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Impeachment, the First Time Around


Impeachment, the First Time Around

Congress reacted with a Freedmen’s Bureau bill and a civil rights bill. Johnson responded with vetoes of both. Congress, in turn, overrode his vetoes. This volley repeated itself with the Reconstruction Acts, which offered measures to inaugurate an interracial democracy in the South. And as much as moderate Republicans were loath to hazard the risks of impeachment, Johnson managed to alienate them, too.

Which is how Johnson found himself on trial in his last year in office, confronting 11 articles of impeachment that mostly revolved around his dismissal of Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, in alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act. Citing that act was “merely a legal pretext,” Wineapple writes — a technical issue seized on by Radical Republicans who had long before deemed Johnson a disgrace to the highest office and palpably “unfit.”

Johnson was acquitted in the Senate, with the decisive vote cast by Edmund Ross, one of seven Republican defectors. John F. Kennedy later venerated Ross for his (self-proclaimed) integrity in “Profiles in Courage.” For a while after Johnson’s acquittal, mainstream historians portrayed the 17th president as a beleaguered hero, and Republican defectors like Ross as self-sacrificing martyrs. The tide has long since turned. Wineapple, a careful and elegant writer, explains how Johnson had risked his life to help preserve the Union during the Civil War, but his presidential legacy, she says, was marked by “white supremacy and spite.”

Wineapple dips into the intrigue and the whiffs of corruption that surrounded the vote, including a cloak-and-dagger narrative that features incriminating telegrams. She brings the same feel for drama to the trial itself, even though for the spectators in the room it turned out to be a mostly staid affair — not necessarily a bad thing, she says. That the extraordinary, unprecedented event of impeachment proceeded in a relatively orderly fashion demonstrated “that the American president was not a king, that all actions have consequences and that the national government, conceived in hope, with its checks and balances, could maintain itself without waging war, even right after one,” Wineapple writes. The impeachment attempt “had not succeeded, but it had worked.”

It’s a noble conclusion to an illuminating book, but given how preoccupied we are with our endless news cycle, it’s hard to forget the words of one disappointed spectator at Johnson’s trial: “Most men prefer to be deceived, cheated, anything rather than to be bored.”

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