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The Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson Previous Next
Digital History ID 3104

 

In Tennessee Johnson, a 1940s movie about the nation's first presidential impeachment trial, President Johnson (played by Van Heflin) storms into the Senate chamber and gives an eloquent speech to avert his ouster. In fact, the president's own lawyers kept him out of the Senate chamber, fearing he would lose his temper.

Officially, Johnson was impeached for violating the Tenure of Office Act, which had been passed over Johnson's veto, which prohibited the president from dismissing certain federal officials without Senate approval, and for denouncing Congress as unfit to legislate. But those reasons masked the issues that were more important to Congressional Republicans. Johnson had vetoed 20 Reconstruction bills and had urged southern legislatures to reject the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection of the laws. He had ordered African American families evicted from land on which they had been settled by the U.S. Army.

Johnson's lawyers sought to portray the dispute as a partisan attack made to look like a legal proceeding. His opponents insisted he had abused his powers and flouted the will of Congress. The House voted 126-47 to impeach Johnson on 11 separate articles. The proceedings were intensively partisan. One Republican Representative even suggested that Johnson, as vice president, had been involved in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln, just so he could succeed him. The chief of the Secret Service gave false reports that the president had an affair with a woman seeking to obtain pardons for former Confederates.

Johnson's attorneys argued the Tenure of Office Act applied to officials appointed by the president, and since Secretary of War Stanton was appointed by Lincoln, not Johnson, he was not covered by the act.

The final vote was 35 to 19, one short of the two-thirds needed for conviction and removal from office. Seven Republicans voted to acquit. The Senate voted on two more articles of impeachment, each again just one vote shy of conviction. The chamber never voted on the remaining eight impeachment articles. But Johnson had been defamed. In the future, he no longer obstructed Congress' Reconstruction policies.

President Johnson spent the rest of his life seeking vindication. He actively pursued the 1868 Democratic presidential nomination but in the end lost the nomination to New York governor Horatio Seymour, who subsequently lost the election to Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant. Johnson then moved back to Tennessee, where he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1869 and the House in 1872. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1874 and was greeted by the Senators with thunderous applause, his desk strewn with roses. After a few months, however, he suffered a series of strokes and died. His wife placed a copy of the U.S. Constitution under his head in his coffin.

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