If you follow the news, you know that some Democrats have called for the president’s impeachment and some Republicans argue they should be elected or reelected to protect against that. Two presidents have been impeached and gone on trial in the Senate, where they were acquitted. We have just passed the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the first presidential impeachment. The president was Andrew Johnson. And Nevada played a role.
Nevada became a state in 1864 because Abraham Lincoln and his party wanted our votes for his election, among other reasons. Johnson was Lincoln’s running-mate for similar reasons. When his state seceded, Johnson refused to go with his fellow Tennesseans. He said the Union could not be dissolved and he attacked treason. Johnson had been a lifelong Democrat. He didn’t vote for Lincoln in 1860—as a Republican, and thus opposed to the spread of slavery, Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in Johnson’s Tennessee. But during the Civil War, Republicans called their organization the Union Party, to signify support for the war and attract Democratic voters and politicians. Johnson became part of the Union party.
When Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, Republicans thought Johnson would be tougher on the defeated South than Lincoln would have been. But Johnson’s bark turned out to be much worse than his bite. He had no problem with the Black Codes that southern states imposed to limit and control newly freed African Americans. He vetoed legislation that Congress overwhelmingly passed to guarantee black civil rights.
Republicans realized Johnson didn’t share their views. One of their responses was to pass the Tenure of Office Act in 1867. It barred the president from firing a Cabinet member without Senate approval—just as the Senate gets to vote on the original appointment. Republicans wanted to protect Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a strong advocate of civil rights. Johnson thought the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional. He reasoned that the Constitution doesn’t say the Senate gets to advise and consent when a Cabinet member departs. In February 1868, Johnson fired Stanton. The House responded by impeaching Johnson on 11 counts, ranging from his public statements to his stand on the Tenure of Office Act. He went on trial in the Senate.
With most southern states not yet back in the Union, there were 54 senators. It would take a two-thirds majority or 36 to convict Johnson. At the time, there were only NINE Democrats. Yes, NINE. Three conservative Republicans usually voted with them. With 42 Republican votes, if pure party lines had been the issue, Johnson would have been convicted.
By the time of the vote, Johnson had nine months left in his term. He had no vice-president—this was before the 25th Amendment. His replacement would have been Ben Wade of Ohio, the Senate president pro tem and a radical Republican on civil rights. But Wade’s other views were controversial, and Republicans figured they were going to win the election that fall with Ulysses Grant as their nominee. To this day, no one has told exactly how it happened. But in the end, Johnson was acquitted. And next time, we’ll talk about a couple of the voters, and just what might have been going on.
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