Last time, we were talking about Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868 and how it happened. Now let’s talk about the results, and what role Nevada played.
Senate Republicans had the votes to convict him. Johnson could count on only 12 supporters out of the 54 senators. SOMEHOW, seven Republicans—the exact number needed to acquit him—voted to do just that. The final vote was 35 to 19—one shy of the two-thirds needed to convict Johnson and remove him from office.
Often, in legislative bodies, the leadership will let certain members off the hook if their votes aren’t needed. Or they’ll ask others to cast a tougher vote because it won’t hurt them politically. The seven Republicans weren’t reelected, and one of them wound up in John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage as a martyr. But the left lost because of other factors, like their health, or changes in state and national politics. It wasn’t because of their votes on Johnson. There’s a Las Vegas connection: the author of the work proving it was Ralph Roske, who was at UNLV for many years.
There was a Nevada connection to the voting, though. Nevada’s two U.S. senators voted for conviction. Could they have shifted?
Maybe William Morris Stewart would have. He was shifty, to say the least—he had changed parties a few times and had some ethical issues. He voted for civil rights measures in the Senate, but his history didn’t suggest that he did it enthusiastically; basically, he followed his party.
Instead, historians have focused more attention on Nevada’s other U.S. senator, the namesake of the state’s largest county: James Nye. He had come from New York in 1861 to be Nevada’s territorial governor. Before that, he had been a solid anti-slavery man and loyal Republican. After getting here, he called for African Americans to be able to serve on juries and in the militia. The territorial legislature voted the opposite way, and Nye was critical of that—and being critical could have hurt him politically. In the Senate, he was vocally radical on civil rights. In other words, he didn’t seem likely to want to save Johnson.
But Nye’s name crept into the news as one of the senators who might vote for acquittal. A newspaper account mentioned Nye, as did the diary of a well-connected politician and editor. Also, Nye had been a political ally of Johnson’s secretary of state, William Seward, who had gotten him the appointment as Nevada’s territorial governor. But by the time of Johnson’s impeachment, the two were no longer that close. On every question about admitting evidence or helping Johnson’s side during the Senate trial, Nye voted against the president.
Would Nye have voted for acquittal if his vote had been needed? We may never know for sure. We do know Republicans could have convicted Johnson but didn’t. Johnson finished his term and left office. Nye was defeated for reelection—not over his politics, but because mining millionaires wanted his seat and he didn’t have the money to fight them. As it turns out, maybe some things about politics haven’t changed all THAT much.
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