On this day in 1868, the Senate put Andrew Johnson, who had become the nation’s 17th president after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, on trial following his impeachment by the House.
With Salmon Chase, the chief justice, presiding, Johnson’s defense panel requested 40 days to collect evidence and witnesses, but initially only 10 days were granted. The trial resumed on March 30 after further procedural wrangling. Rep. Benjamin Butler (R-Mass.) opened the case for the prosecution with a three-hour speech in which he talked about impeachment trials going back to King John of England, who died in 1216.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Johnson was the only senator from a seceding state who remained loyal to the Union. In his political career in Tennessee, he had championed the interests of poor white Southerners against the landed gentry. In opposing secession, he said, “Damn the negroes. I am fighting those traitorous aristocrats, their masters.” To reward his loyalty, Lincoln named him military governor of Tennessee in 1862 and subsequently chose him as his running mate in 1864.
As president, Johnson pursued lenient policies toward the vanquished South, including virtually total amnesty for former Confederates.
In 1867, acting over Johnson’s veto, radical Republicans enacted the Tenure of Office Act, which barred the president from removing federal officeholders who had been confirmed by the Senate without prior senatorial consent. Defying the radicals, Johnson fired their hard-line ally, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, thereby precipitating the impeachment crisis.
On Feb. 24, 1868, three days after Johnson’s dismissal of Stanton, the House voted 126 to 47 for a resolution to impeach the president for high crimes and misdemeanors. The two main sponsors of the resolution, Reps. Thaddeus Stevens (R-Pa.) and John Bingham (R-Ohio), were dispatched to inform the Senate what the House had done.
On May 16, the Senate by the narrowest of margins failed to convict Johnson. On three successive occasions, 35 senators voted “guilty” and 19 “not guilty.” Since the U.S. Constitution requires a two-thirds majority for conviction, Johnson escaped from being ousted from office by one senatorial vote.
Johnson’s acquittal prompted some Massachusetts residents to petition Congress to abolish the presidency. They claimed that the failure of impeachment in Johnson’s case proved that the presidency had grown too powerful and that the only remaining solution was the abolition of the office through a constitutional amendment.
None of the seven Republican senators who voted for acquittal ever again served in an elective office. While they came under pressure to change their votes to conviction during the trial, public opinion subsequently shifted toward their views. Some senators who voted for conviction, including John Sherman of Ohio and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, later changed their minds.
The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently held the Tenure of Office Act to be unconstitutional.