As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I have a degree in history and consider myself a history buff, especially when it comes to American history, so it was kind of shocking to me to realize how little I knew about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868. I knew he’d come within one vote of being convicted by the Senate, but I hadn’t known exactly what he was charged with or whether it was a good thing he didn’t get convicted. If you, like me, have only the vaguest notion of what happened the first time a president was impeached, may I recommend an excellent nonfiction book, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson, by Brenda Wineapple. And if you think a book about an impeachment that happened in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War couldn’t possibly be interesting, again, I recommend this book, which brings the era, and the questions surrounding the impeachment, to vivid life.
Wineapple is an excellent author, who makes the world of the immediate aftermath of the Civil War come alive and provides quick portraits of all the important characters involved in the impeachment (and what characters they were! If you think modern politicians are quirky, you haven’t met their 19th century counterparts), illuminating the issues that brought Andrew Johnson to his date with history. While most of the actual articles of impeachment turned on Johnson’s efforts to fire Edwin Stanton in violation of an act of Congress basically designed to protect Stanton from being fired, the last article of impeachment was more general and talked about Johnson’s continuing efforts to defy Congress and refuse to obey the laws. The book makes it clear that Johnson did in fact have contempt for Congress and felt he was the only person who could make the right decisions about the course of the country.
As it turns out, the real issues that brought the impeachment to a head were deep questions about what kind of country America would be after the end of the Civil War, specifically what would happen to the former slaves in the South. The Ku Klux Klan was already rising to terrorize African Americans and anyone who was trying to help them be educated or own property or vote. There were debates in Congress about the extent to which African Americans needed to have the right to vote protected by Constitutional amendment rather than law, there were debates about whether the former officials and officers of the Confederacy should be allowed to reassume power in their state governments. The book describes the debates and the events that led to the debates and informed the reactions of prominent people to the constitutional issues involved. This is fascinating stuff with obvious parallels to the present, and a keen sense of how decisions made in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War led directly to the era of Jim Crow and current issues of racial relations. Would it have been possible to have charted a different century of relations between blacks and whites in America if the Radical Republicans had won the day?
If questions like this intrigue you, then by all means check out The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson, for a fascinating look at a critical period of American history.