Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment
1. Andrew Johnson would enter presidency during a moment in America’s history which is distinguished for its divisiveness. Entering office under the inauspicious terms of Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson would come to the presidency amidst a deeply splintered union. Amongst the challenges which were uniquely his was that prodigious object of bringing the Confederate states back to the Union. As a southern democrat with deep Civil War sympathies for the preservation of the Union and Lincoln’s vision for reconstruction, Johnson might have seemed an ideal figure for the return of peace to the nation.
However, in this role, he fell inherently short for what historians have characterized as critical stubbornness. It is argued that he rushed to readmit the Southern states to the Union, inciting the ire of a liberal Republican party that both wished to see vast reforms extending Civil Rights to newly freed blacks and who believed that punishment and rigor were due the states that had caused this war. For Johnson and his democratic allies, who only diminished in numbers through the elections of 1866, the resistance of moderate and Radical Republicans at once, as well as division within his own party, would make him a vulnerable figure to the anger coming from all sides. When Congress sought to impeach him the first time in 1867, he was contended with an array of charges which essentially made the case of general incompetence. His second impeachment attempt would concern the dubious Act of Tenure law which would really be a Congressional railroading of presidential authority.
2. In neither impeachment attempt could be it be said that Johnson was really guilty of any scandal or abuse of office. Indeed, history tends to reflect on the proceedings as suggestive more of Congressional misappropriation of power. Such is to say that the tool of impeachment, intended to be reserved for the very serious abused of office that compromise the integrity of the nation, instead was used her to instigate a continued division in a country desperately in need of reconciliation.
The true failure in premise of the impeachment would be in its false provocation of no confidence. Political and policy difference are most centrally at play, as sharp disagreements on how to handle the return of the Union precipitated first widespread policy-infighting and, soon thereafter, this effort by Congressional republicans to undermine the presidency. A power-grab in general terms, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson would have, if successful, instated a Republican president in Johnson’s place, conspicuously consolidating power within one political party.
3. None of this, of course, is to suggest that Johnson was not a figure who largely failed to protect his own interest. In a stubborn and unyielding interest in restoring the union, as well as protecting such theoretical ideas as the preservation of state autonomy over federal authority, Johnson did nothing to help either the south or the Union. Though it is admirable that he so vociferously supported reconciliation and reconstruction, there was a general sense that he had failed to put a coercive stamp on the questions that were to be largely settled by Southern surrender.
Namely, Johnson’s forgiving stance toward the South seemed to many to be at the expense of important questions concerning the issues of slavery, Civil Rights and the terms by which the South would be returned to political representation. In all, Johnson showed a general defiance to compromise which ultimately inclined his political opponents toward the act of effectively removing him from office. Though the effort failed, Johnson may have spared his office the pressure and disgrace of impeachment with a more amendable political mediation.