One man's bullet would force him into the presidency, and but for one man's vote he would have been forced out. Like the impeachment of President Clinton, the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 also ended in an acquittal. And like President Clinton, Johnson was a Democratic president who faced a Republican-controlled Congress. And while many were hostile to him for his political agenda, it would be an event separate from his policies that would nearly bring him down. Before it would end, a drama would play out in the Senate filled with partisanship, legal hairsplitting, and the swing votes of a handful of Republicans. The Road to Impeachment "war" Democrat opposed to secession, in 1864 Johnson was tapped by Republican President Abraham Lincoln as his running mate to balance the Union ticket.
He became president following Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, just days after the Civil War ended. As president, Johnson's desire to scale back Lincoln's Reconstruction legislation following the Civil War angered the Radical Republican majority that sought to punish the former rebels of the Confederacy. The stage was set for a partisan fight that would ultimately center around a single act. In February 1868, Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who was sympathetic to the Radical Republicans and who was overseeing the military's Reconstruction efforts. A year earlier, Congress had passed the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited a president from dismissing any officer confirmed by the Senate without first getting its approval. With Stanton's firing, the call for Johnson's impeachment began.
"To say that they seized the opportunity was too strong", says Michael Les Benedict, a history professor at Ohio State University and the author of The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson. "The president was in obvious defiance. He was daring them, it seemed, to impeach him. And if they didn't, it would have given him a green light to basically dismantle the Reconstruction program that Congress had passed". Political Opportunism? But others today see that impeachment as political opportunism.
"Namely, Johnson was opposed to congressional Reconstruction", says Hans Louis Trefousse, author of Andrew Johnson: A Biography. "So Johnson blocked that and, because he did, they [Republicans] eventually decided they should throw him out."A more technical inquiry can hardly be imagined, and as a separate basis for removing a president from office it bordered on the absurd", wrote U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who presided over the Clinton impeachment trial, in his 1992 book Grand Inquests. Rehnquist questions whether the tenure act even applied in Johnson's case. Indeed, the law was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1926.
Rehnquist termed Johnson's acquittal a victory for the independence of the executive branch, and said it set an important precedent. Impeachment would be, he wrote, "a judicial type of inquiry into specific acts he had performed as president, rather than the sort of 'vote of confidence' that takes place in a parliamentary system". A Single Vote On Feb. 25, 1868, the House passed a resolution accusing Johnson of "high crimes and misdemeanors". The party-line vote was 126-47. When Johnson went on trial in the Senate on March 30, he faced 11 counts: from violation of the tenure law by removing Stanton, to questioning the constitutionality of laws and making public speeches against members of Congress. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, Salmon Portland Chase, presided.
On May 16, 1868, a vote was taken on the 11th article of impeachment, a catchall of several charges. The vote was 35-19 to convict - one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed. Enough Republicans broke ranks to make the difference. The result was the same when votes were taken later on the second and third articles. The chamber adjourned without voting on the remaining charges.
Johnson served the remainder of Lincoln's term but failed to win his party's nomination for president. However, in 1874, Tennessee sent him back to the very Senate that had tried to convict him. He died in 1875 and was buried near his home in Greeneville, Tenn. - wrapped in the flag, his head pillowed by a copy of the Constitution.