On May 16, 1868, the U.S. Senate voted 35 to 19, one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict President Andrew Johnson of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as he was charged under the eleventh article of impeachment. Ten days later, on May 26, the Senate also failed by the same margin (35 to 19) to convict Johnson on articles two and three. At this point the Senate voted to adjourn the impeachment trial without considering the remaining articles. When Johnson received the news, he broke into tears.
Johnson, a Southern Democrat, assumed the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination. He issued a plan allowing former Confederate states to return representatives to Congress as soon as they repealed the ordinances of secession, repudiated Confederate debts, abolished slavery, and ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. Lacking the personal and political sagacity of President Lincoln, however, Johnson was unable to bring about the transition smoothly and what ensued was a cataclysmic encounter between the executive and legislative branches.
In 1865, Johnson took advantage of a long Congressional recess to recognize a Reconstruction government in all former Confederate states, except Texas. The states then took advantage of his conciliatory policy to pass “Black Codes” limiting freedmen’s rights. When the 39th Congress reconvened in December 1865, the Republican majority in Congress refused to seat the newly elected Southern members of Congress. In early 1866, angry congressmen, led by men such as Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, passed the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights bills to empower those the codes repressed. Johnson vetoed both bills, but Congress overrode the veto of the Civil Rights Act on April 9, 1866, the first major piece of legislation to pass over a presidential veto in U.S. history.
Clearly at cross-purposes, Congress approved the Fourteenth Amendment, while Johnson recommended that the states refuse to ratify it. Congress responded with its own militant reconstruction program and passed the Army Appropriations Act to thwart the president’s power as commander in chief, insisting that his orders all be communicated through an intermediary. Congress also repassed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act and overrode Johnson’s veto.
Passage of the Tenure of Office Act only heightened the antagonism between Johnson and the Congress. The Act forbid the president from removing office-holders, including Cabinet members, without the Senate’s approval. Formulated in language akin to that used in the Constitution to describe grounds for impeachment, the Act made the removal of office-holders without Senate approval a “high misdemeanor.”
Johnson defied Congress by suspending Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on August 12, 1867, and appointing Ulysses Grant secretary of war ad interim. Grant resigned this post on January 14, 1868, after the Senate refused to agree to Stanton’s dismissal. Next, Johnson appointed Lorenzo Thomas as secretary of war on February 21, 1868 but this time Stanton, who had actually been working with radicals in Congress, barricaded himself inside his office.
This deadlock culminated in the first presidential impeachment proceedings in U.S. history. In February 1869, the House voted articles of impeachment and seven House managers, including former Civil War Majors General Benjamin F. Butler and John A. Logan, prepared Johnson’s trial. Lincoln appointee Salmon P. Chase, chief justice of the Supreme Court, presided. Ten of eleven articles concerned the Tenure and Army Appropriations Acts; the last article claimed that Johnson had attempted to undermine the Congress. Johnson did not attend the trial.
The Impeachment of President William Jefferson Clinton
The second trial of a U.S. president on articles of impeachment occurred in January and February of 1999. Materials related to Clinton’s impeachment are available on Congress.gov, including the enrolled version of House Resolution 611, impeaching William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors, as well as House Report 105-830 of the House Judiciary Committee. The record of roll call votes on the two articles adopted — Article 1: “willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony” and Article II: “prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice” — and the two that were rejected are maintained by the Office of the Clerk of the House.
The proceedings of the Senate trial are available as part of the Congressional Record for the Senate beginning on January 20, 1999. The two Senate roll call votes of February 12, 1999, for Article I and Article II finding the president not guilty are available as maintained by the Senate Bill Clerk under the direction of the Secretary of the Senate.
- Read a transcript of Andrew Johnson’s trial on articles of impeachment. See the Supplement to the Congressional Globe Containing the Proceedings of the Senate Sitting for the Trial of Andrew Johnson, a special presentation within the digital collection A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875.
- Andrew Johnson: A Resource Guide compiles links to digital materials related to Johnson such as manuscripts, letters, broadsides, government documents, and images that are available throughout the Library of Congress Web site.
- See Topics in Chronicling America – Impeachment of Andrew Johnson to view historic newspaper articles documenting the impeachment of Johnson.
- For additional relevant documents, search on reconstruction or freedmen in African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. The latter search will retrieve a document entitled Equality before the Law Protected by National Statute, which includes speeches and debates by and involving Charles Sumner as he proposed amending the 1866 Civil Rights Act. In it Sumner discusses race, the separate but equal doctrine, slavery, and citizenship with Southern senators.
- Find personal accounts of the turbulent Reconstruction Era. Search on reconstruction or carpetbagger in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 . Of particular interest are the interviews with Alexander W. Matheson and C. S. Bradley.