A President in the Dock

By Brinkley, Douglas | Newsweek, January 11, 1999 | Go to article overview

A President in the Dock


Brinkley, Douglas, Newsweek


History: What Rehnquist's take on 1868 tells us about what's ahead.

At 1 p.m. on march 5, 1868, the capitol doors were opened as Chief Justice Salmon Chase, solemn in his black robe, took his seat on the Senate rostrum. Just days earlier Andrew Johnson had become the first president to be impeached by the House, and now the Senate was holding a trial to possibly remove him from office. The chamber and galleries were packed. Before and to the right of the rostrum sat the president's able counsel, including William Maxwell Evarts, leader of the American bar, and Benjamin R. Curtis, formerly a Supreme Court justice. To the left were the seven House managers acting as prosecutors. The 54 senators claimed the first two rows of seats; behind them were the members of the House. With somber formality the chief justice swore in the senators, and the trial began. It would last for three long months.

As Bill Clinton's case goes to the Senate, the details of those long-ago days are relevant again. For people trying to sort through what happened back then--and what may unfold in the coming season--there is no better guide than a hitherto-obscure 1992 book called "Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson." Its author? William H. Rehnquist, the chief justice of the United States, who will preside over the Senate proceedings. (A paperback re- issue is in the works.) There are obvious differences between that time and this: Clinton is popular, some senators--even Republicans--are desperate to avoid a trial and there is no single great divisive national issue. Still, the book casts light on the enduring partisan impulse in American politics--and on how Rehnquist may view a trial.

Johnson, a Southern Democrat who became president in 1865 after Lincoln's assassination, incurred the rancor of Republicans because of his opposition to harsh post-Civil War Reconstruction. Looking for any pretext to get rid of the new president, the Radical Republicans--who considered Johnson, a Tennessean, too soft on the defeated Confederates--impeached him after he fired War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton in February 1868. Their grounds? That Johnson had violated the Tenure of Office Act, a constitutionally questionable law that said a president could not dismiss members of the cabinet without Senate approval.

During the trial the quick-tempered Johnson tried going about the business of running the government, labeling his accusers scoundrels in the treasonous tradition of Benedict Arnold. But for all practical purposes the trial brought Washington to a halt. …

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