On this day in 1868 the actions of the US House of Representatives meant that Andrew Johnson was the first, and only bar Bill Clinton in 1998, President to be impeached, although his conviction was eventually spared by the Senate later that year.The reasons behind Johnson’s impeachment were rooted in political disputes and power-play following the victory of the United States over the Confederacy in the American Civil War (1861-65). The lenient reconstruction policy which Johnson had inherited from his predecessor Abraham Lincoln, assassinated in 1865, outlined the nature by which Confederate states would rejoin the Union. This program granted amnesty to all former Confederates who pledged an oath of loyalty to the United States and also recognised new southern governments which would obey federal laws pertaining to slavery. The radical elements of the dominant anti-slavery Republican Party were greatly opposed to this policy. They wanted military governments and more stringent conditions on the readmission of the ceded states. The clash of beliefs and refusal of either side to compromise on this policy resulted in Johnson’s impeachment in 1868.
The Tenure of Office Act was passed in March 1867 (later repealed in 1887) above a Presidential veto, and appeared to protect Republican radicals in Johnson’s cabinet by prohibiting their removal from the cabinet in absence of Senate approval. Johnson soon removed leading radical and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to challenge the act’s constitutionality, but his replacement General Ulysses Grant returned the office after senate protest. Johnson’s second attempt to replace Stanton in March 1868 with the even more unfavorable General Lorenzo Thomas directly resulted in eleven articles of impeachment brought against him by the House of Representatives. However, in the subsequent Senate trial, Johnson was acquitted just one vote short of the two-thirds majority required for his conviction and removal from office.
Sir, the bloody and untilled fields of the ten unreconstructed States, the unsheeted ghosts of the two thousand murdered negroes in Texas, cry…for the punishment of Andrew Johnson.
Rep. William D. Kelley, calling for impeachment of Andrew Johnson (nps.gov)
The power of Congress to impeach the President is entrenched in Article II, Section 4 of the US Constitution: ‘The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.’ The only other ever time this has been enacted was against President Bill Clinton in December 1998 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. These arose from a dishonest testimony regarding his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky during a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by state employee Paula Jones. However, again, Clinton was acquitted by the Senate, with no member of his own Democratic Party finding him guilty of either charge. Impeachment proceedings were also initiated in the midst of Richard Nixon’s 1974 Watergate Scandal, however he resigned before it was taken to trial.
The only cases of impeachment have occurred in the instance of a different party controlling Congress as opposed to the Presidency, suggesting an element of political opportunism enabled by the proceedings of Article II, Section 4 of the US Constitution. Thus, does future impeachment of a volatile President Donald Trump seem likely when his Republican Party comfortably holds both Houses of Congress? Or, more interestingly, will the Republican Congress be more inclined to impeach Mr Trump in the knowledge of the succession of Vice President Mike Pence, a down-the-line conservative that the establishment know they can control?