The First Presidential Impeachment

I queued up the latest episode of Throughline when it came out on the 14th of January, and I wondered what take they would give on the subject of impeachment now that we were in the second impeachment for Donald Trump:

Throughline – Impeachment – January 14, 2021

The episode turned out to be a rebroadcast of a previous episode (High Crimes and Misdemeanors, Feb. 28, 2019) but as I was listening to the episode I was thinking “yeah. I wrote an article about my experience reading this book. What happened to that?”

After looking through my online drafts, I can tell my self from the middle of January what happened to it. I flushed it. I flushed the whole article. I was so disgusted with the results of President Trump’s impeachment in 2019 and trial in the early months of 202o (what feels like a decade ago now) that I didn’t see the point in adding an article about this book to the blog. I mean to say, the book and the first impeachment of a President in United States history had no bearing on the results of this modern President’s flirtation with perhaps being punished for his infractions by being impeached for some of them. The tale had no bearing other than that he was left in office just as Andrew Johnson had been, to the disgust of everyone who cared about the future of the country and the plight of the former slaves who were betrayed by Andrew Johnson.

Because I’m fanatical about saving everything I write somewhere, it turned out that there still was a draft of the article sitting in my backups waiting to be dusted off and revisited. Since President Trump has been so enormously stupid as to attempt to overthrow the United States government and not even understand that he should probably run away after failing so spectacularly to do even that job correctly, he has been impeached for an unprecedented second time, almost exactly thirteen months since he was impeached for the first time. Impeached for sedition. That’ll look good on his resume. What follows is an amended set of thoughts on the subject of the book and the relevance of the first impeachment of a sitting President with the current governmental tragedy that we are witnessing.

Impeaching a President implies that we make mistakes, grave ones, in electing or appointing officials, and that these elected men and women might be not great but small—unable to listen to, never mind to represent, the people they serve with justice, conscience, and equanimity. Impeachment suggests dysfunction, uncertainty, and discord—not the discord of war, which can be memorialized as valorous, purposeful, and idealistic, but the far less dramatic and often squalid, sad, intemperate conflicts of peace, partisanship, race, and rancor. Impeachment implies a failure—a failure of government of the people to function, and of leaders to lead. And presidential impeachment means failure at the very top.

Brenda Wineapple

The Impeachers (2019)

I picked up The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation by Brenda Wineapple  after hearing her interviewed on several podcasts over a few weeks in August, 2019. I listened to it over the course of a month or so in fifteen minutes stretches as I got ready for bed and then tried to go to sleep. When I dusted off the first abortive attempt to write an article about this book, I decided to listen to it again while editing this article and adding to it. I have now been listening to the book for two days straight and finished it on the morning of the third day. It is much better than I originally thought, and it is packed full of relevant details about the current president and his predicament.

It isn’t the most sleep inducing of books, which is a point in its favor, but I have to keep relistening to chapters in order to try to keep all the players straight. This is a flaw in the narrative that has been constructed for the story of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson to be told in. I have read better histories over the course of the years, but there is nothing particularly bad about this one. It flows well from chapter to chapter, I simply can’t keep all the names straight because I don’t understand their place in the overall story. In case anyone else is having this problem, I’ll attach a list of the obscure characters that the author seems to insufficiently touch on at the end of this article, as well as include a few quotes from them interspersed in the text. I looked them up out of curiosity anyway, I might as well list their names and what I took away from stumbling across them online here in this article. However, the best way to learn about the subject of the book, Andrew Johnson and his direct impeachers, is to just read the book or read one of the numerous other books that have been written about him and them.

Here’s an example of why this book is relevant today:

I cannot believe there is really any danger of armed resistance to impeachment. The force which Johnson could command is so small and the suicidal folly of the course so evident. Still, Johnson is an exception to all rules.

Moorfield Storey

Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump resemble each other in character. Vain, narcissistic and borderline sociopaths, with a certain kind of charisma that they both used to raise crowds to their defense when they were speaking extemporaneously, but when looked at later in the cold light can be seen to be voicing sentiments that are almost completely without merit. They are cut from very similar cloth and neither of them should have ever been allowed near the levers of power, and abused their power when it was given to them.

The story of the first presidential impeachment stems out of the first assassination of a United States president, which followed directly on the heels of the Civil War, a conflict that finally put to rest the question of slavery that had badgered American reality and morality since the founding of the United States following the separation of the American colonies from Great Britain.

I recommend that anyone interested in this subject also read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin or at least become passingly familiar with the subjects that swirled around in political circles of the day. Because, while the book is entertaining and self-contained from the perspective of explaining most of what you need to know about the subject of the first impeachment of a president, it isn’t going to tell you just how embedded the common notion of white supremacy was, a concept that was later scientificated into eugenics, which in the modern day is inseparable from white supremacy itself, even though it is still an active science in several countries.

Without that understanding, you will not be able to credit just how hard it was to find enough people of power to make the kinds of changes in the South stick that needed to stick without turning the entire project into another form of genocide:

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Abraham Lincoln – Second Inaugural Address – Saturday, March 4, 1865

Threading that needle, avoiding the mass slaughter of the plantation owners for the purpose of providing property and means for their now freed slaves, while at the same time allowing the former slaves enough space to be able to exercise their newly-granted legal rights, was the task before the country when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the task that Andrew Johnson was not capable of executing. A fact that he demonstrated many times before the House of Representatives was forced to impeach him for his transgressions of the law.

I especially loved the explanations that Benjamin Butler came up with to explain what it is that falls within the realm of ideas encapsulated by the phrase High Crimes and Misdemeanors:

An impeachable misdemeanor might be an act that subverted the principles of government, such as one that violated the Constitution or that flouted an official oath or duty or law. It could be an act that abused or usurped power.

The Senate was bound by no law, either statute or common, that should limit your constitutional prerogative. The Senate, acting as a court, was a law unto itself. Bound only principles of equity and justice where the laws of the people was supreme.

The Impeachers, Chapter Twenty-Two

The Senate is not required to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt in order to hold the president accountable for the crimes he has been charged with, an idea that is also encapsulated in this article from The Atlantic, as well as my own article on the subject. These definitions did not stand in the way of the president’s defenders then and now, insisting that there were no laws broken so the impeachment could not be a valid one but only a political one. Even a political impeachment is valid, if the reasons for the impeachment are dire enough.

If there was a movie made of what happened after Lincoln was assassinated its title should be Betrayal. Betrayal is what Andrew Johnson did to the visions of Abraham Lincoln. A betrayal of the formerly enslaved people in favor of the wealthy white landowners. If these downtrodden people had been given the voice they were promised back in 1865, we wouldn’t have needed to impeach a white supremacist president in 2019, and then impeach him again in 2021.

Andrew Johnson not only deserved impeachment, he should have been impeached sooner. Andrew Johnson was not the first president that should have been impeached and removed from office. Andrew Jackson should also have been impeached and removed because of his unwillingness to enforce and abide by the decisions of the Supreme Court. He was not impeached because he had a House of Representatives and a Senate that agreed with his treatment of the native peoples in Georgia. These supporters did not mind that he enriched himself by stealing the natives land and selling it through authorized representatives, selling it to whites that wanted to possess the land. (Jacksonland)

Mitch McConnell comparing the Republicans who impeached Andrew Johnson to the Democrats who have impeached Donald Trump did get one thing right. Both impeachments were undertaken late, and both impeachments will likely end with injustice done to the Constitution and the ideal of the rule of law. In the case of the impeachment of Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell is already on record as being intent on doing injustice.

The modern record should not distract from the historical though. It is the process of following the trends through history that provides the illumination for current events, not the other way around. Andrew Johnson never did get the justice that he so richly deserved, and that is yet another reason why we remain in this quandary today.

Putting aside such causes of the Senate’s action as women, whiskey, cowardice, greenbacks, Free Masonry, Negro-hate, offices for one’s sixteen pine-tree cousins, a diseased Chief Justice, spite, dyspepsia and noodleism – It is evident, on the face of things, that while a very large majority of the people, and specially of the Republican party, wished its success, there was a very strong doubt among the party leaders whether such success would help the party.

Wendell Phillips, The Impeachers, chapter 27
Characters

Roughly listed in the order that they appear in the book:

  • Edwin Stanton – Perhaps the most famous of Lincoln’s cabinet. You see a different side of the man in this history than you will see in other histories.
  • William Seward – Secretary of State under both Lincoln and Johnson. A much more despicable figure than I had understood him to be from other histories I have read. What a strange man he must have been.
  • Thaddeus Stevens – Leader of the abolitionists in the House. Played memorably by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie Lincoln, he has never been treated more kindly as a character anywhere other than in that movie, and that is a shame on our nation and what our nation means. Stanchly even handed, but willing to manipulate the rules of the House of Representatives to serve the needs of the nation itself, we need at least one legislator equal to him in today’s Congress. Unfortunately we don’t seem to have any of them.
  • Charles Sumner – Leader of the abolitionists in the Senate. No one seems to like him, and there is little of him in this book. Still, we should understand who he was if we are to understand his place in history. I’ll have to try to find more to read about him.
  • Lyman Trumbull – Coauthor of the thirteenth amendment. Author of some of the freedman’s legislation. Senator from Illinois.
  • Thomas J. Durant – Former federal officer and an attorney in New Orleans where he witnessed the sadistic massacre there in 1866.
  • George Boutwell – Former Democrat turned radical abolitionist Republican.
  • James Mitchell Ashley – Proposed the resolution to impeach Andrew Johnson. For this and for his stance on educating the populace (including former slaves) he was soundly defeated in 1868 and never held elected office again.
  • Benjamin Butler – Benjamin Butler would open the House Manager’s prosecution case against Andrew Johnson in the Senate. More should have been written about the history of this man, given how important his role is in the impeachment trial. Butler provides the definitions for the offenses that Andrew Johnson was impeached for, quoted above.

Author: RAnthony

I'm a freethinking, unapologetic liberal. I'm a former CAD guru with an architectural fetish. I'm a happily married father. I'm also a disabled Meniere's sufferer.

Attacks on arguments offered are appreciated and awaited. Attacks on the author will be deleted.