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The Contentious Figure of Andrew Johnson, the First Impeached President

The 17th president narrowly avoided conviction in 1868.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The United States Congress has the authority to impeach presidents for abusing the powers of the office, an ability that has been invoked four times in the nation’s nearly 250-year history. Though the impeachment of former presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton are widely known, less familiar among modern voters is the fate of Andrew Johnson, the first U.S. president to be impeached.

Related: The Best Presidential Biographies For History Buffs

Andrew Johnson’s Background and Early Political Career

Andrew Johnson was born in a two-room shack in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1808. His parents, both of whom were illiterate, worked as tavern servants. Johnson himself had an impoverished childhood and never attended school, instead becoming apprenticed to a local tailor at a young age. He learned the trade and was even taught some literacy skills by fellow employees and visitors to the shop. However, Johnson was unhappy in his apprenticeship and ran away as a teenager.

He ended up settling down in Greeneville, Tennessee, where he started his own successful tailoring business and was able to invest in real estate. With his profits growing, Johnson would purchase his first slave in 1843, ultimately owning at least 10. 

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  • Andrew Johnson's birthplace in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Johnson never forgot his humble beginnings, and was a lifelong advocate for the working class. He got his start in politics when he helped organize a mechanics’ ticket in Greeneville’s 1829 municipal election. Johnson was elected town alderman and then became mayor of Greeneville in 1834.

Johnson went on to serve in both houses of the Tennessee state legislature. The platform he ran on primarily advocated for the poor and for westward expansion. He was also staunchly pro-slavery, a stance that would soften in later years, but not enough to save his legacy from the dark stain of racism and white supremacy.

Johnson in the Civil War Era

With his heart set on achieving even loftier political goals, Andrew Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1843, where he served five two-year terms. He became governor of Tennessee in 1853, and was elected to the Senate in 1857. Though Johnson continued to insist that the rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence did not apply to Black Americans, he remained loyal to the Union when Tennessee joined the Confederacy in 1861. 

Related: Queens, New York is Home to a Hidden Civil War Fort

Andrew Johnson was the most prominent Southern Unionist and the only senator from a Confederate state who did not resign from his position upon learning of his state’s secession. In the waning days of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln sought to unify the country. As a result, the Republican president chose Southern Democrat Andrew Johnson to be his running mate when he campaigned for reelection in the 1864 presidential election. By that point, Johnson had conceded that slavery must come to an end, though it’s unclear if his position came from a place of moral clarity or mere political expedience. 

Lincoln and Johnson won the 1864 election by a landslide. A hungover Johnson scandalized Congress when he downed two stiff drinks and delivered a rambling, nearly incoherent address before being sworn in on March 4, 1865, but his impropriety would soon be overshadowed by far graver news.

After serving as vice president for just over a month, Johnson inherited a divided nation on the morning of April 15, 1865. Lincoln had died hours earlier after being shot by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Johnson was also supposed to be killed, but his would-be attacker lost his nerve. The Civil War formally ended on May 9, 1865, with many uncertainties remaining about how to rebuild the country in the Reconstruction era.

Johnson and Reconstruction

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  • A woodcut of Andrew Johnson taking the oath of office as Cabinet members look on, 1866. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Republicans, then the majority in Congress, wanted to work together with their new Democratic president. However, as time went on, a wedge was increasingly driven between them. Johnson’s lax attitude toward Southern states emboldened them to re-elect former Confederate leaders to Congress and pass Black Codes, which restricted the freedom of African Americans and compelled them to work for low wages in conditions that were barely better than slavery.

Related: 19 Essential Civil War Books

When Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Republicans saw this as a clear sign that he was unwilling to work with them in ensuring that Black Americans were treated fairly. They overrode his veto, the first time that had been done on a major bill in American history. It was the beginning of an increasingly contentious relationship between Johnson and Congress.

Johnson’s Impeachment

The tension between Andrew Johnson and Congress came to a head in 1867. Congress charged the House Committee on the Judiciary with examining whether Johnson had committed any impeachable offenses. Finding no evidence of wrongdoing, a bipartisan majority of the committee voted down impeachment charges on June 3.

In August, Johnson demanded the resignation of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who opposed his lenient policies toward the South. Stanton refused to resign, and Johnson suspended him pending the next meeting of Congress. Meanwhile, the president issued a proclamation pardoning most Confederates, including those who had breached their oaths while in office. 

When Congress met again in November, the Judiciary Committee reversed its earlier opinion and passed a resolution of impeachment against Johnson. However, the resolution was defeated by the House of Representatives. As distasteful as the president’s handling of Reconstruction might have been, a majority could not agree that he had met the bar of “high crimes and misdemeanors” laid out in the Constitution.

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  • Illustration of Johnson's impeachment trial in the United States Senate, 1868. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Impeachment efforts continued in 1868 when Congress was notified of Stanton’s suspension. Congress reinstated Stanton, but Johnson dismissed him and hired a replacement. On February 24, 1868, the House impeached Johnson by a vote of 128 to 47 for intentionally violating the Tenure of Office Act, which required Senate approval for the firing of Cabinet members. Johnson’s impeachment trial began in the Senate on March 5, 1868 and lasted almost three months. 

The defense argued that Johnson’s actions were legal under the provisions of the Tenure of Office Act because his Cabinet members had been appointed by Abraham Lincoln rather than himself. Outside of the courtroom, Johnson persuaded senators that if he was acquitted, he would stop interfering with Congress’s Reconstruction policies. He also reminded them that if he was removed from office, Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade would serve as interim president for the remainder of the term. An advocate for women’s suffrage, Wade was seen as dangerously radical by other politicians. 

Three of the 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson narrowly fell short of a two-thirds majority vote. In May of 1868, Johnson’s opponents threw in the towel and dismissed proceedings. His impeachment had been unsuccessful.

Johnson’s Last Days as President and Lasting Legacy

Andrew Johnson had hoped to win the presidential election in 1868, but he didn’t even receive his party’s nomination. His conflicts with Congress continued until the very end of his term. An opponent of the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves, he dragged out ratification as long as he could. He also issued a final amnesty for all former Confederate leaders, including Jefferson Davis, who had been the president of the Confederacy and was then in jail awaiting his trial for treason.

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Andrew Johnson was succeeded by Ulysses S. Grant. The two men had vastly different views of Reconstruction and by that point openly disliked one another. The outgoing president hosted a large public reception at the White House on his last full day in office, with Grant refusing to ride in the same carriage as Johnson. For his part, Johnson refused to attend Grant’s inauguration, and was the last U.S. president to boycott his successor’s inauguration until Donald Trump in 2021.

Featured photo: Wikipedia