Les­sons from the first pres­i­den­tial im­peach­ment

If any­one was a prime can­di­date for im­peach­ment, it was An­drew John­son.

The News-Times - - OPINION - By Hoyt Hils­man 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.

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.

As­so­ci­ated Press

An un­dated por­trait of An­drew John­son, the 17th U.S. pres­i­dent. The House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives ap­proved 11 ar­ti­cles of im­peach­ment against John­son in 1868, aris­ing es­sen­tially from po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions over Re­con­struc­tion fol­low­ing the Civil War.

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