Andrew Johnson, the military governor of Tennessee, was chosen by the 1864 Union Party convention (a coalition of Republicans and so-called "War Democrats" opposed to the Civil War) as Abraham Lincoln's vice-presidential running mate because he was a Southerner and a Democrat. A steadfast defender of the Union throughout the Civil War, Johnson was placed on the ticket as an expression of national unity.
After the assassination of Lincoln, Johnson's greatest challenge was the reconstruction of the nation. The most adamant Congressional opponents of slavery, the Radical Republicans, sought major changes in the secession states and in ways to assist the freed slaves. Johnson did not share their principles or their goals. With increasing bitterness, the president and the heavily Republican Congress fought over issue after issue. When Republicans increased their numbers in Congress after the 1866 elections, they decided to take the extreme measure of impeaching the president, for the first time in American history.
In his magnificent Impeached: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy, David O. Stewart, author of the highly acclaimed Summer of 1787, provides an extraordinary narrative that brings the many key players vividly to life while at the same time exhibiting an admirable clarity in discussing issues and events.
Although procedurally judicial, impeachment is a political action. Stewart excels in describing the often-complex strategies and machinations of the politicians on both sides as they use all legal, and even illegal, means to prevail. The author notes that definite conclusions are elusive, but the evidence indicates that corruption--bribery and patronage--may well have determined one of the critical moments in American history: Johnson was acquitted by a single vote in the Senate.
At the heart of Stewart's re-creation of the period is Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. As a lawyer before the war, Stevens represented slaves and sometimes personally bought their freedom; his home had been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Stevens' legacy includes the 14th Amendment to the Constitution as well as Reconstruction legislation. After two failed attempts to steer presidential impeachment through the House of Representatives, Stevens was successful on a third try. Although he was the logical choice to lead opposition to the president, he was frail and in poor health. He did serve on the Impeachment Committee and co-authored Article XI, the catchall article that had more support in the Senate than the other 10 Articles of Impeachment against the president. Six weeks after Johnson was acquitted, Stevens introduced five more articles of impeachment against the chief executive.
Historians and writers have drawn very different lessons from this episode in history. In an excellent overview--in which he discusses myths about the trial and disagrees with Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy, who were more sympathetic than he is to Johnson--Stewart concludes that Johnson's presidency can only be seen as a tragedy. Although Johnson's personal rise from poverty to the White House is inspiring, his refusal to compromise with Congress on crucial aspects of Lincoln's legacy was unfortunate. Lincoln was too good a politician to alienate Congress and too strong and compassionate a leader to accept violence and oppression toward the freedmen and the Southern Republicans.
Stewart's book splendidly illuminates an important chapter in American history.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.