Once before in American history, during the turbulent era of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, a President was impeached by the House and tried before the Senate–Andrew Johnson. Unlike today, Johnson’s impeachment arose from differences with Congress over the most fundamental questions of public policy: How should the country be reunited; who was entitled to the rights of American citizens; what should be the status of the emancipated slaves?
Johnson’s Reconstruction policy is often described as one of “leniency” toward the South. It was lenient enough to white Southerners, to whom Johnson quickly restored control over local affairs. To the 4 million emancipated slaves, however, Johnson’s lily-white plan of Reconstruction was extremely punitive. Johnson ordered black families evicted from land on which they had been settled by the US Army, and through the notorious Black Codes the Southern governments he created attempted to reduce blacks back to the condition of dependent plantation laborers.
Between 1865 and 1867 Northern Republicans slowly became convinced that Reconstruction must recognize blacks as citizens with equality before the law and, for men, the right to vote. Johnson, a thoroughgoing racist, opposed these policies. The 1866 Congressional elections, a sweeping victory for the Republicans, demonstrated that, unlike Clinton, Johnson had little popular support. Yet Johnson attempted to use the patronage and his command of the Army to obstruct Congressional policies.
The catalyst for Johnson’s impeachment was his flouting of the Tenure of Office Act, which forbade the dismissal of certain federal officials without Senate approval. Claiming the law was unconstitutional, Johnson removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. That action became the basis of the Articles of Impeachment.
In the end, even though Republicans commanded well above a two-thirds majority in the Senate, seven moderates voted to acquit, fearing damage to the separation of powers were Johnson removed and assured by Johnson’s attorneys that he would stop obstructing Congressional policy. The final vote was 35 to 19, one short of the two-thirds needed for conviction.
Today, few historians have a good word to say for Andrew Johnson. His political crimes were legion. But most consider his impeachment to have been a mistake. Both prosecution and defense accepted the premise that impeachment requires an unequivocal and serious violation of the law; incompetence, disregard of the popular will or even strenuous efforts to deny millions of black Americans their basic rights were not enough. If these did not justify Johnson’s impeachment, surely Clinton’s private behavior and efforts to conceal it do not meet the constitutional standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
No one ever voted for Andrew Johnson for President of the United States. Bill Clinton was twice elected by the American people. For a partisan majority in Congress to remove him from office in the absence of persuasive evidence that his actions have damaged the body politic would do far more harm to American democracy than Clinton’s sordid deeds.