Impeachment 1868

Impeachment 1868

The great objection which we, in common with so many others, had to impeachment when it was first talked of, was that it would either be or seem, not a criminal trial, but an exertion of part


As legislators and scholars searched the writings of the Founding Fathers for guidance on impeachment, we investigated our founders’ editorials on the trial of Andrew Johnson. The following is from a Nation editorial, published after the Senate trial, that recapitulates the magazine’s views.

The great objection which we, in common with so many others, had to impeachment when it was first talked of, was that it would either be or seem, not a criminal trial, but an exertion of party strength against a political opponent; that, therefore, it would form a dangerous precedent….

[Radical Republican advocates of impeachment answered that it] would not be a party measure; that it would be a judicial proceeding; and that the Republican party had no more right to shirk it in Mr. Johnson’s case than the district attorney has a right to shirk the prosecution of a counterfeiter…. We combated their position by denying that the prosecution of a criminal was always an imperative duty; we said it had to be decided solely with reference to the good of the community, and that we were not bound to prosecute Andrew Johnson for high crimes and misdemeanors, even if he had committed them, if it appeared that the nation at large would suffer more than it would gain by it….

It appears, therefore, that if those who first clamored for impeachment as a criminal prosecution in accordance with the forms of law [then abandoned their scruples during the Senate trial] had had their way, there would have been nothing whatever of a criminal prosecution about it. It would have resembled an act of attainder in everything except the penalty, and would have furnished a precedent which all parties, the worst as well as the best, could have used at will; under which a Congress like that which was to have met in 1861 could impeach and depose a President like Mr. Lincoln for no better reason than that they thought him a dangerous man. We are glad to say they have not had their way [and] the Senate has kept the mischief within the narrowest limits….

It was well that a leading Republican lawyer [acted as the President’s defense counsel], if for no other reason, for the very grave one that his appearance strengthens the presumption which we should all eagerly uphold, that the senators sat as judges and not as partisans.

The Nation, May 14, 1868

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy