Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth president of the United States, was the first president to be impeached. The issues that led up to this monumental event in 1868 were for the most part, based on the issue of Reconstruction. Reconstruction aimed to create equality for Blacks in voting, politics, and with the use of public facilities. After all, the civil war had just concluded with the northern states victorious. Tension over the issue arose because Johnson’s Democratic ideas conflicted with the desires of his Radical-dominated Congress. Opting for strict Reconstruction legislation, Congress passed laws designed specifically to restrain Johnson’s power. When Johnson disregarded the new laws, Republicans saw their opportunity to completely strip the President of his power. Andrew Johnson was impeached on February 24, 1868, only to be acquitted on May 16 of that same year. His offences were not great enough for him to be stripped of the presidency; the charges were simply the result of an escalating conflict between Democrats and Republicans of the 1860 s, in which Johnson steadfastly opposed Radicals in Congress.
Johnson was the only Democratic Southerner in Congress to vote against secession. This was the reason that the Republican Party nominated him as Vice-President, to increase President Lincoln s chances for re-election in the 1864 elections. Johnson took the oath of office in March of 1865. Not long afterwards, President Lincoln was assassinated, and Johnson became President on April 15, 1865. Lincoln had already begun to implement a Reconstruction policy, and with his death, Johnson told the Cabinet officers that he would continue to support the movement. However, his Pro-Southern sympathies quickly became apparent.
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Radical Republicans expected Johnson to treat the southern states as traitors, by taking their land and granting it, as well as the right to vote, to the newly freed slaves. However, Johnson, who had owned slaves and defended the rights of the states to allow slavery before the Civil War, did not like the idea of federal domination of the states that had seceded. Radicals believed that the South was still trying to preserve slavery. The Republicans say that in the South, repressive labour laws and Black Codes, which inhibited the freed slaves, were being passed. The Black Codes denied freed slaves many rights of citizenship, including suffrage. Black men were forbidden to carry arms, testify against a white person, serve on juries, or hold large gatherings. Curfews were even put into action. Thus, even after the Civil War, black people were still regarded as inferior by and in the South.
Johnson was at a tremendous disadvantage because he had not selected his Cabinet, he was a Southerner, and he was not even a member of the party in power. There was a series of vetoes and overrides between the President and Congress. In an issue of Harper s Weekly, + Americans read, Since December, he (the President) has strenuously insisted that the late rebel States, by conforming to certain terms which he had named, without consultation with Congress, were fully restored to their equal relations in the Union with the loyal States. He has publicly denounced Senators and Representatives as traitors and disunionists because they did not agree with him.
He has vetoed the most important bills passed by Congress, assigning among his reasons in every instance that legislation during the exclusion from the representation of the States in question was of doubtful constitutionality. + As a threat to Johnson’s stubbornness, an impeachment resolution was introduced to be investigated, in December of 1866. Johnson stood strong, saying, proclaiming, Let them impeach and be damned. + Radicals wished to impeach Johnson for high crimes and misdemeanours, and whether such acts were designed or calculated to overthrow, subvert, or corrupt the government of the United States. + At this point, however, there was essentially nothing found to cause a vote of impeachment.
During this time, several bills that Johnson vetoed were overturned by a majority vote in Congress. On March 2, 1867, three major unconstitutional bills were passed. The first called for martial law in the South, limited white Southerners voting rights, and gave unlimited voting rights to Blacks in the South. The second bill, (the Army Appropriations Act), removed the President as Commander-in-Chief. The third, which ultimately led to Johnson’s impeachment, was the Tenure of Office Act. This act took away the President s right to remove any officeholder whose appointment had required Senate approval unless the Senate consented. Later, it was also added the Cabinet members would hold their office for the same length of term as the President. Clearly, this provision was aimed directly at Johnson, who was finishing Lincoln s term.
For a long period of time, Johnson had suggested that Edwin Stanton resign. Stanton was a Radical who opposed Johnson’s policies and was in favour of strict Reconstruction legislation. Then on August 5, 1867, the President forced him out of his Cabinet post, without consulting Congress. General Ulysses S. Grant was appointed in Stanton s place. In January 1868, the Senate invoked the Tenure of Office Act and returned the position to Stanton. Still insisting on the unconstitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act, Johnson dismissed Stanton a second time on February 21, despite the impeachment investigation that was going on behind the scenes. Three days afterwards, on February 24, 1868, the House of Representatives officially impeached the President. The Senate would be forced to decide his fate.
Johnson requested forty days to prepare for the trial but was only granted ten. On March 5, eleven articles of impeachment were presented. The first eight were concerning violations of the Tenure of Office Act, the ninth had to do with orders sent through improper channels, and the tenth stated that Johnson had questioned the authority of Congress. The final article summarized the first ten and accused Johnson of failing to execute the Reconstruction Acts. Five attorneys spoke for the President, while he did not appear at the trial. The proceedings were unfair. The Senate consistently overruled decisions made by the Chief Justice, members of the Cabinet were prohibited from testifying for the President, and defence evidence was excluded.
Despite the overwhelming desire in America for conviction, Johnson was acquitted of all articles of impeachment on May 16. Those who were for Johnson’s conviction fell short of the victory by one vote from a two-thirds majority. Ten days later, on May 26, a vote on the second article produced the same result. That day marked the end of the impeachment trial. The President of the United States would not be removed from office, because of the will of a minority. Some of these people were moderate Radicals who disliked Senator Wade of Ohio, who was next in line for the presidency. Also, some did not believe that the charges were strong enough and thought that the motives of Johnson’s accusers were not pure enough to remove a president from office. After all, the President was indeed elected by the people, for the people, and Johnson only attempted to represent the will of Americans who had the lower hand in America s government during his term.
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