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