Thaddeus Stevens, looking “emaciated but inexorable,” limped into the Senate chambers in late February 1868. “We do impeach Andrew Johnson, President of the United States,” Lancaster’s congressman told the assembled senators, “of high crimes and misdemeanors in office.”
Brenda Wineapple describes Stevens’ visit to the Senate to introduce her riveting examination of Johnson’s impeachment and trial in “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation.”
Published last May, “The Impeachers” has drawn increased interest as Congress moves to impeach and try another president. Stevens, who because of his debilitating illness played a subdued role in the drama, still stars as the political and moral opposite of Johnson in Wineapple’s book.
Who was right and who was wrong seems as clear as a White House chandelier today, but at the time it was a close call. President Johnson and fellow Democrats posed arguments (and probably offered bribes) that won the Senate trial by a single vote.
Stevens and other Radical Republicans who led the impeachment process in the House thought the case was solid — both on the merits of a narrow issue of ignoring a congressional statute and on the larger issues of obstructing the execution of Reconstruction Acts and betraying the public trust.
Andrew Johnson, an outspoken white supremacist, was determined to block black Americans from gaining full freedom. He also wanted to return power to Confederate leaders the United States had just defeated in the Civil War.
Stevens expressed his concern about Johnson’s pro-Southern policies shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination elevated Johnson to the presidency.
“Is there no way to arrest the insane course of the President?” Stevens asked. “If something is not done the President will be crowned king....”
Through his racist and often incoherent statements and actions, Wineapple writes, Johnson became “one of the chief architects” of his own impeachment. Meanwhile, Stevens, “an unprejudiced, formidable and visionary leader with a practical streak,” assembled evidence to indict the president.
While Wineapple describes in detail many people involved in Johnson’s impeachment, she seems particularly enthralled by Stevens, one of seven House managers of evidence against the president at his Senate trial.
“The real issue was reconstruction,” she writes in summing up Stevens’ concluding speech before the Senate (which he was too weak to deliver himself). “It had always been. For Johnson had encouraged defunct rebellious states to live as unjustly as before and as unwilling to create a free and fair country.”
In May of 1868, the 54 senators serving at that time voted 35 to 19 to convict Johnson — one man short of the two-thirds majority required to force Johnson from the White House.
Observed Stevens, who would die that summer, “The country is going to the devil.”
But although impeachment had not succeeded, neither had it failed. Johnson’s presidency, with only a few months to run, was ruined.
Impeachment “demonstrated that the American President was not a king,” concludes Wineapple, “that all actions have consequences, and that the national government, conceived in hope, with its checks and balances, could manage itself without waging war, even right after one.”
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes "The Scribbler'' column every Wednesday. He welcomes comments and contributions at email@example.com.