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Forum Lessons from the first presidential impeachment

January 12, 2019

While it was more than 150 years ago, the first presidential impeachment holds important lessons for those considering impeaching President Trump. Andrew Johnson was a Southerner who remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War and was chosen by Republican Abraham Lincoln to serve as his running mate. When Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson succeeded to the presidency — only six weeks after being inaugurated as vice president.

Republicans — who had an overwhelming majority in Congress — assumed that Johnson would continue Lincoln’s path toward Reconstruction, dismantling the Confederacy by granting voting rights to freed slaves, punishing rebellious Confederates and maintaining federal control in the Southern states. They could not have been more mistaken. Instead, Johnson set out to reverse many of policies that Lincoln had pursued and which thousands of Americans had fought and died for.

Johnson, in turned out, was racist to the core. He believed in white supremacy and did everything he could to deny black Americans the vote. A raging narcissist, alcoholic and deeply corrupt, he granted hundreds of presidential pardons in exchange for political support, while his mistress operated a network out of the White House that sold the pardons for cold cash. He fired his secretary of war and his military commanders for opposing his policies, despite fierce opposition from the majority in Congress. If anyone was a prime candidate for impeachment, it was Andrew Johnson.

So in February 1868, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly adopted 11 articles of impeachment, which included “bringing disgrace and ridicule to the presidency.” Since the Republicans controlled the Senate, conviction seemed like a sure thing. However, nothing worked out as planned. Virtually from the moment of the House vote on impeachment, an all-out campaign of influence peddling, and even bribery, began. Supporters of the president, including members of his cabinet, established an “acquittal fund” that was used to bribe senators to support Johnson. At the same time, the anti-Johnson faction began promising plum government positions to senators who voted for impeachment.

Amidst widespread and intense public scrutiny (including a public petition to abolish the office of the presidency altogether), the trial muddled through to a conclusion. Thirty-five Senators voted to convict Johnson, while 19 voted for acquittal — one vote short of the two-thirds required for conviction. While Johnson served out his term, he was not renominated. In his final days in office, he pardoned all Confederates, including Jefferson Davis himself.

Although we may hope that American democracy has progressed over the past century and a half, there are many reasons to be skeptical. While we might not see cash bribes flowing out the back door of the White House, there are many ways to influence the votes of senators — some legal and some not-so-legal. In the current bitterly partisan environment, an open and transparent impeachment process may be too much to hope for.

Hoyt Hilsman is a writer and former Congressional candidate from California. He is currently working on a television miniseries about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

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