Johnson had been impeached ostensibly for removing Lincoln-appointed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from office without Congressional approval, as required by a bill Congress had passed to prevent just such an action. The real fight, however, was about the course of Reconstruction in the South: the white supremacist Johnson wanted to allow the Southern states back into the Union with scarcely a slap on the wrist, while the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress sought to ensure black political rights.
“At no time was the editorial position of The Nation well defined” on the question of Johnson’s impeachment, William M. Armstrong, the biographer of founding editor E.L. Godkin, once wrote. The magazine wavered over whether to support the proceedings at all, first opposing and then enthusiastically endorsing them, before ultimately shrugging its shoulders and saying everyone should hang. This editorial (“The Result of the Trial,” E.L. Godkin, May 21, 1868) predicting the president’s imminent acquittal says that Johnson deserved conviction, but the Radicals who had orchestrated the proceedings were demagogues and no less worthy of removal from office than the man who stood accused of abusing the powers of the presidency. In 1868, The Nation was moving rapidly away from its abolitionist origins, becoming more dismissive of Reconstruction as it began to be convinced by largely specious reports of corrupt and inept governments rising to power, on the strength of the black vote, in the South.
The issue of the impeachment trial was no doubt important as regards the actual political situation; but the greatest of all questions for the American people is, whether amongst all the troubles and changes of this and coming ages the popular respect for the forms of law, for judicial purity and independence, can be maintained. As long as it can, all will go well, whatever storms blow; whenever the belief becomes general that a court of justice, and especially a “High Court,” can be fairly used, whenever the majority please, as the instrument of their will, it will make little difference what its judgment will be or who fills the Presidential chair.
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