REVIEW: A Very Timely History of Andrew Johnson's Impeachment


The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation by Brenda Wineapple (Random House)

By William S. McFeely

In the current moment the word “impeachment” hovers, but Brenda Wineapple has written a fine book about the first time in our constitutional history that the word filled the nation’s mind. It was the trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868.  

The Impeachers is an important contribution to the flourishing field  of Reconstruction history.   Wineapple’s narrative is not only a thorough telling  of the Johnson trial, but also an examination of the racial politics of the Johnson presidency from Johnson’s ascendancy on the death of Lincoln in 1865 until 1868 when the Radical Republicans in Congress had had enough.  Violent intimidation of politically active blacks was common in the former Confederacy, which is what led to charges of impeachment   The trial was a Washington sensation.  Wineapple treats us to its drama as the impeachers in the House brought the charges to the Senate for the decision.

Since the end of the war, the freed people had made gains.  Some held lands abandoned by white planters which they were successfully farming. The Freedmen’s Bureau, at least in its early days, assisted the freed people in establishing institutions of freedom — schools, churches — and in participating in their government.

In contrast, Johnson freely gave pardons to former slave-holding planters, or their wives, who thereby got back land held by their former slaves.   On the political front, Johnson, adopting the post-war view that the Confederate states had never left the Union, was happy to have them govern as they had before the war.  This led to their passing notorious black codes severely restricting African Americans.

Meanwhile, Johnson infuriated the Radical Republicans in Congress, who passed legislation favoring the former slaves, which he promptly vetoed.  Congress just as promptly overturned these vetoes. Sentiment for removing Johnson from the White House was growing among the Radical Republicans.  The House of Representatives filed charges of impeachment against Johnson and took them to the Senate for its judgment.   By one vote, he was acquitted.

Johnson’s acquittal was a critical step in the nation’s betrayal of its black citizens, as Reconstruction was abandoned.   I have long held that the disappointment of African Americans over the revocation by the white nation of the gains of  Reconstruction lingers to this day in the African American community.

True to her title, Wineapple gives us richly etched portraits of  the impeachers who mounted the attack. Her favorite is clearly Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania Congressman who served as the manager of the impeaching team.  Stevens, so often pictured as the dark avenger, is now viewed as that rare animal, one truly committed to racial equality.  Before he needed it, he sold his burial plot and bought another in an integrated cemetery.  He had as his partner Lydia Smith, a black woman. Stevens told O. O. Howard, the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, that he was doing his proper job when he had his man in Richmond search for and return to Stevens’ district three children who had been enslaved by Confederate soldiers retreating  after Gettysburg. Johnson was busy replacing such humane Bureau agents.

Wineapple, aware that Stevens, the leading impeacher, was rarely a comfortable colleague, dubs him “the essential man of Congress.”  As one contemporary observer put it: “Of course he was hated as every great, whole-some, courageous nature is hated . . . by the weak, the cowardly, and the false.”  Stevens today is as Tommy Lee Jones made him in the film Lincoln

Wineapple has no truck for Johnson: “his legacy was that of white supremacy and spite.”  And yet she is not necessarily convinced the radical Republicans had the right program for the advancement of the former slaves.  How did the Johnson trial help reach their goal?  What does impeachment mean?  What would be its successful use?  Wineapple’s early chapters certainly suggest Johnson’s removal, but in the end there is a bit of doubt that she is sure impeachment was the right tool to reckon with a president’s misdeeds. “The impeachment of a sitting President was uncharted territory,” she writes, and ”given the somewhat ambiguous instructions in the Constitution, it is largely unchartered to this day.”

Looking forward to the brushes with impeachment of Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, Wineapple says that ”in 1968, the situation was far more serious . . . the impeachers had argued that the Constitution allowed for the removal of a President precisely to protect – and perfect – this republic.” The forces of impeachment showed the nation that  “the American President was not a king,” and that the national government could struggle to free itself from the last vestiges of human oppression. 

In the end, Wineapple offers a mixed review of the Johnson imbroglio: “Impeachment had not succeeded, but it had worked.” As Jill Lepore wrote her extraordinary recent book, These Truths: A History of the United States:  “Johnson had survived, but impeachment,  a constitutional gun that had never before been fired, had for the first time been loaded."

When it was over, and Johnson stood impeached but not convicted, he had only months left of his presidency; he could do little more damage.  Wineapple’s impeachers had given us a “path toward a free country, a just country . . . ”  They had  “created a path to the fair future of which men and women still dream.”   We had, and have, a second chance.

— May 24  2019

William S. McFeely won the Pulitzer Prize for Grant, his biography of Ulysses S. Grant. He retired as the Abraham Baldwin Professor of the Humanities at the University of Georgia.