In this Presidents and the Constitution eLesson we examine how the conflict between Andrew Johnson and the Congress regarding reconstruction plans after the Civil War led to the nation’s first impeachment of a President. This trial was a test of the constitutional principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the end, the Founders’ mechanism of three co-equal branches of government proved strong enough to resolve the crisis.
When Andrew Johnson took the oath of office following Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, he saw his main task as “restoration” of the states to the Union as quickly and leniently as possible. The Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery nationally as of December of that year, but states were in control of the rights of the freedmen.
Congress was dominated by Republicans, and no states from the former Confederacy were represented. The Republicans believed that Congress—not the President—was in charge of a “reconstruction” process. States would return to the Union only after agreeing to a significant shift away from state power to federal control. Congress passed a number of laws protecting freedmen and restricting the powers of the states. Johnson vetoed them, and Congress overrode the vetoes.
The growing tension between Johnson and Congress was reflected in Johnson’s cabinet. (Most of the cabinet members had been appointed by Lincoln.) One of the most influential cabinet members was Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who strongly opposed Johnson’s lenient approach toward the South. Tired of Stanton’s resistance in his Cabinet, Johnson fired Stanton. This was a violation of the recently enacted Tenure of Office Act, which required the President to seek the Senate’s approval before removing an official whose appointment had required confirmation by the Senate. The power struggle between President and Congress accelerated, and the House of Representatives passed an Impeachment Resolution on February 24, 1868.
The trial before the Senate began on March 30, 1868. The President’s defense team made the following points: 1. The language of the Tenure of Office Act was unclear, leaving doubt about whether it covered Stanton’s situation. Stanton had been appointed by Lincoln, not by Johnson; 2. The Tenure of Office Act interfered with the President’s constitutional power to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” A President cannot carry out the law if he cannot trust his advisers; 3. The proper way to remove a president for political misdeeds was through an election, not impeachment.
The President’s accusers made the following main points: 1. The President had clearly violated the Tenure of Office Act by dismissing Stanton without the consent of the Senate; 2. It is the President’s duty to faithfully execute a law passed by Congress, even if he believes it to be unconstitutional. Otherwise, a President could routinely frustrate the will of the people as expressed by their elected representatives.
The core of the trial was about the Tenure of Office Act, but the issues were much broader than that. Johnson’s accusers argued that not only had he violated the Tenure of Office Act, but also that he represented the return of “Slave Power” to the United States. Johnson’s defenders accused Republicans of using impeachment as a political tool.
Thirty-five Senators voted to convict Johnson, and nineteen voted to acquit. This was one vote short of the two-thirds majority that the Constitution requires to remove a President from office. President Johnson served the remaining ten months of his term as President. He continued to veto bills that he saw as unconstitutional, but he enforced the laws when passed. Congress continued to override the vetoes. When Johnson died of a stroke on July 31, 1875, he was buried as he had requested, wrapped in a U.S. flag, with his head resting on his copy of the U.S. Constitution.
- What was the main difference between President Johnson’s approach to “restoration” and the Republicans’ approach to “reconstruction”?
- Why did President Johnson remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from office?
- What was the Tenure of Office Act?
- Did Johnson’s impeachment trial prove the effectiveness of the impeachment process as a way to preserve the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches? Why or why not?