormorants and bloodsuckers who have been fattening upon the country."
By 1867 newspapers were reporting that the differences between Johnson
and the Republicans were irreconcilable.
The Republicans first
tried to impeach Johnson in 1867, alleging a variety of flimsy charges,
none of which represented an indictable crime. The head of the Secret
Service, for example, shared rumors about an alleged presidential affair
with a woman seeking pardons for former Confederates. Johnson was also
accused of public drunkenness, and one Congressman even tried to
implicate him in the assassination of Lincoln. After listening to the
hodgepodge of charges, a House member from Iowa concluded: "While the
President has been guilty of many great follies and wickedness, it is
better to "submit to two years of misrule . . . than subject the
country, its institutions and its credits to the shock of an
Thwarted in their impeachment efforts, Republican
radicals next tried to use legislation to neutralize the president. In
1867 they passed several dubious laws that shifted power from the
president to Congress. One of these measures, the Tenure of Office Act,
prohibited presidents from dismissing their own Cabinet members.
Johnson decided to provoke a showdown by firing his disloyal secretary
of war, Edwin M. Stanton, on Feb. 21, 1868, the radicals immediately
called for his impeachment. They were so irate, said the secretary of
the navy, that they would have impeached Johnson "had he been accused of
stepping on a dogs tail." Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune,
declared that Johnson had become "an aching tooth in the national jaw, a
screeching infant in a crowded lecture room." There could "be no peace
or comfort till he is out" of office.
The impeachment debate in
the House was clamorous and vicious. One Congressman said Johnson had
dragged the robes of his office through the "filth of treason." Another
denounced the president as "an ungrateful, despicable, besotted
traitorous manan incubus." Still another called Johnsons advisers "the
worst men that ever crawled like filthy reptiles at the footstool of
power." On February 24, 1868, the House passed eleven articles of
impeachment by a party-line vote of 126 to 47.
The Senate trial
was a great spectacle before a packed gallery. Witnesses were called,
speeches made, and rules of order debated. Johnson wanted to plead his
case in person, but his attorneys refused, fearing that his short temper
might erupt and hurt his cause. The president thereupon worked behind
the scenes to win over undecided Republican senators, offering them a
variety of political incentives.
As the weeks passed, the trial
grew tedious. Senators slept during the proceedings, spectators passed
out in the unventilated room, and poor acoustics prompted repeated cries
of "We cant hear." Debate eventually focused on Stantons removal, the
most substantive impeachment charge. Johnsons lawyers argued that
Lincoln, not Johnson, had appointed Stanton, so the Tenure of Office Act
did not apply to him. At the same time, they claimed (correctly, as it
turned out) that the law was unconstitutional.
As the five-week
trial ended and the voting began in May 1868, the Senate Republicans
could afford only six defections from their ranks to ensure the
two-thirds majority needed to convict. In the end, seven moderate
Republicans and all twelve Democrats voted to acquit. The renegade
Republicans offered two primary reasons for their controversial votes:
they feared damage to the separation of powers if Johnson were removed,
and they were assured by Johnsons attorneys that he would stop
obstructing congressional policy in the South.
In a moment of
high drama, the deciding vote was cast by Edmund Ross, a first-term
Kansas Republican who in the days leading up to the verdict was "hunted
like a fox" by both sides. He insisted that his decision was an act of
courage based on principled constitutional scruples: "If the president
must step down upon insufficient proofs and from partisan
considerations, the office of president would be degraded and "ever
after subordinated to the legislative will. Years later, John F.
Kennedy was so inspired by Rosss dissenting vote that he featured him
in his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Profiles in Courage.
have since discovered that Ross was not so principled: he demanded
several political favors from Johnson in exchange for his vote. Whatever
his motives, Rosss defection infuriated those promoting impeachment.
One of his constituents fired off a bitter telegram: "Kansas repudiates
you as she does all perjurers and skunks."
Although the Senate
failed to remove Johnson, the trial crippled his already-weak
presidency. During the remaining ten months of his term, he initiated no
other clashes with Congress. In 1868 Johnson sought the Democratic
presidential nomination but lost to New York Gov. Horatio Seymour, who
then lost to Republican Ulysses Grant in the general election. A bitter
Johnson refused to attend Grants inauguration. His final act as
president was to issue a pardon to former Confederate president
Jefferson Davis. In 1874, after failed bids for the Senate and the
House, Johnson won a measure of vindication with election to the Senate,
the only former president ever to do so, but he died only a few months
later. He was buried with a copy of the Constitution tucked under his
As for the impeachment trial, only two weeks after it
ended, a Boston newspaper reported that people were amazed at how
quickly "the whole subject of impeachment seems to have been thrown into
the background and dwarfed in importance" by other events. May we be so
lucky in 1999.