Andrew Johnson holds the distinction of being one of our presidents to stand trial for impeachment, albeit more for political reasons than for any treasonous actions. A Tennessee Democrat on the Union side of the American Civil War, Johnson opposed the Republicans’ radical approach to Reconstruction. His most damning move in the eyes of Congress was firing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.
David Miller Dewitt’s The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (1903) is a narrative of the attempt to remove the seventeenth president from the highest office in the United States, and includes a brief sketch of the events leading to the legislature’s discontent with him. According to a review of this book in Anthenaeum the year after it was published, “Seldom has a great trial been conducted with so complete disregard of justice as that in which President Johnson was the accused.”
With only nineteen votes in favor of his acquittal and thirty-five for conviction, Congress failed by one vote to impeach Johnson with a two-thirds majority. Six years after retiring from office, Johnson was elected to the Senate.
To research The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson, Dewitt was permitted to use Johnson’s private papers and scrapbooks compiled by his private secretary. When it first appeared, The Independent praised Dewitt’s account, proclaiming it “readable to a fault”: “There is hardly a page of this work in which the interest lags.”
Edwin Erle Sparks in The Dial offered the explanation that if radical Republicans had not turned their wrath on Johnson, it would probably have been directed through harsh Reconstruction policies toward the former Confederate States. He theorized that burning Johnson at the altar as “a vicarious sacrifice” was more acceptable than offering an entire geographical section of the country. “And as such he is pictured in an excellent history of his impeachment and trial by Mr. David Miller Dewitt.”
The failure of the Senate to convict Johnson for relatively unfounded charges underscored the importance of securing the continued power and independence of the presidency in the constitutional system. Johnson’s acquittal proved the necessity of our delicate system of checks and balances.
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