The End of Democracy (has been greatly exaggerated)

On February 24th in 1868 the U.S. House of Representatives voted 11 articles of impeachment against President Andrew Johnson. The House vote made President Johnson the first president to be impeached in U.S. history.

Tensions between the executive and legislative branches had been high since shortly after Johnson’s ascension to the White House upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Though a Southerner himself, Johnson had been a fierce and unrelenting critic of the southern secession that had sparked the Civil War in the first place.

Radical Republicans were convinced that as President, Johnson would enact their hardline Reconstruction policies of protection for newly freed slaves and punishment for former slave owners and government and military officials. (Lincoln had favored a much more moderate and lenient plan for Reconstruction, which the Radicals vehemently opposed but lacked the political capital to stop).

Instead, six weeks after taking office, Johnson had offered proclamations of general amnesty for most former confederates, and his initially stricter plans for high-ranking government and military officers quickly dissolved. Johnson also vetoed legislation that extended civil rights and financial support for the former slaves. Congress was able to override only a few of his vetoes, setting the stage for a confrontation between Congress and the president.

This vote kicked off a two month long trial in the Senate that played out in newspapers all over the country. At the end of a historic trial, the Senate failed to convict President Andrew Johnson of the impeachment charges levied against him by the House of Representatives. There were 35 Senators voting guilty and 19 voting not guilty on the second article of impeachment. The Senate had already failed to convict Johnson on another article of impeachment with an identical vote. Because both votes one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed to convict Johnson, he was found not guilty and remained in office.

Johnson Impeachment Trial

Since then we have had another Presidential impeachment (Bill Clinton) and one near miss with Richard Nixon resigning before being impeached. There has been a Sentator impeached and even a member of the Supreme Court. But when Johnson—the first President to be impeached —was being tried there were newspaper editorials claiming that his impeachment would mean the end of America’s Constitutional Democracy.

This is an editorial from the Nashville Union and Dispatch in Johnson’s home state of Tennessee as syndicated in the Vincennes Western Sun.

Impeachment No Trifle

If Andrew Johnson be condemned and removed from office, he will, in all human probability, be the last constitutional President this nation will ever have. His immediate successor will be an unqualified product of usurpation.

Does history record an instance in which revolutionary usurpation ever voluntarily surrendered power to the people, and reverted to the forms and limitations of constitutions and laws? There is none such. The deposition of the President will make the whole scheme of Radical revolution in the Government an accomplished, and not without an indefinite period of oppression, and perhaps another and more terrible civil war, an irremediable fact.

The malign spirit which shall prompt two-thirds of the Senate at the instigation of the House of Representatives to do this infamy, will halt at nothing. There are Democratic presses, which for some cause, speak flippantly of impeachment , and manifest an undercurrent of indifference as to the result. If one were disposed to be censorious, a motive could easily be discovered for this course; but motives aside, do they imagine that the Jacobins who overthrow one President because, in the discharge of his duty, he endeavored to arrest their schemes for power, having seized all the power of the Government, civil and military, are going to permit a free election by the people to replace him with another of the same temper, a few months afterwards?

To talk about the people retrieving their control of the Government at the November election, in the event that President Johnson is convicted and removed, is folly. Such an occurrence would be a miracle. To believe it possible requires an amount of faith in the system of popular government which our recent experience at least affords no warrant for. It will never be effected by anything short of a counter revolution by force, or such a threatening spirit in that direction by the people as will terrify the Jacobin leaders from a prey already in their grasp.

The fear is, that the achievement of that result—the successful impeachment of the President—will overawe and cow the people into acquiescence. Impeachment is something more than a moot court proceeding, in which the amount at issue is a mere temporary advantage. Radicals may so regard it, but it does not become Democrats to discuss it from such a stand-point. It will be as fatal to public liberty as the step that Caesar took when the waters of the Rubicon washed the feet of the charger on which he overrode the liberties of his countrymen.

–Nashville Union and Dispatch

The Vincennes Western Sun (1856-1869) is part of the Accessible Archives Civil War collection. The Civil War Collection Part IV: A Midwestern Perspective consists of seven newspapers published in Indiana between 1855 and 1869. Thus, it provides pre-and post-Civil War information in addition to coverage of the war itself. Ownership varied between Democrats, Republicans and the Know-Nothings.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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