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File:Andew Johnson impeachment trial.jpg

Theodore R. Davis' illustration of President Johnson's impeachment trial in the United States Senate, published in Harper's Weekly.

The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States, was one of the most dramatic events in the political life of the United States during Reconstruction, and the first impeachment in history of a sitting United States president.

The Impeachment was the consummation of a lengthy political battle, between the moderate Johnson and the "Radical Republican" movement that dominated Congress, for control of Reconstruction policies after the American Civil War.

Johnson was impeached on February 24, 1868 in the U.S. House of Representatives on eleven articles of impeachment detailing his "high crimes and misdemeanors",[1] in accordance with Article Two of the United States Constitution. The House's primary charge against Johnson was with violation of the Tenure of Office Act, passed by Congress the previous year. Specifically, he had removed Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War (whom the Tenure of Office Act was largely designed to protect), from office and replaced him with Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas.

The House agreed to the articles of impeachment on March 2, 1868. The trial began three days later in the Senate, with Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding. Trial concluded on May 16 with Johnson's acquittal, the final count falling one vote shy of the required tally for conviction.

The impeachment and subsequent trial gained a historical reputation as an act of political expedience, rather than necessity, based on Johnson's defiance of an unconstitutional piece of legislation and with little regard for the will of the public (which, despite the unpopularity of Johnson, opposed the impeachment). Until the impeachment of Bill Clinton 131 years later, it was the only presidential impeachment in the history of the United States.


Tensions between the executive and legislative branches had been high since shortly after Johnson's ascension to the White House upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Though a Southerner himself, Johnson had been a fierce and unrelenting critic of the southern secession that had sparked the Civil War in the first place. Radical Republicans were convinced that as President, Johnson would enact their hardline Reconstruction policies of protection for newly freed slaves and punishment for former slave owners and government and military officials. (Lincoln had favored a much more moderate and lenient plan for Reconstruction, which the Radicals vehemently opposed but lacked the political capital to stop).

Instead, six weeks after taking office, Johnson had offered proclamations of general amnesty for most former confederates, and his initially stricter plans for high-ranking government and military officers quickly dissolved. Johnson also vetoed legislation that extended civil rights and financial support for the former slaves. Congress was able to override only a few of his vetoes, setting the stage for a confrontation between Congress and the president.

In August and September of 1866, Johnson destroyed his own political support on a speaking tour of northern states that became known as the Swing Around the Circle. Meant to establish a coalition of voters who would support Johnson in the upcoming midterm congressional elections, the tour instead destroyed his reputation when reports of his undisciplined, vitriolic speeches and ill-advised confrontations with hecklers swept the nation. Contrary to Johnson's hopes, the midterm elections led to veto-proof Republican majorities in Congress. The Radicals were not only able to pass civil rights legislation, but wrested control of Reconstruction from the president and took the reins themselves by carving the old Confederacy into five military districts.

Tenure of Office Act[]

Congress' control of the military Reconstruction policy was mitigated by Johnson's command of the military as President; however, Johnson had inherited as Secretary of War Lincoln's appointee Edwin M. Stanton, a staunch Radical Republican, who as long as he remained in office would comply with congressional Reconstruction policies. To ensure Stanton was not replaced, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act in 1867 over Johnson's veto. The act restricted the president from relieving any member of his cabinet without express concurrence of the Senate.[2] However, the act was written specifically with Stanton in mind.

Aside from their ideological difference, Johnson wanted to replace Stanton for numerous reasons. Stanton had taken control of the country after Lincoln's assassination and controlled departments other than the War Department. Most notably, Stanton was involved in running the State Department, which was officially headed by Secretary of State William H. Seward. Stanton was also accused of using the Secret Service to spy on Johnson and other members of the cabinet.

Because the Tenure of Office Act permitted the president to suspend such officials when Congress was out of session, when Johnson failed to obtain Stanton's resignation he instead suspended Stanton on August 5, 1867, which gave him the opportunity to appoint General Ulysses S. Grant then serving as Commanding General of the Army, Secretary of War ad interim.

On January 7, 1868, the Senate passed a resolution of non-concurrence with Stanton's dismissal. Believing the Tenure of Office Act unconstitutional, Johnson ignored their reinstatement of Stanton until, on January 28, Grant (who did not enjoy politics and resented Johnson's exploitation of his celebrity) sent the president his notice of resignation, effectively returning the office to Stanton. Johnson's second choice for the position was General William T. Sherman, an enemy of Stanton's, who turned the President down saying he hated politics. Johnson then offered the post to Thomas, who first turned it down, saying that he would like to stay in office as Adjutant General until his retirement. Johnson prevailed, however, and on February 21, 1868 the President appointed Lorenzo Thomas Secretary of War ad interim and ordered the removal of Stanton from office. Thomas personally delivered the President’s dismissal notice to Stanton, but the Secretary refused to accept its legitimacy or to vacate the premises. Instead, Stanton had barricaded himself in his office and ordered Thomas arrested for violating the Tenure of Office Act.

Thomas asked if he could be brought to the White House to let the President know that he had been placed under arrest. When Stanton realized, however, that the arrest would allow the courts to review the law, the Secretary of War had the charges dropped. Stanton then claimed that Johnson had broken the recently instituted Tenure of Office Act by removing a cabinet member without Senate approval, though some say that the Act was simply intended to maintain Republican control of the house.

On February 22, 1868, Representative William D. Kelley of Philadelphia gave a speech, saying, "Sir, the bloody and untilled fields of the ten unreconstructed States, the unsheeted ghosts of the two thousand murdered negroes in Texas, cry, if the dead ever evoke vengeance, for the punishment of Andrew Johnson"[3]


File:Johnson Impeachment Committee.jpg

Johnson Impeachment Committee from a photograph by Brady in the Signal Corps, War Department, Washington. Left to right, Seated: Benjamin F. Butler, Thaddeus Stevens, Thomas Williams, John A. Bingham. Standing: James F. Wilson, George S. Boutwell, John A. Logan.

On February 24, three days after Johnson's dismissal of Stanton, the House of Representatives voted 126 to 47 in favor of a resolution to impeach the President of high crimes and misdemeanors. The two sponsors of the resolution, Thaddeus Stevens and John A. Bingham were immediately dispatched to inform the Senate that the House had officially voted for impeachment.

One week later, the House adopted eleven articles of impeachment against the president. The articles charged Johnson with:

  1. Dismissing Stanton from office after the Senate had voted not to concur with his dismissal and had ordered him reinstated.
  2. Appointing Thomas Secretary of War ad interim despite the lack of vacancy in the office, since the dismissal of Stanton had been invalid.
  3. Appointing Thomas without the required advice and consent of the Senate.
  4. Conspiring, with Thomas and "other persons to the House of Representatives unknown," to unlawfully prevent Stanton from continuing in office.
  5. Conspiring to unlawfully curtail faithful execution of the Tenure of Office Act.
  6. Conspiring to "seize, take, and possess the property of the United States in the Department of War."
  7. Conspiring to "seize, take, and possess the property of the United States in the Department of War" with specific intent to violate the Tenure of Office Act.
  8. Issuing to Thomas the authority of the office of Secretary of War with unlawful intent to "control the disbursements of the moneys appropriated for the military service and for the Department of War."
  9. Issuing to Major General William H. Emory orders with unlawful intent to violate the Tenure of Office Act.
  10. Making three speeches with intent to sow disrespect for the Congress among the citizens of the United States.

The eleventh article was a summation of the first ten.



The impeachment resolution signed by the House of Representatives.


John A. Bingham and Thaddeus Stevens before the Senate addressing the vote on the president's impeachment by the House.

A trial started in the Senate, headed by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, and committees were organized to represent the prosecution and defense. The impeachment committee was made up of Thaddeus Stevens, Benjamin F. Butler, John A. Bingham, John A. Logan, George S. Boutwell, Thomas Williams and James F. Wilson. Johnson's defense team was made up of Alexander Morgan, William M. Evarts, Benjamin R. Curtis, Thomas A. R. Nelson and Jeremiah S. Black (who later resigned). The trial began on March 13, 1868.

File:The situation.jpg

The Situation
A Harper's Weekly cartoon gives a humorous breakdown of "the situation". Secretary of War Edwin Stanton aims a cannon labeled "Congress" on the side at President Andrew Johnson and Lorenzo Thomas to show how Stanton was using congress to defeat the president and his unsuccessful replacement. He also holds a rammer marked "Tenure of Office Bill" and cannon balls on the floor are marked "Justice". Ulysses S. Grant and an unidentified man stand to Stanton's left.

On the first day, Johnson's defense committee asked for forty days to collect evidence and witnesses since the prosecution had had a longer amount of time to do so, but only ten days were granted. The proceedings began on March 23. Senator Garrett Davis argued that because not all states were represented in the Senate the trial could not be held and that it should therefore be adjourned. The motion was voted down. After the charges against the President were made, Henry Stanberry asked for another thirty days to assemble evidence and summon witnesses, saying that in the ten days previously granted there had only been enough time to prepare the President's reply. John A. Logan argued that the trial should begin immediately and that Stanberry was only trying to stall for time. The request was turned down in a vote 41 to 12. However, the Senate voted the next day to give the defense six more days to prepare evidence, which was accepted.

The trial commenced again on March 30. Benjamin F. Butler opened for the prosecution with a three hour speech reviewing historical impeachment trials, going back to King John of England. For days Butler spoke out against Johnson's violations of the Tenure of Office Act and further charged that the President had issued orders directly to Army officers without sending them through General Grant. The defense argued that Johnson had not violated the Tenure of Office Act because President Abraham Lincoln did not reappoint Stanton Secretary of War at the beginning of his second term in 1865 and that he was therefore a leftover appointment from the 1860 cabinet, which removed his protection by the Tenure of Office Act. The prosecution called several witnesses in the course of the proceedings until April 9, when they rested their case.


Impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

Benjamin R. Curtis called attention to the fact that after the House passed the Tenure of Office Act, the Senate had amended it, meaning that it had to go back to a Senate-House conference committee to resolve the differences. He followed up by quoting the minutes of those meetings, which revealed that while the House members made no notes about the fact, their sole purpose was to keep Stanton in office, and the Senate had disagreed. The defense then called their first witness, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas. He did not provide adequate information in the defense's cause and Butler made attempts to use his information to the prosecution's advantage. The next witness was General William T. Sherman, whose testimony benefitted the prosecution.


On all three occasions, thirty-five Senators voted "guilty" and nineteen "not guilty". As the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority for conviction in impeachment trials, Johnson was thus acquitted. Just one changed vote to guilty would have sufficed for a "guilty" verdict.

Seven Republican senators were concerned that the proceedings had been manipulated to give a one-sided presentation of the evidence. Senators William Pitt Fessenden (Maine), Joseph S. Fowler (Tennessee), James W. Grimes (Iowa), John B. Henderson (Missouri), Lyman Trumbull (Illinois), Peter G. Van Winkle (West Virginia),[4] and Edmund G. Ross (Kansas), who provided the decisive vote,[5] defied their party and public opinion[contradiction] by voting against conviction. After the trial, Ben Butler conducted hearings on the widespread reports that Republican senators had been bribed to vote for Johnson's acquittal. In Butler's hearings, and in subsequent inquiries, there was increasing evidence that some acquittal votes were acquired by promises of patronage jobs and cash bribes. [6]

Later vindication of Johnson's position[]

Subsequent events vindicated Johnson's position that he was entitled to fire Stanton without Congressional approval. First, the Tenure of Office Act was repealed by Congress in 1887. More importantly, in 1926 the United States Supreme Court in Myers v. United States affirmed the ability of the President to remove a Postmaster without Congressional approval; in so doing, it stated in its majority opinion "that the Tenure of Office Act of 1867...was invalid".[7]

The real problem, however, was never the Tenure of Office Act, it was that Johnson wanted to use his position as commander in chief of the military to undermine the Reconstruction Act of 1867. Johnson refused to accept any policy that would make the abolition of slavery meaningful. Thus, the niceties of the Tenure of Office Act were beside the point, which was to insure basic rights for African Americans in the wake of the abolition of slavery.[8]


  1. THE TRIAL OF ANDREW JOHNSON. On Articles of Impeachment exhibited by the House of Representatives. Retrieved on January 17, 2009
  3. Brockett, L. P., Men of Our Day: or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, Ziegler and McCurdy, Publishers, Philadelphia, Springfield (MA), Cincinnati, St. Louis, 1872, no ISBN, p. 501
  4. "Andrew Johnson Trial: The Consciences of Seven Republicans Save Johnson".
  5. "The Trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868".
  6. David O. Stewart, Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy (2009), pp. 240-249, 284-299.
  7. MYERS v. UNITED STATES, Findlaw | Cases and Codes
  8. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
  • Stewart, David O., "Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy" (2009)
  • Foster, G. Allen, Impeached: The President who almost lost his job, 1964.
  • Brodie Fawn M., Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South, 1959.

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