‘The Impeachers’ minutely recounts the first presidential reckoning

Brenda Wineapple’s deep dive into President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and the landscape of Reconstruction politics is an essential Civil War read.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation” by Brenda Wineapple, Random House, 514 pp.

When Brenda Wineapple started her research for “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation” six years ago, she had no idea how topical her book would become.  

She grew interested in the first impeachment trial in the United States while working on her previous book, “Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877,” which explored political and cultural events leading up to and during the Civil War and into Reconstruction.

Andrew Johnson was an accidental president, a Tennessean whose Constitutional absolutism left him an anti-secessionist, pro-Union politician despite what we would call today his racist, white supremacist beliefs. Johnson was a U.S. senator and a “War Democrat,” a member of the faction that supported military action against the 11 Confederate states. 

Abraham Lincoln, fearing for his re-election chances in 1864, named Johnson as his running mate in an attempt to balance the Republican ticket and shore up support in a nation battered and exhausted by years of war.

Lincoln, of course, won, as did the Union. But the euphoria was momentary: John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln in April 1865, a little more than a month after Lincoln’s second inauguration and six days after the Civil War ended at Appomattox with Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln’s murder made Andrew Johnson president.

Wineapple writes the kind of popular nonfiction that deserves a wide audience, blending graceful prose with a deeply researched but accessible history. In “The Impeachers,” she shows how those in Washington initially embraced Johnson, believing he would hew to the initial Reconstruction course set by Lincoln and backed by Republican majorities in Congress.

Soon enough, Johnson made clear his disdain for meaningful Reconstruction; that is, fairness and equity for the four million freed slaves. What ensued were endless battles between the executive and legislative branches, often punctuated by the president undoing or simply ignoring Congressional mandates. 

Johnson opposed the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing all people the rights of citizenship. He vetoed civil rights legislation. He allowed numerous ex-Confederates to reclaim political power after the war. And as for his political foes – led by fiery Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, and abolitionist Wendell Phillips – the president went far beyond heated rhetoric. In fact, he publicly called for Stevens and Sumner to be hanged.

Few leaders of the era look better in retrospect than Stevens, who railed against pervasive sentiment that only white men should run the U.S. government. “To say so is political blasphemy, for it violates the fundamental principles of our gospel of liberty,” Stevens said. “Equal rights to all the privileges of the Government is innate in every immortal being, no matter what the shape or color of the tabernacle which it inhabits.” 

Johnson consistently made the counterintuitive argument that, because secession was unconstitutional, the Confederate states had never actually left the Union. Following that logic, the president wanted an immediate restoration of representation in Congress for those states, with minimal strings attached. 

Wineapple writes, “Every time Johnson vetoed a bill aiming to reconstruct the South he argued that the bill wasn’t constitutional because the ex-rebel states weren’t represented in Congress.” 

Again and again, Wineapple shows how far apart Johnson stood from Congress – as well as the relentlessly hateful and cruel conditions and circumstances faced by black people. Two of the most vivid examples occurred in 1866. Both were essentially race riots started by white mobs. In Memphis, 46 black people were killed, five black women were raped, and dozens more were wounded. Two white men died, one of whom shot himself. Several months later, in New Orleans, a nascent attempt to enact black voting rights as part of a state constitutional convention devolved into a bloodbath exacerbated by (at best) lax federal oversight and corrupt local police and government.

Former Confederates accounted for two-thirds of the New Orleans police force, Wineapple notes. Instead of preserving or restoring order, in some cases they helped white mobs kill, beat,  and wound hundreds of black men and women. Terrorism of black people ran rampant during this era, a time that included the formation of the Ku Klux Klan.

Impeachment followed a slow, deliberate, and unsteady path for more than a year before the eventual trial and acquittal of the president in 1868. Congress and the nation grappled with defining untested Constitutional concepts of “high crimes and misdemeanors” as well as the allowances and limits of executive power.

When impeachment came – triggered by Johnson’s attempt to fire War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton in violation of an equally murky 1867 law that prevented the president from unilaterally removing cabinet members – the subsequent trial turned into a public spectacle. 

Johnson survived conviction by a single vote, that of Sen. Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, whose vote, Wineapple argues, was almost certainly bought. 

Notable and fascinating historical personages abound in these pages, including the nakedly ambitious Chief Justice, Salmon P. Chase; Grant, the taciturn Union war hero and future presidential candidate; William Tecumseh Sherman, Grant’s close friend who loathed politics but couldn’t escape them; and literary lights Herman Melville and Walt Whitman.

Two of the most powerful voices immersed in Reconstruction-era America were the freed slave-turned-orator Frederick Douglass and novelist Mark Twain, who served as a Washington correspondent at the time.

Both offered profound (and profoundly different) observations. Said Douglass: “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” Twain summed up matters: “I believe the Prince of Darkness could start a branch of hell in the District of Columbia (if he has not already done it).” 

“The Impeachers” offers insights and a distillation of events that have undeniable parallels with this moment in our history. 

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