What Andrew Johnson’s impeachment may tell us about Trump’s
Updated: Feb 8
Seeking some historical perspective on the current Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, I spent the holidays reading Brenda Wineapple’s excellent recent book The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation. It offers a dramatic and highly readable account of the Andrew Johnson impeachment in 1868, why it happened, and the many colorful characters who participated in it.
The effort to remove Johnson differed in many ways from Trump’s impeachment. It came on the heels of a bloody civil war; was initiated against an unelected Chief Executive disliked by his own party; and, being the first of its kind, was more precedent-setting than precedent-following. (Indeed, one may glean greater insights by comparing the impeachment of Trump to non-presidential impeachments, which have been more common.) Nonetheless, The Impeachers suggests at least four broader "truths" about presidential impeachment that apply to both 1868 and 2020.
1. “Unpresidential” behavior encourages impeachment. Andrew Johnson’s opponents had many policy-related reasons to want him out of the White House. He vetoed popular GOP bills (including a major civil rights measure, which flummoxed his fellow Republicans in Congress), filled administrative posts with lackeys who were highly sympathetic to the South, and tried to reintegrate southerners into American politics at the expense of the political and civil rights of African Americans (not to mention their safety). He also blatantly and repeatedly ignored the authority of the legislative branch.
But Johnson also inspired talk of impeachment because of public behavior that was considered unseemly for a president. During the 1866 commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, he delivered a speech filled “a startling chain of venomous epithets” and images of “decapitation and crucifixion,” leading some to seriously contemplate the possibility of impeachment. On his subsequent “swing around the circle” cross-country tour, he broke widespread norms of behavior by ranting about those who dared challenge him. Ohio Senator John Sherman lamented that Johnson had “sunk the Presidential office to the level of a grog-house.”
Johnson and Trump share many commonalities (as documented by Julia Azari, Manisha Sinha, and others). In the current environment, however, it’s worth considering whether one in particular -- Trump’s widely-acknowledged unpresidential behavior, like making thousands of false claims, name-calling opponents on Twitter, and cursing in public -- have helped drive impeachment proceedings against him too. (As Jennifer Nicoll Victor notes, lying and/or maligning one’s opponents also got Nixon and Clinton into impeachment trouble.)
2. Congressional parties are hesitant to impeach their own president. Trump was not particularly wedded to either political party before his election, but unlike Andrew Johnson, he shrewdly allied himself to his congressional party once he entered the White House. That has yielded big dividends during impeachment, keeping Republicans solidly in his camp and all but guaranteeing that the GOP-led Senate will not convict him.
Yet even Johnson, who repeatedly rebuked and defied members of his own party*, found defenders within the GOP’s ranks, at least for a while. When Johnson was quoted as demanding “a government for white men [only],” Wineapple writes that “many Republicans professed shock yet some of them defended the President.” Fellow partisans who believed that voting rights for blacks was essential “counseled patience” with Johnson. Numerous House Republicans initially wanted impeachment to “die a quiet death,” and the Judiciary Committee initially voted against articles of impeachment.
Some Republicans came to the president’s early defense because they feared invoking an untried procedure to remove a Chief Executive. Others did so out of a sense of party loyalty*, because they wanted Johnson to give them a patronage job, or because they shared his views on race and the South. Regardless, it suggests that expecting partisans to kick out their own party’s president, even one as uncouth and ideologically disloyal as Johnson was, is a tall order.
3. Politics plays a major role in impeachment trials. Critics of Trump have lambasted GOP senators for helping Trump by rushing the impeachment trial, refusing (so far) to subpoena witnesses, and declaring their positions before the trial is over. Their criticisms are well-taken, given that senators take an oath of impartiality and love to believe they are members of what of Chief Justice John Roberts recently called “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”
Impeachment is a political process, however, and the Johnson trial, rightly or wrongly, was also shaped by politics both partisan and personal. The president’s attorneys sought to lengthen the trial in order to bore the public and win over swing senators. Moderates were distressed that Senate President Pro Tempore Benjamin Wade, an intemperate Radical Republican, would ascend to the presidency if Johnson were removed. GOP leaders thought that impeachment would hurt the party’s chances in the next presidential election. For their part, Democrats followed strict party lines in defending Johnson. (Chief Justice Salmon Chase was especially flagrant in shaping the trial’s proceedings to help his own presidential ambitions.)
Presidents, who do not passively wait for impeachment to play itself out, may also try to interfere with the decision-making of senate “jurors.” Wineapple recounts how a few Republican senators voted to acquit Johnson after making deals with the White House on executive branch appointments. (Bribery was also alleged, though never proven.) There’s no evidence that this White House is doing the same kind of politicking, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Trump has tried to influence the trial in other ways.
4. History may render a different verdict. The Radical Republicans have traditionally been depicted as vengeful extremists who tried to remove a president on dubious grounds. Johnson, Wineapple writes, “was seen for a time as a populist, a champion of democracy and of the beloved Constitution” with a “plan for reconstruction [that] had been temperate, fair-minded, constitutional, and intrepid.” Had Johnson been removed, the story goes, the executive branch would have been permanently crippled.
Wineapple provides a much-needed corrective to that narrative. She explains how the pursuit of racial equality -- a cause less popular then than now -- motivated many of the Republicans who became fed up with the president. Johnson reopened northerners’ still-fresh Civil War wounds by unconditionally and unilaterally granting political power to former Confederates without conditions. An unapologetic white supremacist, he disregarded how southerners were violently assaulting blacks as well as whites sympathetic to racial equality.
Bombarded as we are today by partisan spin and unceasing media coverage of the Trump impeachment, it is especially difficult to know what history’s verdict on the whole impeachment process may be. But those who are convinced of the righteousness of their side -- particularly the side that wins the Senate trial -- should not be so sure their version of the truth will stand the test of time.
* Correction, 2/8/20: Several have since noted that Johnson, originally a Democrat, had run for Vice President in 1864 under the National Union Party banner and tried to rejuvenate the National Union Party in 1866. He was thus only negligibly a Republican at the time of his impeachment.