Vote to Impeach Andrew Johnson
May 16, 1868
It's no small decision for Congress to
impeach (accuse of a crime or misdemeanor) the president, but in
1868 that's exactly what happened. In February, the House
of Representatives voted to impeach President Andrew Johnson.
His trial, with the chief justice of the Supreme Court
presiding, began on March 30 with the Senate serving as jury.
Johnson was accused of having broken the law, but on May 16,
1868, the U.S. Senate failed to convict him by one vote. A
second vote taken 10 days later had the same result: one vote
short of the two-thirds majority required to convict. What
did Johnson do that led to his impeachment and near arrest?
After becoming president following the assassination of
Abraham Lincoln, Johnson wanted to complete Lincoln's plan to
reunite the country swiftly. The Civil War (1861-1865) had
just ended. His plan was to promote passage of an
amendment outlawing slavery, then allow the Confederate states
to once again send representatives to Congress and govern
themselves. Johnson, however, lacked Lincoln's good
judgment. While Congress was in recess, the newly powerful
Southern states passed "Black Codes," limiting the rights of
freed slaves. An angry Congress proposed a law that would
repress those codes; Johnson vetoed it. Congress in return, on
April 9, 1866, passed the first override in U.S. history,
protecting the civil rights legislation. And on it went.
That same day, Congress passed a law that limited the power
of the president. The Tenure of Office Act prohibited the
president from removing any government official, including his
own cabinet members, without the Senate's approval. Johnson
maintained the law was unconstitutional and thus invalid. He
fired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a political enemy, in
open defiance of the law.
The House of Representatives
then decided to impeach the president, charging him with "high
crimes and misdemeanors" as required by the Constitution.
Johnson was charged with breaking the law, among other things.
During his trial before the Senate (where impeachment hearings
are held, according to the Constitution), the charges were shown
to be so weak that seven Republicans refused to convict the
Democratic president. The votes thus fell one short of the
two-thirds necessary for conviction.