Op-Ed | High crimes & misdemeanors & impeachment & such

Is Andrew Johnson’s Past Trump’s Future?

“I would impeach the President because he is such an infernal liar!”

This remark was uttered not by a contemporary critic of Donald Trump, but by General Ulysses S. Grant of President Andrew Johnson on the occasion of his impeachment trial in 1868. (See Ron Chernow’s new biography of Grant, Penguin Press, 2017, p. 609.)

The guys in powdered wigs who drafted our Constitution were maddeningly vague about impeachment—what is a “high crime” anyway, let alone a “high misdemeanor?” Bribery and treason are generically mentioned in passing, but the best guess is that our Founding Fathers’ lack of specifics was deliberate—they almost seemed to be saying: “It’s up to you now posterity—make of it what you will.”

If the past is prologue, then a look back at Andrew Johnson’s impeachment might clarify thinking about Donald Trump’s possible impeachment under modern circumstances.

Who was Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), Lincoln’s second Vice-Presidential running mate? Chosen for purely political reasons in the wartime election of 1864 (that Lincoln fully expected to lose), Johnson would become President upon Lincoln’s assassination.

Why was Johnson the first President to be indicted by the House of Representatives, tried by the Senate with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding, and then like Bill Clinton (the only other President to be subjected to the entire process), acquitted in Johnson’s case by one vote! (Nixon would resign after indictment by the House, thus avoiding a Senate trial.)

Johnson was born in North Carolina to illiterate “Poor White Trash” parents (a term commonly used in that era.) He was unable to read or write until his 1827 marriage to 16 year-old Eliza McCardle, who taught him. Apprenticed to a tailor at 14, his social status was barely above a slave’s. He ran away from his apprenticeship to frontier Tennessee after learning enough about tailoring to support a family, but since runaway apprentices were fugitives from the law, he risked being sent back in chains to North Carolina. But Johnson prospered and became a self-educated and valued member of his adopted state. Thanks to a sturdy physique and pugnacious nature he would emerge as a leader in white working-class Tennessee politics, an opponent of aristocratic slavemasters who monopolized office-holding.

Andrew Johnson’s life at this stage, was quite similar to Lincoln’s in frontier Illinois, with one glaring exception—slavery. When he was a child, Lincoln’s father allegedly moved his family to Indiana because of moral opposition to slavery in Kentucky. Lincoln inherited an instinctive hatred of slavery and identified with the common people in politics. Johnson, on the other hand, would come to own five slaves whom he freed in 1863 for political reasons, after Lincoln appointed him military governor of occupied Tennessee with the rank of Brigadier General.

But Andrew Johnson was no Abe Lincoln. In fact, he was much like Donald Trump in that he was “thoroughly racist, thin-skinned, vindictive, fiercely turbulent of expression, seething with resentment, a rabble-rousing orator who paid tribute to “honest yeomen.” (See Chernow, pp. 532-33.)

While succeeding politically by championing poor whites at every level in politics, Johnson eventually became Tennessee’s Senator. When Tennessee seceded from the Union, Andrew Johnson was the only Senator from a Confederate State who remained loyal to the Union.

Johnson’s loyalty to the Union paid off because Republicans needed a pro-Union southern loyal Democratic politician to “balance” the ticket in 1864 and attract loyal Northern Democratic voters, particularly in slave-holding border states. It worked—Lincoln was reelected.

Why was Johnson impeached? For the same reason Trump might be, namely because both “had mouths on them!” people grew tired of. In Trump’s case, “Twitter!” In Johnson’s case, it was jeering opposition to the “radical” policies of dominant Republicans in Congress to “reconstruct “ the South. After Republicans swept the Congressional elections of 1866, there was nothing Johnson could do to stop “Radicals.” Congress repeatedly overrode his vetoes while Johnson sat impotently in the White House jeering from the sidelines. Impeachment seemed to be one way to stop the jeering! In fact, one old theory holds that Congress just wanted to “put a scare into” Johnson to shut him up. Grant would win in 1868 and Johnson would be gone soon enough without further tumult. Why bother? The Civil War over. Maybe.…

Yeah, right.

George Hopkins



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