Saturday, May 26, 2012

May 26, 1868 – President Andrew Johnson Removed from Office

The American Civil War was coming to a close with Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, but a new crisis gripped the government as Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson came into the highest office in the US following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. While the Radical Republicans dominated Congress, Lincoln had filled his cabinet with men he hoped would heal the nation: his own rivals among the Republicans, Democrat-turned-Republican Edwin Stanton, and, as his new vice-president in 1864, National Unionist Andrew Johnson. Johnson had been the only Southern senator to refuse to leave his position, being a strong believer in the Union despite his political stances favoring slavery and limited government.

After Lincoln's death, Johnson became Commander-in-Chief and effective ruler of the conquered South. The Radical Congress called for stiff punishments for the former rebels and support for the Freedman's Bureau, enabling the African Americans who had gained their liberty to live better independent lives. Johnson was an adamant War Democrat and had served as Military Governor of Tennessee from 1862, instituting some of the first Reconstruction policies and setting groundwork for a post-emancipation government, although he himself was a believer in white supremacy. As president, however, he saw the war as over and determined to continue Lincoln's lenient Reconstruction in which Southern states would be quickly reintegrated. The Radical Republicans balked and passed bills toward protecting freedmen's rights. State governments under Johnson's Reconstruction, however, had instituted Black Codes to keep white legal supremacy, which Johnson protected with presidential veto.

The Executive and Legislative branches in Washington thus began a struggle for power. Congress passed the original Civil Rights Act and the Freedmen's Bureau Act, both of which Johnson vetoed, citing them too vengeful toward Southern whites. The Republicans maneuvered around him by making much of the Civil Rights Act into the Fourteenth Amendment, which would be ratified by the states and thus never cross the president's desk. Johnson fought against the Republicans, launching a speaking tour of the North before the 1866 elections that turned disastrous as he painted himself as the savior of the white race and became a figure Democrat Representative Samuel S. Cox described “ ugly as the devil. He was regularly mad and couldn't talk like a reasonable being.” The Republicans made great gains with 37 new seats in the House and 18 in the Senate.

Johnson worked against the Republicans, who could easily override his veto with a two-thirds vote, by any means necessary, such as using bureaucratic legal issues to stop implementation of voting regulations put forth in Congress's Reconstruction Acts. Tensions grew until Johnson was at last impeached for removing Secretary of War Stanton, a violation of the Tenure of Office Act passed shortly before. The impeachment trial before the Senate lasted for months with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding and nearly all of Washington involved. It became something of a circus with bets being placed in gambling houses, Representative Thaddeus Stevens demanding to be carried to the trial in a chair despite being deathly ill, a para-political acquittal committee established with $150,000 of “influence” money, and Johnson meeting with several decisive senators with offers of political favors. After the political dust settled, Johnson was removed from office with just one vote over the two-thirds required.

Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, President pro tempore of the Senate Benjamin Wade came into the White House. Wade was radical even by measure of the Republicans, calling not only for racial equality but also women's suffrage and political support for trade unions against rampant capitalism. Rallying his allies in Congress, Wade put forth aggressive policies with Reconstruction, seizing and parceling up plantations, reinforcing the Freedmen's Bureau at the expense of former slave-owners, and maintaining military governments to ensure control while the Southern economy readjusted. States would only be allowed back into the Union after a majority of its citizens had taken loyalty oaths, which had been a bill created by Wade in 1864 that Lincoln nullified by pocket veto. His actions were widely unpopular in the South and enough to cause a “white flight” as crowds headed north or west and settled under the Homestead Act (interestingly, one of Andrew Johnson's main works as a senator). Other Southerners stayed and resumed fighting incognito through organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, which was deemed illegal and seditious by Wade, who hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to aid Union soldiers in rooting out the movement.

Many Republicans found Wade too extreme for the presidency, such as James Garfield, who referred to him as “a man of violent passions, extreme opinions and narrow views who was surrounded by the worst and most violent elements in the Republican Party.” He was replaced by General Ulysses S. Grant with the 1868 election under the promise of women's suffrage (1870, with the Fifteenth Amendment), but many of Wade's policies continued, if in a lighter fashion. Reconstruction would forever change the shape of the South, destroying the aristocracy and contributing to the establishment of African American rights there. Few African Americans moved to settle in the North and Midwest, which maintained racial notions for generations to come. One hundred years after the Civil War, a new movement began in the South calling for nationalized civil rights, and many in South Carolina with its Black majority suggesting secession if segregation was not ended.


In reality, Johnson's presidency was saved, the vote falling one short of the requirement for the removal from office. He continued to fight the Republicans, but their majority in the Senate made his vetoes impotent. As a last act on Christmas Day, 1868, he proclaimed unconditional, universal amnesty for the South, eliminating loyalty oath requirements and hastening Reconstruction. Without widespread support, freedmen became victims of Jim Crow laws, beginning the Great Migration of African Americans to cities in the North and Midwest. Unfortunately, segregation followed them there, too.

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