Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

The Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson was one of the biggest scandals in the United States during Reconstruction. Johnson was impeached for breaking the Tenure of Office Act. He had removed Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War, from office and replaced him with Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas.


Vice President Andrew Johnson succeeded to the presidency on April 15, 1865 upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Johnson's succession created tension between himself and the Radical Republicans, notably Stanton, Thaddeus Stevens and Benjamin F. Butler. Stanton, Stevens, and Butler would meet with other Radicals at Stanton's office or Stevens' home to plan Johnson's impeachment.

Johnson wanted to replace Stanton for numerous reasons. Stanton had taken control of the country after Lincoln's assassination and controlled departments other than the War Department. Most notably, Stanton was involved in running the State Department run by Secretary of State William H. Seward. Stanton even used the Secret Service to spy on Johnson and other members of the cabinet.

Johnson first attempted to appoint General Ulysses S. Grant to the post. At the time, General Grant was serving as Commanding General of the Army. Johnson suspended Stanton for a short time giving him the opportunity to appoint General Grant Secretary of War "ad interim". However, Grant did not enjoy politics, and, after a couple of months, resigned, putting Stanton back in his old post. In the future, Grant would say about his presidency, "I have never quite forgiven myself from resigning the command of the Army to expect the presidency without any previous training. War and politics are so different." Johnson's second for the position was General William T. Sherman who was a close equal to Grant. Sherman, an enemy of Stanton's, turned the President down, saying he hated politics. He would say the same thing the next year when offered the Republican bid for the presidency.

Out of choices, Johnson offered the post to Thomas, who turned it down at first, saying that he would like to stay in office as Adjutant General until his retirement. However, on February 21, 1868 the President appointed Thomas Secretary of War "ad interim" and ordered him to remove Stanton from his office. Thomas went to the War Department and did what the President had ordered him to do, though he was reluctant because of his good relationship with Stanton. Stanton reacted to the news calmly knowing that it was what he had been waiting for to impeach Johnson.

Early the next morning, General Thomas was placed under arrest at his home with charges of attempting to remove the Secretary of War from office. The general asked if he could be brought to the White House to let the President know that he had been placed under arrest. Johnson hired lawyers for Thomas. After a short hearing, Thomas was acquitted by Judge David Cartter. After he was freed, Thomas stormed into Stanton's office, furious over his arrest. Stanton, however, brought out a bottle of wine for the general, celebrating Johnson's mistake of breaking the recently instituted Tenure of Office Act, which was designed to prevent Stanton from getting removed from office.

On February 24 the House of Representatives voted on an impeachment resolution. The vote came to 126 to 47. Thaddeus Stevens and John A. Bingham addressed the Senate that the House had officially voted for impeachment.


A trial was set to start in the Senate to preside over the situation. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase took seat at the head of Senate chambers. Committees were organized to act as the prosecution and defense. The impeachment committee was made up of Thaddeus Stevens, Benjamin F. Butler, John A. Bingham, John A. Logan, George S. Boutwell, Thomas Williams and James F. Wilson. Johnson's defense team was made up of Alexander Morgan, William M. Evarts, Benjamin R. Curtis, Thomas A. R. Nelson and Jeremiah S. Black (who later resigned). The trial began on March 13, 1868.

On the first day, Johnson's defense committee asked for forty days to collect evidence and witnesses due to the fact the prosecution had a longer amount of time to do so. They were only given ten days. The court proceeded on March 23. Senator Garrett Davis argued that because not all states were represented in the Senate the trial could not be held and that it be adjourned. The motion was voted down. After the charges against the President where addressed, Henry Stanberry asked for another thirty days to assemble evidence and summon witnesses saying that in the ten days they were previously given they only had time to prepare the President's reply. John A. Logan argued that the trial should begin immediately and that Stanberry was only trying to stall for time. The movement was defeated in a vote 41 to 12. However, the Senate took a vote the next day to give the defense six more days to prepare evidence, which was accepted.

The trial commenced again on March 30. Benjamin F. Butler opened for the prosecution with a three hour speech in which he talked about impeachment trials in history going back to King John of England. For days Butler harped on Johnson's violations of the Tenure of Office Act and further charged that the President had issued orders to Army officers without sending them through General Grant. The defense argued that Johnson had not violated the Tenure of Office Act because President Abraham Lincoln did not reappoint Stanton Secretary of War at the beginning of his second term in 1865 and that he was simply a leftover. The prosecution called several witnesses through the proceedings that proved to be unhelpful and droned on until April 9, when they finally canceled their case.

Benjamin R. Curtis brought to attention the fact that after the House passed the Tenure of Office Act the Senate had amended it thus meaning it had to go back to a Senate-House conference committee for agreement. He followed up by pronouncing the minutes of those meetings, which revealed that while the House members made no notes about the fact their sole purpose was to keep Stanton in office, the senate disagreed. The defense then called on their first witness, General Lorenzo Thomas. He proved to be a surprisingly dull witness and Butler tried to make Thomas look foolish in his prosecution. The next witness was General William T. Sherman, a surprise to the defense. Sherman proved to be more helpful to the prosecution.


On all three occasions, thirty-five Senators voted "Guilty" and nineteen "Not Guilty". As the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority for conviction in impeachment trials, Johnson was acquitted. A single changed vote to guilty would have sufficed to return a "Guilty" verdict.

Seven Republican senators were disturbed by how the proceedings had been manipulated in order to give a one-sided presentation of the evidence. Senators William Pitt Fessenden (Maine), Joseph S. Fowler (Tennessee), James W. Grimes (Iowa), John B. Henderson (Missouri), Lyman Trumbull (Illinois), Peter G. Van Winkle (West Virginia), [ [ "Andrew Johnson Trial: The Consciences of Seven Republicans Save Johnson".] ] and Edmund G. Ross (Kansas), who provided the decisive vote, [ [ "The Trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868".] ] defied their party and public opinion and voted against conviction.

Later vindication of Johnson's position

Subsequent events vindicated Johnson's position that he was entitled to fire Stanton without Congressional approval. First, the Tenure of Office Act was repealed by Congress in 1887. More importantly, in 1926 the United States Supreme Court in "Myers v. United States" affirmed the ability of the President to remove a Postmaster without Congressional approval; in so doing, it stated in its majority opinion "that the Tenure of Office Act of 1867...was invalid" [] .


*Foster, G. Allen, "Impeached: The President who almost lost his job", 1964.
*Brodie Fawn M., "Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South", 1959.

External links

* [ Finding Precedent: The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson]

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