As the Democrats’ impeachment efforts against President Trump continue to blow up in their faces (which is not to say they won’t succeed, given the establishment media’s indefatigable attempts to put a good face on the proceedings), it is useful to recall that we have been here before. No impeachment proceeding against a president has ever been as baseless, vindictive, and politically motivated as the one against Trump now, but the impeachment of Andrew Johnson comes close.
Johnson became president when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and his troubles began almost immediate. Lincoln was a Republican, and the Republicans had majorities in Congress, but Johnson was a Democrat. It was curious, to say the least, to have a Republican president running for reelection with a Democratic vice presidential candidate, but in the political calculus of that tumultuous time, it made perfect sense. Worried about carrying the border states that had remained, albeit precariously, in the Union during the Civil War, the Republicans formed the National Union Party, which was meant to be a big-tent party comprising Republicans and Democrats who wanted to preserve the Union. Johnson’s vice-presidential candidacy was a bid for the votes of Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware in an election that most thought would be extremely close.
No one expected that the most momentous outcome of the 1864 election would be that Andrew Johnson would end up president of the United States just five weeks after Lincoln’s second inauguration. He was regarded with suspicion by the faction of Republicans known as the Radicals, who meant to secure equality of rights, including the right to vote, for the freed slaves. This was a laudable and charitable goal, but not everyone saw it as such at the time. President Johnson opposed the enfranchisement and equality of rights of black people. In this, Johnson departed from Lincoln’s course, as his martyred predecessor had favored civil rights for the freed slaves, albeit not on the sweeping and unlimited terms that the Radicals favored.
This controversy engulfed and ultimately destroyed the Johnson presidency. On March 27, 1866, he contradicted himself as he vetoed the Civil Rights Act, which granted American citizenship to the freed slaves and guaranteed them equality of rights under the law. The Radicals were furious. The Springfield Republican denounced the veto, saying that protecting the civil rights of the freed slaves “follows from the suppression of the rebellion…. The party is nothing, if it does not do this—the nation is dishonored if it hesitates in this.” Congress overrode Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act, and the commanding general of the U.S. Army, Ulysses S. Grant, sent troops into the South to enforce the Act.
After the 1866 elections, President Johnson could do nothing to stop the Radical program except, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to refuse military help to enforce it. For that, however, he needed the cooperation of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, himself a Radical, and when that cooperation was not forthcoming, Johnson wanted to remove Stanton from office. To prevent Johnson from firing Stanton, the Radical Congress in 1867 passed (over Johnson’s veto) the Tenure of Office Act, which required the Senate to approve the removal of any Cabinet officer.
The Act was clear legislative overreach, and was doubtful on constitutional grounds; in 1926, 39 years after it had been repealed, the Supreme Court called it “invalid.” Johnson fired Stanton, but Congress ordered him reinstated. Finally on February 21, 1868, he fired Stanton again. Stanton barricaded himself in his office, and Congress immediately began impeachment proceedings against Johnson. Just three days later, the House voted 126 to 47 in favor of impeachment. In the Senate, the vote was 35-19 to convict Johnson and remove him from office; however, 36 votes, or two-thirds of the senators, were needed. Johnson’s presidency was saved and he served out the rest of his term, but was after this completely crippled and unable to accomplish anything of significance.
The impeachment of Andrew Johnson is a disgraceful episode in American history. Until now, it was the worst example of unscrupulous legislators using impeachment as a weapon against a president they loathed for political reasons, rather than for any actual crimes. This remained true even though the Radicals were right on principle, and Johnson was wrong. Contemporary Democrats who are using impeachment as a political tool may never have had the audacity to make such a travesty of the constitutional system of checks and balances were it not for the precedent that the impeachment of Andrew Johnson set.
The historical analogy between the Johnson and Trump impeachments ends there. While Trump’s record as president has been impressive in numerous areas, Johnson’s impeachment came about because he espoused disastrous policies that many quite rightly saw as negating the North’s victory in the Civil War, and relegating black Americans to a situation little different from the one they were in before the war, rendering null and void the supreme sacrifice so many had made. If Johnson had not resisted voting rights and other civil rights for the freed slaves, the Radicals never would have gone to war against him with such fury and descended to congressional overreach and impeachment.
But that doesn’t justify their using impeachment as a weapon to strike at a president they loathed. And in doing so, they set the stage for the present Schiff Show.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is author of the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process. Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.