The Open Mind explores the world of ideas across politics, media, science, technology, and the arts. The American Prospect is re-publishing this conversation.
Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and the righteous Republicans led the first ever impeachment in American history. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated—the first U.S. president to fall victim to assassination—the country entrusted its survival to an accidental president, Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee who had forged a unity ticket with Lincoln for reelection.
Despite Lincoln's assessment that Johnson was, in his words, “a good man,” the new leader abandoned the promise of emancipation and enfranchisement. Historian Brenda Wineapple, author of the recently released The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, discusses this history and its contemporary relevance.
Alexander Heffner: Why did Lincoln think that he needed to pacify his motivation to end slavery and preserve the Union in selecting Andrew Johnson? He ends up winning reelection in a landslide, and the states that had seceded were not part of the electoral math.
Brenda Wineapple: I’m not sure that by putting Johnson on the ticket Lincoln was thinking that it was nullifying his move toward solidifying emancipation. I think the easiest simplest way to look at this is Lincoln wanted to win in 1864 and he wasn’t sure he was going to. He was running against a very popular War Democrat George McClellan. Major victories for the Union hadn’t happened, and although the seceded states weren’t voting, there was the matter of the Border States. Because Andrew Johnson was the military governor of Tennessee as well as a Democrat, as a southerner, it looked very good to balance the ticket.
Heffner: Lincoln’s was the first-ever assassination. But there had been an assassination attempt on Andrew Jackson. Did it not cross his mind that this might happen?
Wineapple: Lincoln presumably had dreams of dying. But when you think that it was a brutal civil war that was being conducted in that everyone was dying, of course, you would think he may in fact not live. But he was a relatively young man, and he really didn’t think that he wasn’t going to fulfill his term. What he wanted to do was to continue in office to prosecute the war.
Heffner: But that is a realistic consideration today, especially because that’s the person who would shift the entire pendulum of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wineapple: History is different in that particular way, and also one of the salient differences between then and now is that the country was at war. That’s just an unthinkable idea.
Heffner: With itself.
Wineapple: With itself. Today we talk about how divided the country is and how partisan the country is and how split the country has. But it’s metaphorical. It’s true, but it’s metaphorical. In 1864, the country was split, you know, the 11 states that seceded and they were calling themselves the Confederate States of America and they believed that they were a different country, and wanted a different constitution.
Heffner: So Johnson comes into the presidency, and the Radical Republicans are not initially so worried.
Wineapple: Not at all. Johnson was the first and only southern senator in the United States Congress to stand up against secession. So he was hailed in the north, he was reviled in the south. In the south, he was considered a traitor, but he himself considered anyone who wanted to secede as traitors themselves and he constantly said that traitors must be punished. People wanted to believe that this particular vice president would then continue on the path that that one hoped Lincoln was on.
Heffner: So what happened then?
Wineapple: The Democrats wanted to get rid of people like Edwin Stanton and even William Seward, the Secretary of State, and Johnson dithered. Eventually, in the end, he fired Edwin Stanton, the War Secretary. Congress by that time had passed what was called the Tenure of Office Act. It was an act that was passed particularly to hinder Johnson from impeding and obstructing Reconstruction as the Radical Republicans may have conceived of it and in the direction that they were moving.
Heffner: Even though he retained Lincoln’s cabinet, Johnson says to the nation effectively we don’t want to admit these people of color as coequal.
Wineapple: For one thing, Johnson says secession didn’t happen. That was just a war for four years. And he said secession didn’t happen because it wasn’t legal. And Thaddeus Stevens said that’s like saying murder can’t happen because it’s illegal.
Heffner: Now I see some parallels to today. Seeing a reality in plain sight and ignoring it.
Wineapple: Johnson begins to pardon former confederates, like Alexander Stevens, who had been the vice president of the confederacy. He’s basically saying that these 11 states can now reenter the Union. They can take their seat in the government. That’s appalling. Especially since the 13th Amendment not only abolished slavery, but in abolishing slavery, it said these people who had been enslaved and considered three fifths of a person are now whole persons, which changes the representation in the south. And those 11 states immediately take their place in Congress. Then they have their power again.
Heffner: The Republicans in the House take up impeachment.
Wineapple: Impeachment actually went slowly, and there had been people trying to impeach Johnson long before he was actually impeached. But when he fired Stanton, Johnson broke the law, and as soon as he broke the law, the House of Representatives said you can’t do that. And they were united and they voted overwhelmingly to impeach. But there had been people angling for impeachment and doing investigations for about a year before.
Heffner: How about the conviction in the Senate?
Wineapple: He was acquitted by one vote, a junior Kansas senator. There were seven Recusant Republicans that voted to acquit Johnson. From one point of view, you could say they got cold feet, from another point of view, you could say the argument that the prosecution made didn’t work for them, from a third point of view could say that the chief justice who presided had his fingers on the scales. Finally, you could say some of those people were probably bribed. There was money probably passed, dark money passed amongst some.
Heffner: Why didn’t the Radical Republicans win the argument on conviction?
Wineapple: One of the reasons was that they argued too narrowly, 9 of the 11 articles of impeachment had to do with the Tenure of Office Act and a conspiracy to violate it. It was sort of niggling lawyeristic notions when in fact a better strategy might have been to go to prosecute Johnson on abusive of power, obstruction, degradation of Congress, unfit to be president, not fulfilling the oath of office, those broader issues.
Heffner: There was also a human argument about the sanctity of life.
Wineapple: A human argument would have been great.
Heffner: That’s not what happened.
Wineapple: No, it was the legalistic argument.
Heffner: Even though the Senate was responding to these decades of enslavement of a people.
Wineapple: That’s right. But a lot of them in some sense didn’t care. They thought we’ve got the 13th Amendment.
Heffner: They couldn’t expand their argument to enough of their fellow Republicans to make it mainstream. They were cast aside historically and contemporaneously as not fitting the mold of what you need to be.
Wineapple: The mold was racist, white supremacist.
Heffner: War hadn’t changed that?
Wineapple: War can’t change that. It didn’t change that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.