The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson: Conflict Between President and Congress

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Congressional Reconstruction, guided by Radical Republicans, aggressively pursued political equality for African Americans as defined by several pieces of legislation and the 14th Amendment. Conflict between Congress and President Andrew Johnson escalated until he was impeached.

Radicals Take Control

Before the Civil War, when tensions were running high between abolitionists and slave owners, violence broke out in Congress. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an outspoken critic of Southern slavery, was severely beaten with a cane by two congressmen from South Carolina while he worked at his desk on the Senate floor. It took three years for Sumner to recover from head injuries and trauma. The Massachusetts legislature left his seat unfilled and reelected him in 1859.

Then when the Civil War broke out, Sumner was one of the first to insist that ending slavery should be a war goal. After the Union victory, the Senator became an outspoken leader for civil rights. In the absence of Southern Democrats in Congress for a window of time, Charles Sumner and his fellow Radical Republicans, like Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives, saw the opportunity to remake the social order of the South and ensure political equality for African American men. Lincoln had opposed many of their measures, believing that unity would come more quickly if the South were not treated as an enemy. But after Lincoln's death, there was just one person that stood in the Radicals' way: President Andrew Johnson.

Unfortunately for them, President Johnson's position was even more Southern-friendly than Lincoln's had been, and many of the governors he appointed to help the process of reunification passed Black Codes to restrict the legal rights of African Americans and allow white planters to retake control of government and society. When some states refused to cancel Confederate debt and others delayed ratification of the 13th Amendment (banning slavery in the U.S.), Republicans won heavy majorities in the 1866 mid-term elections. They now had the required 2/3 majority needed to override a veto, effectively ending the era of presidential Reconstruction. And then by impeding the arrival of newly-elected Southern congressmen, they had almost no legislative opposition. Radical Republicans got to work right away on their most pressing agenda: extending the life of the Freedmen's Bureau and passing a Civil Rights bill.

The 14th Amendment

Johnson vetoed both, of course. Moderate Republicans joined their Radical colleagues in Congress to override the presidential veto and pass both bills. Foreseeing that the laws could be rejected by the Supreme Court, or that future Congresses might overturn them, Republicans drafted the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing full citizenship to anyone born in the United States. Johnson, predictably, opposed it.

Johnson: 'The Fourteenth Amendment represents a major shift in power away from the states to the federal government, something that was never intended by the framers and that goes against the nature of our Constitution.'

Sumner: 'After the 13th Amendment prohibited slavery, Southern states passed Black Codes in a blatant attempt to return freedmen to a condition akin to slavery. This new amendment is necessary to keep all Americans free.'

All Southern states except Tennessee refused to ratify the amendment, so Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act - the first of four such measures to be passed by Congress, vetoed by the President, and then passed again with a 2/3 vote. As a result, the South was divided into five occupied military districts, each ruled by a military governor to supervise Reconstruction. Under the Military Reconstruction Act, states had to ratify the 14th Amendment and allow African Americans to vote, or else they would lose their representation in Congress. The 14th Amendment was ratified within a year.

Radicals vs. Johnson

Johnson vetoed all four Reconstruction Acts for some legitimate reasons. That's not to say that all of Johnson's motives were pure - but then again, don't assume that just because Congressional Reconstruction had noble goals meant that Radicals always used proper methods to achieve these goals.

Johnson: 'The main goal of Reconstruction must be to rapidly bring the South back into the Union and to heal the wounds of the Civil War; punishing the South is counterproductive. What's more, attempts by the federal legislature to dictate the structure of state governments goes against the nature of our Union. Finally, the Radical's move to keep the Supreme Court from reviewing their Reconstruction Acts is a gross violation of our system of checks and balances. I will oppose these measures with all of my power!'

Sumner: 'The South must be changed while we have the opportunity. The president is a Southern sympathizer, and his prejudice is keeping him from upholding our Constitution. The federal government has an obligation to 'secure the blessings of liberty' for all Americans. We will override every one of his vetoes in order to bring racial equality and justice.'

Congress passed all four Reconstruction Acts into law over the president's veto. Political offices throughout the South were filled by Unionists (those were Southerners who supported the Union during the War), carpetbaggers and even African Americans - all of whom were Republicans. Some former Confederates were disenfranchised, but black men finally voted freely.

Congress directed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (a Radical) to enforce the Acts with the military, if necessary. Fully expecting that President Johnson would try to get rid of Sectary Stanton and replace him with another leader more sympathetic to his cause, Congress limited the president's authority to issue military orders and passed The Tenure of Office Act in 1867. This law required the president to get Senate approval before firing anyone who had been appointed by a past president. Johnson dismissed him anyway in 1868, stating that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional.

After Johnson attempted to replace Stanton with a number of appointees who turned down the job (including Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman), Secretary of War Stanton literally locked himself in his office and refused to leave. Meanwhile, in the halls of the Capitol, Congress impeached President Andrew Johnson.


Impeachment itself is the equivalent of charges being brought against a person in criminal court. According to the Constitution, the House of Representatives can bring articles of impeachment against federal officials for 'treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.' The politician then stands trial in the Senate. If convicted, the official can be removed from office.

Andrew Johnson was the first president ever to be impeached. Congress brought 11 articles of impeachment against him, nine of which addressed his violation of the Tenure of Office Act. Why would they do this when they had enough votes to override his veto anyway? The answer to that question is unclear. Perhaps they were simply frustrated and wanted revenge. Maybe they were trying to reduce the power of the presidency. Or it's possible they were looking for a more cooperative leader to pass more sweeping reforms while they still had the chance. Regardless of reasons, the president's impeachment began on March 13, 1868.

Since Johnson had assumed the presidency after Lincoln's death, there was no vice president. Next in line for the office was the president pro tempore of the Senate, Benjamin Wade. He was a good party man, Radical to the core - a little too radical for moderate Rebublicans and many American businessmen who weren't at all sure that he would be a good alternative to the current president. Many historians think this may have ultimately been the reason Andrew Johnson was not removed from office.

At the final vote, 35 Senators voted to convict the president, just one vote short of the required 2/3 majority. According to one newspaper from the time, 'Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor.' Later Congressional hearings also turned up evidence of corruption and possible bribery both for votes of conviction and acquittal. However, posterity has upheld the president's defense. The Tenure of Office Act was overturned nine years later; and though it was never tested in the Supreme Court, a decision in 1926 noted that the Act was invalid.

President Johnson served out his term. No other president was actually impeached again until Bill Clinton, 130 years later.

Lesson Summary

Republicans were the majority in the U.S. Congress during Lincoln's presidency, and pursued their goals of remaking the social order of the South and securing equal rights for black men. When Johnson acceded to the office, many Americans were concerned about the spread of Black Codes and feared that he was a Southern sympathizer, despite his support for the 13th Amendment banning slavery.

In response, many more Republicans won Congressional seats during the mid-term elections. Johnson refused to sign piece after piece of Radical legislation, but they had enough votes to override his veto. By strong-arming the legislative process, Congress was able to pass several bills and the 14th Amendment, granting citizenship to anyone born in the United States. Many former Confederates lost their political rights, but African Americans were finally able to exercise their right to vote; Republicans filled the elected offices of the South. These new laws were to be upheld by the military if necessary.

They passed the Tenure of Office Act to protect Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War. But when President Johnson dismissed Stanton anyway, Congress impeached him in 1868. Johnson fell one vote short of conviction and completed his presidency.

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