- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

By David O. Stewart
Simon & Schuster, $27, 327 pages, illus.

David O. Stewart’s proven dexterity in handling detail, suspense and melodrama in matters of state are again present here. He brings impressive research to a bizarre episode in American history, the impeachment and trial of President Andrew Johnson, woven into such a vivid story that the reader is in the visitors’ gallery. The story has high drama, low farce, unlikely comedy, a stellar cast, hubris, vanity and bad judgment. There is ambition, hostility, personal devotion, patriotism, betrayal and bribery.

Personal and political factors combined to lead to the impeachment and trial, and near overthrow, of Johnson. Personal factors were his unreasonable stubbornness and his tendency to see differences of opinion as personal opposition. He had made a notable success during the Civil War as military governor of Tennessee and became a popular choice to succeed Hannibal Hamlin as Lincoln’s vice president in Lincoln’s second term. Taking the oath of office in the Senate chamber on March 4, 1865, he made a speeech after having drunk considerable whiskey to ward off an illness that he felt coming on. His speech was scandalously crude, rambling and self-focused, and shocked the listeners. In six weeks, he was president, succeeding the assassinated Lincoln.

It was not long before Johnson astonished and outraged the Republican leadership in Congress by changing from an attitude of severity toward the former Confederacy to an attitude of leniency and tolerance, favoring great latitude for the Southern states in forming their postwar governments. He rejected Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton’s recommendation that freed slaves in North Carolina be allowed to vote, which set him against the radical Republicans and outraged Rep. Thaddeus Stevens.

Stevens formally challenged Johnson’s policies that allowed high-ranking former rebels to assume office in the South. Violence against federal troops and blacks had become commonplace in Southern states. Johnson vetoed the bill etablishing a Freedmen’s Bureau and a civil rights bill, both providing protections to blacks in the South. The latter veto was overridden by Congress. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, as commander in chief of the army, was distressed by the president’s hands-off attitude toward the actions against troops and blacks in the South, and favored stronger action, as did Stanton.

In March 1867, Congress enacted the Tenure of Office Act, requiring that any officer of the government who was confirmed by the Senate could not be dismissed by the president without the concurrence of the Senate, clearly aimed at preventing Johnson fron firing Stanton. Johnson vetoed the bill, and his veto was overridden. Nonetheless, Johnson ordered Stanton removed, and after trying to put first Gen. Grant, then Gen. William T. Sherman, in the job, he finally appointed Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, who never managed to gain access to the office.

There is a bizarre account of Gen. Thomas calling on Stanton to claim the office. Stanton had Thomas arrested for violation of the Tenure of Office Act. Thomas complained that he did not want to be arrested before he had food and drink, whereupon Stanton produced food and whiskey for Thomas, which they shared. Meanwhile, Johnson got the attorney general to opine that the Reconstruction Acts gave no power to the federal military commanders in the South to remove local officials who thwarted congressional policies.

The stage was now set for a head-on collision between Johnson and the Congress. A couple of impeachment attempts failed from confusion over the grounds for impeachment and from a widely held belief that the articles must allege criminal activity. But in February 1868, a resolution of impeachment passed the House on a party-line vote. The new effort was based on multiple violations of the Tenure of Office Act and of the Reconstruction Act. The House chose Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts, a former Union general, former Democrat and newly minted radical Republican, to act as prosecutor. He was a louche figure of low cunning and a trial lawyer. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presided at the trial.

The trial in the Senate offered a speaking opportunity to everyone in the Congress who cared to seize the chance for immortality. Rep. James A. Garfield wrote: “We have been wading knee deep in words, words, words.” But parallel to the debate in the Senate, a ferocious lobbying and bribery activity was bubbling. There was a great deal of money floating about between men close to senators, and many messages were passed in brief, ambiguous phrases, and many meetings held between well-funded partisans for unspecified purposes.

In the end, on May 16, 1868, it all came down to the vote of Sen. Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, whose seat had been gained by appointment to an unexpired term at a cost of $42,000 in bribes paid by Indian trader Perry Fuller. Ross voted not guilty, a vote widely believed to have been obtained by bribes from people who wished to keep the Johnson patronage machine in place.

Just enough senators, and no more, had voted to deny the impeachers a two-thirds tally. Butler undertook an investigation after the vote to run down the rumors of bribery, but as Mr. Stewart writes, “The proof still failed to place dollars in the pocket of any senator.” But he also writes “Though he kept some distance from the grimy details of the campaign to save Johnson by all possible means, Secretary of State Seward plainly inspired and set in motion much of the effort. Many of the schemers who planned the political deals, bribes, and patronage payoffs were Seward men.…”

Mr. Stewart rebuts some influential literature, chiefly Woodrow Wilson’s view that Reconstruction was “the veritable overthrow of civilization in the South,” and John F. Kennedy’s opinion that Sen. Ross’ vote to acquit was “the most heroic act in American history.” Perhaps the most pithy observation was one newspaper’s comment: “Andrew Johnson is innocent because Benjamin Wade is guilty of being his successor,” Wade being the unpopular president of the senate who would have succeeded Johnson in the event of conviction.

David C. Acheson is a retired lawyer and foreign policy analyst in Washington.

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