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The Impeachment of President Johnson

November 19, 2019

 

The vote for impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, by the Democrat-majority House of Representatives, hearkens back to America's first presidential impeachment, in even more polarized times.

In 1865, Vice President Andrew Johnson became President following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The two were elected together in 1864 on a “Union Party” ticket - Lincoln as the first Republican President, and Johnson, a pro-Union Tennessee Democrat, who served as US Senator and military Governor of Tennessee. But even before Lincoln's death, trouble was brewing with a radical faction in Congress - the Radical Republicans - who opposed Lincoln’s, and later Johnson’s, policies of leniency towards the defeated South.

 

In the 1866 mid-term elections - with nine states of the former Confederacy banned from electing any Congressmen or Senators - the Republicans swept both Houses: 172 R to 45 D in the House; and 45 R to 9 D in the Senate - dominated by the Radical faction.

 

The Radical leadership immediately attacked Johnson, passing the blatantly unconstitutional “Tenure of Office Act” - outlawing the President's firing any member of his cabinet. The Act was designed to protect the Radical Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, whom Johnson had inherited from Lincoln, and who was defying Johnson’s orders. Johnson responded by firing Stanton - and replacing him first with General Ulysses S. Grant, and then with General Lorenzo Thomas, as interim Secretary of War.

 

The Radical Congress reacted with fury: The House voted 11 articles of Impeachment, all centered on the firing of Stanton and the Tenure of Office Act.  The trial in the US Senate lasted for two months - with both sides presenting witnesses. Radical Republicans - with a 45 to 7 Republican majority in the Senate - began celebrating their anticipated victory, even congratulating the Radical Senate President Benjamin Wade (R-OH) who would succeed Johnson.

But the Radicals went too far: the Senate voted 35 to 19, falling one vote short of the 2/3 needed for conviction. 10 Republicans had joined all 9 Democrats to vote against removal from office. The two month trial was a political mistake - and broke the power of the Radical faction.

 

Senator Lyman Trumball, (R-IL) - one of the Republican Senators who defied his party leaders and voted “No” on Impeachment - explained for history, “Once set the example of impeaching a President for what, when the excitement of the hour shall have subsided, will be regarded as insufficient causes... no future President will be safe, who happens to differ with a majority of the House.... Blinded by partisan zeal, what then becomes of the checks and balances of the Constitution, so carefully devised and so vital to its perpetuity? They are all gone...”

John F. Kennedy later praised Trumball in his book “Profiles of Courage.” Let today’s Radicals take note that impeaching a President - without clear showing of real criminal conduct - does not usually end well for the accusers.

 

 

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