Wednesday, October 25, 2017

President Impeached by Hans L. Trefousse

It was bad enough that during 1866 Mid-term elections President Johnson toured the nation giving speeches in favor of various candidates. Presidents traditionally refrained from doing that; once elected to the highest office they were supposed to be ‘above the fray.” President Johnson’s careless pronouncements- in speeches or interviews with the press- also caused him such great trouble that even Senator Doolittle bemoaned Johnson’s extemporaneous speeches: “He falls into the great error of supposing it possible to lay aside his official character and speak as a private citizen about public affairs.” His lawyers were determined to prevent such pitfalls during the impeachment itself and they succeeded: discretion prevailed, Johnson followed the advise of counsel, however extraordinarily difficult it was for him to do so.

What irked the President most was his conviction that proceedings against him were unfair. There were no ‘high crimes or misdemeanors’ in any of the nine articles of impeachment.  In the case of his supposed violation of the recent Tenure of Office Act even the radicals understood that their objections wouldn’t stand for one-half hour before the Supreme Court, even under the chiefdom of the highly partisan Salmon Chase. They did everything they could to prevent a test case from getting before the Courts.

In view of the difficulties, it may be asked why Congress ever started the impeachment proceedings in the first place. After all, the moderates had long been opposed to the trial; why did they now join with their radical colleagues in an all-out effort to oust the president?

The answer to these questions must be sought in the Republicans concern about Reconstruction. As long as Johnson remained in the White House, Republican hopes for a reformed South with a modicum of rights for the freedmen seemed endangered, and his latest actions – the changes in the commanding generals and the bestowal of patronage on Southern conservatives – heightened this apprehension. Then, by challenging the Tenure of Office Act  (sacking Stanton as Secretary of War), the president frightened moderates as well as radicals, and they became convinced of the necessity of removing him. There was widespread concern, that, by drawing a combination of Southern and Northern Democrats to his side Jackson might endanger future Republican successes.

Their case was weak and the impeachment was not managed well. They were ‘poor judges of human nature and poor readers of human motives”, according to the Chicago Tribune. One could hardly call Johnson a “great” criminal as they did. Butler, who vowed to try the cases he would a horse case, appeared aggressive and offensive. By trying to prevent the cabinet from testifying, he merely raised doubts in various senators’ minds. Nor did Boutwell’s violent abuse do much good. It disgusted even faithful Republicans. Because the managers had a poor case, they took refuge in various legal devices, a tactic seen as a confession of weakness. For instance, their refusal to allow a vote on the first article, which they knew was offensive to Senators Sherman and Howe, could only increase the impression that the entire proceeding was nothing but a political maneuver.

In addition, there was widespread apprehension about  Speaker Ben Wade. His clearly expressed ideas on inflation, protection, women’s rights, and justice for the workingman frightened many moderate and conservative Republicans.. Should Wade move into the White House, it was likely that he would receive the next vice presidential nomination. ” the gathering of evil birds around Wade (I mean tariff robbers) leads me to think that a worse calamity might befall the Republican Party than the acquittal of Johnson, wrote the journalist Horace White.. Chief Justice Chase also disliked his fellow Ohioan. James A. Garfield warned that conviction meant the transfer of the presidency to “a man of violent passions, extreme opinions and narrow views; a man who had never thought thoroughly or carefully on any subject except slavery  . . .surrounded by the worse and most violent elements of the Republican Party.”

Others thought that if successful, impeachment would, logically, have been the destruction of the Executive Department of Government- hypothetically, Congress, under the Tenure of Office Act, would  obtain absolute control over all Presidential appointments. As Senator Trumbull said:

Once set the example  of impeaching the President for what, when the excitement of the hour shall have subsided, will be regarded as insufficient causes . . .no future President will be safe who happens top differ with a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate on any measure deemed by them important, particularly if of a political character . . .what then becomes of the checks and balances of the Constitution, so carefully devised and so vital to its perpetuity? They are all gone.

The short time left of Johnson’s term was also a factor:

To convict and depose a Chief Magistrate of a great country while his guilt was not made palpable by the record, and for insufficient, reasons would be fraught with greater danger to the future of the country than can arise from leaving Mr. Johnson in office for the remaining months of his term.

Nor did Republicans think conviction would be any help to Grant, whom they had already chosen as their next candidate for President.

In the meantime, as the trial stretched-on, though silenced by his lawyers, Johnson was by no means inactive in his own defense. In keeping with the political skills he had learned in Tennessee, despite his frequent disavowals of any deals to secure acquittal, he did in fact engage in various maneuvers to win over doubtful senators. He appointed General John M. Scholfield- who sought guarantees that Johnson would drop his opposition to Reconstruction before he accepted- as Secretary of War.   Wavering senators persuaded him to transmit the radical constitutions of South Carolina and Arkansas without delay. Senator Grimes of Iowa was given assurances that  henceforth Johnson ‘would be guilty of no indiscretion, commit no rash act, and consult with his cabinet.”

While Johnson had always believed that the gap between himself and the moderates, particularly on the problems of Reconstruction and the future of the freemen, was too large to be bridged, now he felt the time was ripe for an accommodation. He had done all he could to frustrate congressional efforts at Reconstruction; his conviction would be of no help to the South, while acquittal might well be a signal for the turning of the tide. At any rate, as a practical matter, Republicans in Congress held a veto-proof majority.

The final result was 35 to 19, exactly one vote short of the required two-thirds for conviction.

What had the president accomplished by his victory? Above all, he had succeeded in preserving the Constitution that he admired so much [he had preserved the separation of powers, defended State’s Rights and the prerogative of the rebels to reconstitute their governments as they saw fit] . AS his old collaborator in East Tennessee put it : We now feel that you, with the Constitution in your right hand (holding it aloft) have made a most complete & overwhelming triumph. We now have abiding faith in the perpetuity of Republican institutions - & that Mongrel Radicalism is dead! dead!” “THE TIDE TURNING”, proclaimed a big headline in the Richmond Whig, which expressed the conviction that a conservative change was in progress in every direction. Already partially  on the run, the mortality  Southern Unionists were everywhere threatened.

Thaddeus Stevens sensed the dimensions of the defeat. His life had been a failure, he complained. “With all this great struggle of years in Washington, and the fearful sacrifice of life and treasure,” he declared, “I see little hope for the Republic.” He was especially despondent about the future of the freedman. Johnson had evidently restored hope to the South, and probably he had so undermined the process of Reconstruction that it could not succeed afterward. To be sure, it was not until after the acquittal that the new constitutions of Southern states with their provisions for black enfranchisement went into effect, and after the election of General Grant, black suffrage was guaranteed by the fifteenth amendment. However, Republican rule in the South proved ephemeral. It could not be established on a permanent basis, no matter many force acts sought to guarantee it. Johnson’s adamant opposition at a time when,( in the midst of the devastating  aftermath of the War), radical measures might have succeeded, laid the foundation for failure. From Johnson’s point of view, therefore, he had not been unsuccessful. He had preserved the South as a ‘white man’s country’.

[ ‘What might have been’ is a silly game but it still seems doubtful that if Johnson had been convicted the outcome would have been any different. All politicians seek to divine the will of the majority and to vindicate the conclusions they come to. In this case, Johnson seems to have succeeded. The predominant mood in the country- North and South- favored white supremacy, though perhaps not exactly his Jefferson-Jacksonian brand of it. .  .  but that’s a longer story.]

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