Engraving of Andrew Johnson Impeachment trial
Theodore R. Davis’ illustration of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial in the Senate, published in Harper’s Weekly.

Much has been made in the last couple of days of Nixon and Clinton comparisons to, ahem, the current brouhaha. But as I was prepping this slideshow for a virtual talk at Manny’s, I was struck by the surprising similarities between our, ahem, situation, and the context of Andrew Jackson’s impeachment in 1868. A quick read of this lucid and helpful Wikipedia article will bring you up to speed. It’s a rather obscure chapter in American history; as early as 1896, Edmund Ross commented that “little is now known to the public” about it. After Ross’s book, three more books were written about the impeachment trial: David Miller DeWitt’s in 1903, Michael Les Benedict’s in 1999, and David Stewart’s in 2010. What is palpable in all of them (perhaps most so in Stewart’s book) is the context: a bitter, partisan, no-holds-barred fight between Lincoln’s successor, a moderate Southern Republican seeking reconciliation with the South, and Congress, which sought more sanctions against Southern States during Reconstruction.

Johnson’s unbridled anger at Congress will remind you of someone we know: He actively campaigned against Congress, which included a massive speaking tour to “fight traitors in the North.” This campaign backfired spectacularly when the election yielded two Republican houses determined to thwart his agenda, and when he tried to get rid of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War he inherited from Lincoln and a staunch Unionist. Congress tried to thwart these efforts by passing the Tenure of Office Act, and Johnson, determined to get rid of Stanton, did so nonetheless. Nine of the eleven articles of impeachment revolved around this effort.

Through the prism of 2019, I can’t help but read this story as that of a small man with no hope of filling the giant shoes of his predecessor, conciliatory and sympathetic to a grim racist heritage, determined to spite anyone placing limitations on his power to appoint and discard people as he chose. It might cheer you up (or not) to learn that the Senate came one vote short of removing him from office. It might also be useful to keep in mind that the failure to secure the additional vote came from four Republicans voting against their own party out of concerns that the evidence presented against Jackson was one-sided–and a good reminder that, in order to garner legitimacy for the impeachment process, it is important to conduct a thorough and objective investigation that might assuage the concerns that some of today’s hesitant Republicans about “witch hunts” and “kangaroo courts.” If Democrats want to secure removal in the senate, which for obvious reasons will be an uphill battle, the process has to be fair and also to be perceived as fair.

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