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Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy - Softcover

 
9781416547501: Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy
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“Likely to become the standard version of this historic clash between a president and Congress.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

After two presidential impeachment crises in the last forty years, and with the dramatic expansion of the powers of the presidency, the lessons of the first presidential impeachment are more urgent than ever.

In 1868 Congress impeached President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, the man who had succeeded the murdered Lincoln, bringing the nation to the brink of a second civil war. Enraged to see the freed slaves abandoned to brutal violence at the hands of their former owners, distraught that former rebels threatened to regain control of Southern state governments, and disgusted by Johnson's brawling political style, congressional Republicans seized on a legal technicality as the basis for impeachment -- whether Johnson had the legal right to fire his own secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.

The fiery but mortally ill Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania led the impeachment drive, abetted behind the scenes by the military hero and president-in-waiting, General Ulysses S. Grant.

The Senate trial featured the most brilliant lawyers of the day, along with some of the least scrupulous, while leading political fixers maneuvered in dark corners to save Johnson's presidency with political deals, promises of patronage jobs, and even cash bribes. Johnson escaped conviction by a single vote.

David Stewart, the author of the highly acclaimed The Summer of 1787, the bestselling account of the writing of the Constitution, challenges the traditional version of this pivotal moment in American history. Rather than seeing Johnson as Abraham Lincoln's political heir, Stewart explains how the Tennessean squandered Lincoln's political legacy of equality and fairness and helped force the freed slaves into a brutal form of agricultural peonage across the South.

When the clash between Congress and president threatened to tear the nation apart, the impeachment process substituted legal combat for violent confrontation. Both sides struggled to inject meaning into the baffling requirement that a president be removed only for "high crimes and misdemeanors," while employing devious courtroom gambits, backstairs spies, and soaring rhetoric. When the dust finally settled, the impeachment process had allowed passions to cool sufficiently for the nation to survive the bitter crisis.

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About the Author:
David O. Stewart is an award-winning author and the president of the Washington Independent Review of Books. He is the author of several acclaimed histories, including Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America; The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution; Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy; and American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America. Stewart’s first novel is The Lincoln Deception.
Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
PREFACE

[T]his was no ordinary political crisis. It was not a struggle for office, or a contest about a tariff..., but a dispute that followed hard on a terrible civil war. It was the reconstruction of the Union that was at issue.
GENERAL ADAM BADEAU, 1887

AFTER FINISHING The Summer of 1787 about the writing of the Constitution, I wanted to pick up the Constitution's story at its next critical moment. To form a union from thirteen quarreling states, the Philadelphia Convention patched together a number of rough compromises, prominent among them agreements about slavery and the allocation of power between the federal and state governments. Those political bargains held up for seventy years. During those decades, a web of accommodation and mutual forbearance bound the nation together. Three times, painful compromises over slavery kept the states united. Arguments over the powers of the sovereign states flared and subsided and flared anew. By 1861, contention over slavery and state powers overwhelmed the constitutional structure. Eleven Southern states seceded and fought a savage four-year war to be no part of the United States.

That war exposed fundamental flaws in the founding document. Slavery could no longer be papered over. It had to be abolished. The national government's power over the states had to be reinforced. A commitment to equality and the right to vote had to be embraced. From 1865 to 1870, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments remade the Constitution in those ways.

Yet the central constitutional drama of this critical era was not the prolonged battle over the new amendments. Rather, the nation came closest to tearing itself apart, again, during the impeachment struggle between Congress and President Andrew Johnson in the spring of 1868. Accused by the House of Representatives of eleven offenses ("Articles of Impeachment"), Johnson endured a lengthy Senate impeachment trial, escaping conviction and removal from office by a single vote.

I first studied Johnson's impeachment trial twenty years ago, when I defended Walter L. Nixon, Jr., a federal judge from Mississippi, in an impeachment case before the Senate. I needed then to understand what offenses constitute "high crimes and misdemeanors" under the Constitution, and thus support impeachment. Naturally, I turned to the Johnson case, the only presidential impeachment trial to that point. My study yielded mostly confusion.

The principal players in the case were unfamiliar: Congressmen Thaddeus Stevens and Benjamin Butler led the prosecution; in opposition were former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Curtis and attorney William Evarts. The eleven impeachment articles, which were the indictment of the president, were impenetrable, even for a lawyer. The S enate's rulings on legal issues -- what was a "high crime" or "high misdemeanor," and what evidence could be heard -- were inconsistent, even incoherent. Those seeking to drive Johnson from the White House were passionate, but the charges against him seemed technical and legalistic. The conflict focused on Johnson's attempt to fire his secretary of war. How, I wondered, could the president not have the power to do that? And yet Johnson almost was convicted on those baffling impeachment articles.

This time around, with greater time and study, I appreciated better how this confrontation grew from irreconcilable disagreements over how to reconstruct the nation after secession and civil war. Johnson was a Southern Democrat, elected on the Republican ticket in 1864, who became president because of the tragic assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Johnson took a narrow view of federal powers under the Constitution. Untroubled by gruesome racial violence in the South, or by the replacement of slavery with a brutal form of agricultural peonage, he wanted Union troops to withdraw quickly from the region. Sovereign Southern states, he believed, should be left to manage their own affairs.

Congress, overwhelmingly Republican and including no representatives from ten Southern states, disagreed. Congressional Republicans were enraged that former Confederates would be rewarded for their treason by swiftly regaining control over their states. Most Republicans wanted power in those "reconstructed" states to be reserved to men who had been loyal to the Union. They insisted that the freed slaves must be protected from white violence. Many wanted the freedmen to have the vote so they could elect state governments that would treat them fairly.

As the dispute between Johnson and congressional Republicans grew more rancorous, constitutional questions became central. Johnson insisted that he was defending the Constitution "as it is," preserving the original vision of the Founding Fathers. Congressional Republicans insisted that the Constitution, and the Union, had to change. When Congress resorted to its ultimate constitutional weapon against the president -- impeachment and removal from office -- calls to arms rang through the North and South. The nation's future hinged on whether impeachment would work well enough to prevent a plunge back into civil war. Could the Constitution mediate this fierce battle within the government itself? When the nation slid into civil war in 1861, the Constitution was no help. Would it perform any better seven years later?

This was a great testing for the Constitution and the nation. For many years, the conventional telling of the impeachment story portrayed it as a hairsbreadth escape from congressional despotism. By this traditional account, the presidency survived because a few heroic Republicans in the Senate refused to join the vengeful Northern harpies who hated Andrew Johnson for attempting to heal the nation's wounds. That conventional view is a cartoon version of the actual struggle, and ignores much of the historical record. As president, Johnson inflicted many more wounds on the nation than he healed, while votes for his acquittal were purchased with political deals, patronage promises, and even cash.

Andrew Johnson was an unfortunate president, an angry and obstinate hater at a time when the nation needed a healer. Those who opposed him were equally intemperate in word and deed. It was an intemperate time. The tempests of the Civil War still triggered high emotions. Yet Johnson's opponents, often described as demonic impeachers, defended the principles of fairness and equality that represent the finest parts of the American tradition, which they also were fighting to incorporate in the Constitution. The impeachment process proved cumbersome and exasperating, but ultimately achieved exactly the goal for which the Framers of the Constitution designed it: the peaceful resolution of a grave national crisis.

An unexpected part of the story is one that was difficult to see at the time and has been mostly ignored ever since: the corruption and bribery that surrounded the Senate trial. Though the passage of 140 years has covered many tracks, there remains substantial evidence that rogues and blackguards brandished fat wads of greenbacks and portfolios bulging with government appointments in order to keep Andrew Johnson in office, or to drive him out. The rascals included corrupt tax collectors, bent Indian agents, greedy financial manipulators, and political bosses. Assembling the facts surrounding these extraordinary events required historical detective work that was both fascinating and frustrating. The effort drew on my experiences as a criminal defense lawyer in cases involving private and public corruption. Though hard conclusions are elusive with this part of the story, the evidence paints an unsettling portrait of boodle and payoffs that might well have determined one of the critical moments in America's history.

As long as the Constitution holds the nation together, the story of the Johnson trial will be an important one. Twice in my lifetime, impeachment has stopped the nation in its mad rush to the great American future. Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 rather than face the impeachment articles approved by the House Judiciary Committee. Bill Clinton was the second president in history to be impeached by the House of Representatives; after a brief proceeding in the Senate, he was acquitted on all charges. Yet those episodes pale when compared to the fervor that rocked the nation in 1868, when Andrew Johnson stood accused before the Senate sitting as a court of impeachment. At that moment, only the impeachment clauses of the Constitution stood between the nation and a second Civil War.

Copyright 2009 by David O. Stewart

1

BAD BEGINNINGS SPRING 1865

This Johnson is a queer man.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN, EARLY 1865, AFTER
JOHNSON PROPOSED TO SKIP HIS OWN
INAUGRUATION AS VICE PRESIDENT

ANDREW JOHNSON OF Tennessee felt shaky on the morning of March 4, 1865. Despite the cold rain that was drenching Washington City, it should have been the most gratifying day of his fifty-six years. At noon, he would be sworn in as vice president of the United States. A man who never attended a day of school would become the nation's second-highest official. Still, despite the excitement of his own Inauguration Day, Johnson did not feel right. It might have been the lingering effects of a fever that had struck him over the winter. Or it might have been nerves -- a month before, he had proposed not to attend the inauguration at all, only to be overruled by the president, Abraham Lincoln. Or it might have been the residue of a hard-drinking celebration the night before.

Johnson had a good deal to celebrate. With determination and talent, he had built a tailoring business in his home town of Greeneville in the hill country of East Tennessee. He prospered in real estate deals and rose steadily through every level of government, serving as alder...

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  • PublisherSimon & Schuster
  • Publication date2010
  • ISBN 10 1416547509
  • ISBN 13 9781416547501
  • BindingPaperback
  • Number of pages464
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