Saturday, February 24, 2018
The First Impeachment
It was 150 years ago today that an American president was impeached for the first time.
It has been fashionable in recent years for those who lose presidential elections to start calling for the impeachment of the winner — even before the winner has taken office — but impeachment had never been attempted before this day in 1868. Only two American presidents have faced the genuine prospect of impeachment since that time, and only one (Bill Clinton) faced a trial in the U.S. Senate. The House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against Nixon in the summer of 1974, but Nixon resigned before the full House could vote on them.
Four years earlier, Johnson (a Democrat) had been selected as the running mate for Republican President Abraham Lincoln in his bid for a second term. Not only was it unprecedented for a major–party nominee to pick someone from the other party to be his running mate (they actually ran under the National Union banner), but Lincoln's choice was the military governor of Tennessee, a state that had seceded and was still not a part of the Union (it was occupied by the Union army). Tennessee did not participate in the election of 1864.
Johnson was an inspired choice for a president whose mission was to preserve the nation. While a supporter of slavery, Johnson was an unapologetic Unionist who had been the only Southern senator to oppose his state's decision to secede.
I don't think vice presidents deliver inaugural addresses anymore, but they did in Andrew Johnson's day. At least, Johnson tried to deliver such a speech, but he wasn't feeling well so he drank some whiskey, believing that would help. Instead, he got gassed and gave a rambling speech. Thus, the inauguration of 1865, which is remembered in history for Lincoln's magnanimous call for "malice toward none" and "charity for all" in the North's treatment of the vanquished South following the Civil War, was an awkward introduction for Johnson to his fellow Americans.
That was particularly unfortunate since Johnson became the nation's leader a month and a half later.
Six weeks after the inauguration in 1865, Lincoln was assassinated, and Johnson became the 17th president. Things didn't go well for him, and by this day in 1868, 11 articles of impeachment, largely related to Johnson's efforts to dismiss the secretary of war, were adopted by the House. The case was sent to the Senate for trial — where Johnson was ultimately acquitted by a single vote.
Johnson failed to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1868 and left office in 1869.
He returned to the U.S. Senate in 1875 and died shortly therafter.