Why They Impeached Andrew Johnson

Published 18 May 2017

What pressing problems were facing the nation in 1865? In 1865 the civil war was going strong during this year, and the government was attempting to enforce laws it passed on slavery, while the South was resisting through armed conflict and the stated desire to leave the union. The loss of Lincoln made the possibility of the North losing very real and it was Johnson’s responsibility to continue the policies of the party which elected him, even though he did have some sympathy for the South’s point of view, and had close relationships with important Southern leaders.

Why was Andrew Johnson placed on the ticket with Abraham Lincoln? Although he was a slave holder, Johnson remained loyal to the Union and refused to resign as the U.S. Senator from Tennessee when the state seceded at the outbreak of the Civil War. Lincoln selected Johnson for the Vice President slot in 1864 on the “Union Party.” to have a Southern man who owned slaves but supported the union. This was expected to strengthen the South states willingness to cooperate with the Union and reluctantly accept federal jurisdiction. His representation of the South’s interests was expected to get more votes for the “Union party” in the South since people would feel they had true representation at the federal level.

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What was Andrew Johnson greatest weakness? Johnson’s close ties with and support for the South was also his greatest weakness. After the war, a series of bitter political quarrels between President Johnson and Radical Republicans in Congress over Reconstruction policy in the South eventually led to his impeachment.

How did he antagonize the northern leaders? Who were they? Radical Republicans wanted to enact a sweeping transformation of southern social and economic life, permanently ending the old planter class system, and favored granting freed slaves full-fledged citizenship including voting rights. The Radicals included such notable figures as Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Most Radicals came to believe whites in an unrepentant South were seeking to somehow preserve the old slavery system under a new guise. New southern state governments were full of ex-Confederates passing repressive labor laws and punitive Black Codes targeting freed slaves. Representatives sent from the South for the 1865 Congress included the former vice president of the Confederacy and numerous lesser known Rebels, but were denied seats in Congress. In 1866, this Congress enacted a Civil Rights Act in response to southern Black Codes.

President Johnson vetoed the Act claiming it was an invasion of states’ rights and would cause “discord among the races.” Congress overrode the veto by a single vote. This support of state’s rights over federal law, marked the beginning of an escalating power struggle between the President and Congress that would eventually lead to impeachment. In June of 1866, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing civil liberties for both native-born and naturalized Americans and prohibiting any state from depriving citizens of life, liberty, or property, without due process. Johnson opposed the Amendment on the grounds it did not apply to southerners who were without any representation in Congress angering the Radicals. Radicals swept the elections of November 1866, resulting in a two-thirds anti-Johnson majority in both the House and Senate. With this majority, three consecutive vetoes by Johnson were overridden by Congress in 1867, thus passing the Military Reconstruction Act, Command of the Army Act, and Tenure of Office Act against his wishes. The Tenure of Office Act directly led to impeachment proceedings for Johnson since it required the consent of the Senate for the President to remove an officeholder whose appointment had been originally confirmed by the Senate. Johnson sought to oust Radical sympathizer, Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton in violation of the Act and named General Ulysses S. Grant to replace him.

However, the Senate refused to confirm Johnson’s action. On February 21, 1868, challenging the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act, Johnson continued his defiance of Congress and named General Lorenzo Thomas as the new Secretary of War and also ordered the military governors to report directly to him. Define: Impeachment. Impeachment is the first of two stages in a specific process for a legislative body to remove a government official without that official’s agreement. It is only the legal statement of charges, parallelling an indictment in criminal law. An official who is impeached faces a second legislative vote (whether by the same body or another), which determines conviction, or failure to convict, on the charges embodied by the impeachment. List the charges against Andrew Johnson. The House of Representatives voted impeachment on a party-line vote of 126 to 47 on the vague grounds of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” with the specific charges to be drafted by a special committee. The special committee drafted eleven articles of impeachment which were approved a week later. Articles 1-8 charged President Johnson with illegally removing Stanton from office. Article 9 accused Johnson of violating the Command of the Army Act. The last two charged Johnson with libeling Congress through “inflammatory and scandalous harangues.”

Discuss the outcome of the trial and why he was not removed. The trial in the Senate began on March 5, 1868, with Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding. The prosecution was conducted by seven managers from the House. On March 16, a crucial vote occurred on Article 11 concerning Johnson’s overall behavior toward Congress which was one vote shy of the necessary two thirds (36 votes out of a total of 54 Senators) needed for conviction. A young Radical Republican named Edmund G. Ross voted “not guilty,” effectively ending the impeachment trial. On May 26, two more ballots produced the same 35-19 result. Thus Johnson’s impeachment was not upheld by a single vote and he remained in office. In your opinion, should Andrew Johnson have been impeached? Why? Johnson did violate the law of the land at the time, by suspending and appointing two different replacements for the position of war secretary without congress’s approval.

The Tenure of Office Law was probably unconstitutional since the war secretary position is a presidential appointee in the first place, and not an elected post. While the Congress has the right to approve of disapprove of the appointment it does not have the right to appoint anyone to that office. Thus their insistence on keeping Stanton was de facto a kind of appointment by them, thus illegal. Johnson’s mistake was not to go to the Supreme court to challenge Congress. Instead he chose to fight it out himself, opening up an opportunity for the impeachment proceedings to begin. This distracted him from other things which he could have done as President during that period, and the fact impeachment was not upheld probably led to much hard feelings and gridlock for the remainder of his tenure.


  • Castel, Albert. The Presidency of Andrew Johnson. Lawrence, Kan.: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1979.
  • Ralph W. Haskins, LeRoy P. Graf, and Paul H. Bergeron et al, eds. The Papers of Andrew Johnson 16 volumes; University of Tennessee Press, (1967-2000).
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