The near Ovethrow of Andrew Johnson

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 17, 2009 | Go to article overview

The near Ovethrow of Andrew Johnson


Byline: David C. Acheson, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

David O. Stewart's proven dexterity in handling detail, suspense and melodrama in matters of state are again present here. He brings impressive research to a bizarre episode in American history, the impeachment and trial of President Andrew Johnson, woven into such a vivid story that the reader is in the visitors' gallery. The story has high drama, low farce, unlikely comedy, a stellar cast, hubris, vanity and bad judgment. There is ambition, hostility, personal devotion, patriotism, betrayal and bribery.

Personal and political factors combined to lead to the impeachment and trial, and near overthrow, of Johnson. Personal factors were his unreasonable stubbornness and his tendency to see differences of opinion as personal opposition. He had made a notable success during the Civil War as military governor of Tennessee and became a popular choice to succeed Hannibal Hamlin as Lincoln's vice president in Lincoln's second term. Taking the oath of office in the Senate chamber on March 4, 1865, he made a speeech after having drunk considerable whiskey to ward off an illness that he felt coming on. His speech was scandalously crude, rambling and self-focused, and shocked the listeners. In six weeks, he was president, succeeding the assassinated Lincoln.

It was not long before Johnson astonished and outraged the Republican leadership in Congress by changing from an attitude of severity toward the former Confederacy to an attitude of leniency and tolerance, favoring great latitude for the Southern states in forming their postwar governments. He rejected Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton's recommendation that freed slaves in North Carolina be allowed to vote, which set him against the radical Republicans and outraged Rep. Thaddeus Stevens.

Stevens formally challenged Johnson's policies that allowed high-ranking former rebels to assume office in the South. Violence against federal troops and blacks had become commonplace in Southern states. Johnson vetoed the bill etablishing a Freedmen's Bureau and a civil rights bill, both providing protections to blacks in the South. The latter veto was overridden by Congress. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, as commander in chief of the army, was distressed by the president's hands-off attitude toward the actions against troops and blacks in the South, and favored stronger action, as did Stanton.

In March 1867, Congress enacted the Tenure of Office Act, requiring that any officer of the government who was confirmed by the Senate could not be dismissed by the president without the concurrence of the Senate, clearly aimed at preventing Johnson fron firing Stanton. Johnson vetoed the bill, and his veto was overridden. Nonetheless, Johnson ordered Stanton removed, and after trying to put first Gen. Grant, then Gen. William T. Sherman, in the job, he finally appointed Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, who never managed to gain access to the office.

There is a bizarre account of Gen. Thomas calling on Stanton to claim the office. Stanton had Thomas arrested for violation of the Tenure of Office Act. Thomas complained that he did not want to be arrested before he had food and drink, whereupon Stanton produced food and whiskey for Thomas, which they shared. Meanwhile, Johnson got the attorney general to opine that the Reconstruction Acts gave no power to the federal military commanders in the South to remove local officials who thwarted congressional policies. …

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