During the years immediately following the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson clashed repeatedly with the Republican-controlled Congress over the reconstruction of the defeated South. Johnson vetoed legislation that Congress passed to protect the rights of those who had been freed from slavery. This clash culminated in the House of Representatives voting, on February 24, 1868, to impeach the president. On March 5, the trial began in the Senate, where Republicans held more seats than the two-thirds majority required to remove Johnson from office. When the trial concluded on May 16, however, the president had won an acquittal, not because a majority of senators supported his policies but because a sufficient minority wished to protect the office of the president and preserve the constitutional balance of powers.
Born into poverty in North Carolina in 1808, as a young boy Andrew Johnson became apprentice to a tailor. He had no formal schooling, but through the sheer force of will became a self-educated man. While still in his teens, Johnson moved with his family to Tennessee, settled in Greeneville, and married a shoemaker’s daughter named Eliza McCardle. Aiding Johnson in his self-education, Eliza helped to improve his social status and political opportunities.
Andrew Johnson may have lacked a formal education, but he possessed an innate talent for debate and oratory. His political career began when he was elected alderman of Greeneville in 1829, and five years later he became the small town’s mayor. In 1835 he joined the Tennessee state legislature, only to lose reelection two years later. He returned to state politics in 1839, moved to the state senate in 1841, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843. Johnson’s humble beginnings and populist style endeared him to the working-class poor but put him at odds with the wealthy landowners who controlled state politics. In 1853 his opponents gerrymandered him out of office. He retaliated by being elected governor—twice. By 1857 Johnson had gained enough support in the state legislature to be elected to the U.S. Senate.
Johnson proved to be an independent thinker. This was most evident following the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States, when Southern states began to secede. While the secession convention met in Charleston, South Carolina, Johnson addressed the Senate and proclaimed his allegiance to the Union. Tennessee seceded, but Johnson remained in Washington. In March of 1862, President Lincoln rewarded Johnson’s loyalty with appointment as military governor of Tennessee. When Lincoln sought a second presidential term in 1864 and needed the support of “Union Democrats,” he chose Johnson as his running mate. Johnson became vice president on March 4, 1865. Forty-two days later, he was president of the United States.
The initial response to a Johnson presidency was optimistic. Even the so-called Radical Republicans, who would pursue impeachment proceedings three years later, supported the new president. “By the Gods,” proclaimed Senator Ben Wade of Ohio, “there will be no trouble now in running this government.” Such good relations quickly soured, however, as Johnson’s views on Reconstruction surfaced. Within weeks, Johnson opposed political rights for freedmen and called for a lenient reconstruction policy, including pardoning former Confederate leaders. The president looked for every opportunity to block action by the Radical Republicans. He had no interest in compromise. When Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill in February of 1866, he broke the final ties with his Republican opponents in Congress. They responded with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, promising political rights to African Americans. In March of 1867 they also passed, over Johnson’s presidential veto, the Tenure of Office Act which was designed to limit the president’s ability to shape his cabinet by requiring that not only appointments but also dismissals be approved by the Senate.
By mid-1867, Johnson’s enemies in Congress were repeatedly promoting impeachment. The precipitant event that resulted in a third and successful impeachment action was the firing of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a Lincoln appointee and ally of the Radical Republicans in Congress. Stanton had strongly opposed Johnson’s Reconstruction policies and the president hoped to replace him with Ulysses S. Grant, whom Johnson believed to be more in line with his own political thinking. In August of 1867, while Congress was in recess, Johnson suspended Stanton and appointed Grant as secretary of war ad interim. When the Senate opposed Johnson’s actions and reinstated Stanton in the fall, Grant resigned, fearing punitive action and possible consequences for his own presidential ambitions. Furious with his congressional opponents, Johnson fired Stanton and informed Congress of this action, then named Major General Lorenzo Thomas, a long-time foe of Stanton, as interim secretary. Stanton promptly had Thomas arrested for illegally seizing his office.
This musical chair debacle amounted to a presidential challenge to the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act. In response, having again reinstated Stanton to office, Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives, backed by key allies in the Senate, pursued impeachment.
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