Impeachment misused, then shunned, then revived
Only the third impeachment trial of a president in our history.
These are the sort of words used by various media people to underscore and dramatize the alleged importance of the just concluded political performance in Washington. Delivered in solemn tones, the statement seems to carry great gravity and the weight of American history.
However, this is a misleading representation of our past — and our present. The impeachment and trials of presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump took place quite recently in historical terms, over the past quarter century.
The first presidential impeachment and trial in 1868 involved President Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor. For a century thereafter, the experience was considered so terrible, so fraught with danger, and so discredited by the targeting of Johnson that there was no desire for repetition.
Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, was selected as Republican Lincoln’s running mate for the presidential campaign of 1864. He owned slaves, whom he freed in 1863, before slavery was formally fully abolished throughout the state. He was also committed to the preservation of the Union.
Lincoln picked Johnson for political reasons, reflecting the realities of partisanship and geography. A year of some of the most brutal fighting of our terribly costly Civil War lay ahead, but victory at last seemed a realistic possibility. The president wanted a Southerner on the ticket who could ease the way of reconstruction and reintegration of the Southern states back into our nation. The two men ran on a National Union Party ticket rather than as Republicans.
Johnson had served as elected governor of Tennessee and in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was also military governor of the state after occupation by federal troops, and had additional solid military credentials.
Lincoln’s assassination in early April 1865, shortly after the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the principal Confederate force in the East, transformed the political environment. Even Lincoln would have been sorely challenged in the Civil War’s aftermath, and Johnson quickly revealed his inadequacies for presidential leadership. Belligerent and inflexible, he soon became isolated politically and a target of Radical Republicans in Congress.
The Tenure of Office Act passed in 1867 over Johnson’s veto prevented the president from removing any officer of the government subject to Senate confirmation without the concurrence of that body. The president’s attempt to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a Radical Republican, resulted in impeachment. The law later was repealed.
The political quarrel over who would serve as secretary of war was intense and bitter. Stanton for a time barricaded himself in his office, and had Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, his successor designated by Johnson, temporarily arrested. Stanton and his allies relented in part because of concern the Supreme Court would rule the Tenure of Office Act unconstitutional.
The intense struggle had extremely high stakes, since practical control of the U.S. Army was involved.
The Senate vote to remove Johnson from office fell just one vote short of the two-thirds required. Republican Sen. Edmund G. Ross, of Kansas, provided that vote, ending his political career. Johnson survived but with no chance of a second term. Fortunately, U.S. military occupation of the South continued.
In total, this impeachment represented a bitter and destructively divisive capstone to the most costly war in our history, with approximately 600,000 dead over four years. Understandably, the collective lesson drawn by earlier generations of American was that impeachment was to be avoided if at all possible.
That was the situation for just over a century, until the grueling Watergate crisis of 1972-74 led to impeachment of President Richard Nixon, who resigned before any trial. The era also witnessed urban riots and violence, political assassinations, and the bitterly divisive Vietnam War.
During those years, public alienation grew, authority declined. This set the stage for a more casual, cynical view of impeaching a president.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”