|Without Lincoln to
restrain them, the
hunting dogs in
Congress were let
loose. Time to show
the South what it
means to lose a war.
had been just three years since Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre,
and just look at the mess the country was without him. The Civil War was
over, thank God, but oh, for the cleanup.
To start with, the country
still hated each other. The blood was still warm on the bodies, and some
of those bodies were brothers and boyfriends and sons.
If you thought the country
hated each other, you should have seen the Congress. It was still controlled
by the Republicans, the banner-carriers for the victorious North, and if
the war was fought to bring the renegade Southern Democrats back under
their wing, peace meant punishing them for their trouble. They wanted to
manhandle the smoldering South – station soldiers and slice it up into
Not so fast, said the president.
The president was Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s vice president. Let’s
put it this way: if there had been vice presidential candidate debates
back then as there are today, a wisecracking opponent would have sneered
at Johnson, “Senator, you’re no Abe Lincoln.”
He wasn’t. Lincoln embodied
grace, wisdom, and tact, whose sheer presence kept his red-eyed fellow
Republicans in check. Johnson didn’t have the seniority, the skill, and
the soothing presence of his former boss. On Capitol Hill, Johnson
was treated like the kid brother put in charge while Mom runs to the store
– where does this guy get off bossing us around?
Johnson just couldn’t command
respect and make people listen like Lincoln did. Worse, he was a Democrat.
A Democrat! He was tossed onto the ticket in the 1864 presidential election
because, let’s face it, when the country is coming apart at the seams,
you need to, well, branch out to get elected. Johnson even owned
slaves, although he was firmly on the North’s side. After all, the Civil
War was as much about borders as about slaves, and Johnson hailed from
the crucial border state of Tennessee.
But without Lincoln to spiritually
(if not verbally) restrain them, the hunting dogs in Congress were let
loose. Time to show the South what it means to lose a war.
Any hope the Republicans
had of Johnson giving them an easier time with their agenda than his predecessor
disappeared almost overnight. He vetoed almost everything Congress
sent to him - in fact, Johnson became the first president to have major
bills passed over his veto, with two thirds of both chambers voting to
override him. Few such bills were more significant than the Reconstruction
Act of 1867, passed over a veto, which divided ten southern states into
five military zones under the command of an army officer.
Another big issue was civil
rights. Republicans wanted to give freed slaves the right to vote and own
land, but Johnson vetoed it. Historians have slammed him for this, and
perhaps rightly so, but Johnson’s vision was directly in line with that
of Lincoln himself - don’t dominate the South and tell them what to do;
simply oversee their own rebuilding efforts. Denying freed slaves
the right to vote might have seemed funny for the successor to the author
of the Emancipation Proclamation, but Johnson thought it was what Lincoln
would have wanted – the South has to make its own postwar decisions. Johnson
may even have been looking at Republicans political motives on the issue
– opening the voting booth to freed slaves was their only hope to keep
a majority in Congress.
Republicans had already begun
calling the president “an outlaw undeserving of quarter,” a drunk, an adulterer
and even a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination – and Johnson had in
turn begun blasting his political opponents as traitors and blasphemers
– by the time Congress passed the fateful Tenure of Office Act in 1867.
It was written for the direct benefit of exactly one man: Edwin Stanton,
Secretary of War since the days of Lincoln and most outspoken Johnson opponent
in Johnson’s own cabinet. The act said Johnson couldn’t kick anyone out
without the Senate’s approval if the man had originally been confirmed
by the Senate.
Johnson was getting sick
of Stanton, and reached the boiling point when he found out that Stanton
had kept an important letter from reaching his desk. The letter was from
five military officers asking the president to commute their death sentence
of the wife of Lincoln assassination conspirator John Surratt. The letter
never got to the president, and Mary Surratt was executed as a conspirator.
When Johnson found out he demanded Stanton resign. Stanton refused, and
Johnson suspended him, as he was allowed to do under that Tenure of Office
Act if Congress wasn’t in session. Johnson appointed Union war hero Ulysses
S. Grant to replace him.
When the Senate reconvened
in January it rejected Stanton’s removal by a vote of 35 to 16. Grant heard
this and promptly abandoned his office, and Stanton triumphantly took it
Johnson was furious at Grant – he wanted Grant to stay so he could mount
a legal challenge to the Tenure of Office Act. In February, Johnson,
still seeking a legal hearing for the new law, kicked Stanton out again,
even though Congress was in session.
House Republicans heard this
and knew it was their moment. Time to extract the thorn from their
side and carry on with their radical Reconstruction agenda. For over a
year, they had been working on a draft of impeachment based on Johnson’s
“high crimes and misdemeanors, and whether such acts were designed or calculated
to overthrow, subvert, or corrupt the government of the United States.”
At the time, they just didn’t have enough to go on. Of course, as one Johnson
cabinet member pointed out, Johnson would eventually have been impeached
“had he been accused of stepping on a dog’s tail.” Now the House could
do even better. They wrote their final draft of eleven articles of impeachment
– eight dealing with the Tenure of Office Act, two addressing inflammatory
speeches Johnson had made, and one grand finale article that sort of combined
all the charges. Less than a week later, on February 26, 1868, Johnson
was impeached by the House by a vote of 126 to 47. On to the Senate.