True tales from the Johnson impeachment

Republican President Lincoln named Democrat Andrew Johnson as his running mate when he ran for a second term in 1864. They ran under the banner of the National Union Party, formed during the Civil War. Lincoln was re-elected, and Johnson became Vice-President in March 1865. Not 45 days later, Johson was President after Lincoln’s assassination. By mid-1867, Radical Republicans in Congress were pursuing his impeachment. Spoiler alert: President Johnson was acquitted – twice – in the Senate in May 1868. But how did he get there?

The permutations of party politics

There were a number of Republicans – ‘Radicals’ they were called – that had opposed Lincoln and believed he could not be re-elected. In fact, that National Union Party was formed (originally called the Radical Democracy Party) by those Radical Republicans to offer an alternative to Lincoln. At the new party’s June 1864 convention, though, Lincoln loyalists rallied behind Abe. The party was renamed as the National Union Party.

Edwin M. Stanton was appointed by Lincoln as Secretary of War and sworn in on January 20, 1862. He was perceived as an ally of the Radical Republicans in Congress.

After Lincoln’s death and Johnson’s ascension to the Presidency, Johnson and the Republican-controlled Congress could not see eye-to-eye over the reconstruction of the South. For example, Johnson vetoed Congress’ legislation that would have protected the rights of those freed from slavery. Secretary of War Stanton himself strongly opposed Johnson’s reconstruction policies.

Library of Congress

A forced marriage gone bad

The forced marriage between Stanton and Johnson would not last, but who knew that it would be such a messy break-up?

President Johnson felt that Ulysses S. Grant would be a more suitable Secretary of War. While Congress was in recess in August 1867, Johnson suspended Secretary Stanton and appointed Grant as Secretary of War on an interim basis. It didn’t hold.

In the fall of that year, the Senate reinstated Stanton as Secretary of War. Johnson did not take the Senate’s actions lying down. He promptly fired Secretary Stanton and appointed Major General Lorenzo Thomas a foe of the once-again-deposed Stanton, as Secretary. In response, Stanton had Thomas arrested. for illegally seizing Stanton’s office.


The forced marriage between Stanton and Johnson would not last, but who knew that it would be such a messy break-up?

The Radical Republicans in the House and their allies in the Senate pursued the impeachment of President Johnson over all the shenanigans. Formally, it was alleged that Johnson was violating the Tenure of Office Act and the Constitution by removing Stanton and appointing Thomas to replace him without the Senate’s advice and consent.

The House charged Johnson with 11 articles of impeachment. On May 16, 1969, Johnson’s most vigorous opponents arranged a vote on what they thought were the three strongest charges. Of 54 votes cast, 35 favored conviction. Votes in favor of impeachment fell one short of the two-thirds majority required. Ten days later, the Senate held a vote on two more charges. The result was the same.

Those 19 votes to acquit Johnson in May 1868 included seven votes by “Radical” Republicans who had assailed Johnson but ultimately voted to keep him in office. Those Radical Republicans, renamed “Republican Recusants” defied their party to maintain Johnson’s presidency. Johnson completed his term of office, ending March 1869. He would return to Washington as a senator in 1875 but died three months later in July 1875.

Whither Stanton?

During Johnson’s impeachment proceedings, Stanton had remained barred in the War Department’s headquarters. Once Johnson was acquitted, Secretary Stanton submitted his resignation to the President on May 26, 1868. Stanton returned to his law practice, then was appointed by Ulysses S. Grant – one-time interim Secretary of War, you may recall – as member of the United States Supreme Court. Stanton’s nomination was made official on December 19, 1869. Stanton died five days later on Christmas Even 1869, at age 55.

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