Andrew Johnson: Path to Impeachment

Today’s post comes from Tom Eisinger, an archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC. It is part one of a two-part series on the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

President Andrew Johnson, ca. 1865. (National Archives Identifier 528284)

Politics were unsettled during the 1864 Presidential election. The incumbent, Abraham Lincoln, was opposed by the “Radical Republicans” in his own party who did not believe he was doing enough to prosecute the end of the Civil War. At the same time, some pro-war Democrats supported Lincoln.

Consequently, the Republicans changed their name to the National Union Party for the 1864 Presidential election. As a gesture to the pro-war Democrats, the National Union Party nominated Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, as Lincoln’s running mate. Johnson was serving as the military governor of Tennessee at the time. It was, indeed, an unusual situation.

A second term for Lincoln was not a foregone conclusion for much of 1864.  However, critical Union military victories earned him enough public support to win a comfortable victory in the November election. When Lincoln was assassinated several weeks into his second term, Andrew Johnson became President, taking the oath of office on April 15, 1865.

At first everything went well for President Johnson. The last, large Confederate army surrendered on April 26, and in May he presided over several military reviews celebrating the Union victory. In early June, Johnson asserted his legitimacy as Lincoln’s successor by moving into the Executive Mansion.

Johnson’s tenure became more troubled in December of 1865. Shortly after moving into the White House, Johnson appointed provisional governors for several of the defeated southern states. Problems began in the December 1865 when these defeated southern states began enacting what were known as “Black Codes,” which placed restrictions on freed slaves.

The codes varied by state, but they included provisions that echoed limits African Americans had endured while enslaved, such as not being allowed to assemble without a white person present and being prohibited from learning to read and write.

Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, ca. 1865. (National Archives Identifier 528288)

Also in December, President Johnson began to order the provisional governors to turn over the reins of power to the newly elected state governments. While this went smoothly, many in Congress were dismayed that a large number of former Confederate officials were elected in positions of power in these states. One such was Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, who was chosen to be one of the senators from Georgia.

Concerned about these events, Congress passed an extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau in February 1866. This was an attempt to combat the Black Codes in the ex-Confederate states. However, President Johnson vetoed the extension.

Unhappy with what they thought was Johnson’s growing leniency to the defeated southern states, Congress passed the 14th Amendment in June 1866. Tennessee was readmitted to the Union in July after it ratified the amendment.

In fall 1866, Johnson campaigned strongly against Radical Republicans running for Congress. However, the November elections went poorly for him, and the Republican Party came back for the next session of Congress with a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and a strong dislike for Johnson’s perceived treatment of the former Confederate states.

Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, ca. 1865. (National Archives Identifier 528682)

The Republicans in Congress very quickly used their supermajority to pass the First Reconstruction Act in March 1867, over Johnson’s veto. They later overrode Johnson’s veto of the second and third Reconstruction Acts.

Just as important, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act over Johnson’s veto in March 1867. This law prohibited Johnson from removing cabinet members without the Senate’s approval. The purpose of the Tenure of Office Act was to protect Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from removal.

Johnson defied Congress in August 1867 by suspending Stanton and appointing Ulysses S. Grant the interim Secretary of War. It was not until December that he submitted to the Senate his reasons for doing so. Even though the Senate refused to concur with Johnson, on February 21, 1868, Johnson formally removed Stanton anyway and placed General Lorenzo Thomas in charge of the War Department.

The House of Representatives responded on February 24 by voting to impeach Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act.

Resolution of Impeachment against President Johnson, 2/21/1868. (National Archives Identifier 2127356)

On March 4, the House formally presented 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson, making him the first President in the country’s history to be impeached.

Stayed tuned in May for the part two: The trial of Andrew Johnson. 

Impeachment_Articles_SEN 40C-A1
Printed Articles of Impeachment exhibited by the House of Representatives against President Andrew Johnson, March 2, 1968. (Records of the United States Senate, National Archives)

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