Impeachment: Andrew Johnson and Today

Posted: Jan 24, 2021 12:01 AM
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Impeachment: Andrew Johnson and Today

Source: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

What do the impeachments of Presidents Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump have in common? Maybe more than you think. 

First, the most obvious similarities. Both men were considered outsiders by many party insiders. Both were impeached on very flimsy legal grounds. Both presented unique challenges for Republican Congressional leaders.

Andrew Johnson remains an enigma even to many who call themselves political junkies. His personal story is compelling. Not even Lincoln came from a more unlikely circumstance than Andrew Johnson. He was born in a two-room shack in Raleigh, North Carolina. His illiterate parents scratched out a living working in a tavern. According to encyclopedia.com, Johnson never went to school. Andrew learned the tailoring trade and gradually acquired some basic reading skills. 

Before turning 18, he moved to Greeneville in East Tennessee where he opened a tailor shop. It was there that he married Eliza McCardle who would teach him to write and “cipher.” Andrew Johnson had an interest in politics and an aggressive personality, never letting his lack of a formal education hold him back. 

As a young man, Johnson ran for alderman in Greeneville, later becoming the town’s mayor. He was then elected to the legislature. At the tender age of 35, Johnson was elected to the U.S.House of Representatives where he served five terms as a Democrat. He followed that up with two, two-year terms as the governor of Tennessee. In 1857, Tennessee sent him to the U.S. Senate. 

Andrew Johnson became wealthy enough to acquire a couple of household slaves, yet he railed against what he called the “stuck-up aristocrats” who owned hundreds of slaves. He was actually well-suited to his profession. He was a gifted speaker, a tireless campaigner and ruthless in his approach to political rivals. Political differences were personal to him. 

A tireless campaigner who took politics personally? Sound familiar?

Johnson gained national attention as the former governor of a border state who, while not particularly opposed to slavery, strongly opposed secession. His position did not play well with many of his supporters. It did, however, gain the attention of Abraham Lincoln. It ultimately earned Johnson a spot on the ticket. 

Many in Congress did not share Lincoln’s “malice toward none” approach to the reconstruction of the South following Lee’s surrender. A large block of Republicans wanted Confederate military and political leaders prosecuted as traitors. Johnson was sympathetic to Lincoln’s approach. 

So when Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865, Andrew Johnson became a most unlikely president. As a former Democrat and son of the South, he was distrusted by Northern Republicans from the beginning. His in-your-face approach wasn’t helpful. A showdown was inevitable. 

By December of 1865, fissures broke open when Republican leaders refused to seat duly elected congressional delegates from Southern states. Congress wanted to determine conditions under which Confederate states would be re-admitted. Johnson chafed under such suggestions. 

To make matters worse, Johnson threatened to campaign against Republicans who opposed his reconstruction approach. Congressional leaders felt adequately threatened that they created their own campaign arm in 1866. They chartered what would become the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). 

Congress set traps for Johnson. They amended the Military Reconstruction Act and passed the Tenure in Office Act, which prevented the president from replacing any official that he had not appointed. Their conclusion went searching for a predicate. Sound a little like Ukrainian tampering? Or perhaps a fairly mundane rally speech where some supporters went off the rails? All represented slender reeds upon which to hang an impeachment case. 

So Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House. By the narrowest of margins, the Senate decided that President Johnson’s missteps did not rise to the level of high crimes or misdemeanors. At the Senate trial, manager Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts acknowledged that impeachment was “political in nature.”

Then as now, Andrew Johnson’s prickly persona contributed to the showdown. 

But unlike Donald Trump, Andrew Johnson was not admired by the Party’s base. Nearly all of the 75 million who voted for Trump would do so again. Most now believe that “irregularities” led to his defeat. 

So what will become of the Republicans who voted for this flimsy, partisan article of impeachment? It’s hard to imagine them surviving primaries, let alone remaining in leadership. We may have forgotten the facts surrounding the Republican impeachment of Andrew Johnson. We won’t forget what these RINO’s did to President Trump.