tv The Civil War The Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson CSPAN February 5, 2021 1:28pm-2:12pm EST
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university of kentucky history professor mark summers on the impeachment of president andrew johnson. this is part of a symposium commemorating the anniversary of the ratification of the 14th amendment to the constitution. >> we will end with mark summers who is the thomas clark preview at the department of history at the university of kentucky in lexington and so i don't know whether ending with mark means that we're ending again with a southerner or a northerner. he went to berkeley for his ph.d. or a -- one of those famous border states. i know i've lectured in kentucky many times and what i've learned from being in kentucky is that kentucky seceded after appomattox and became a confederate state in the late 1860s and -- [ laughter ] -- and before that was in the united states.
and that's the -- in a sense, an insight into the complexity of the history we're dealing with. i do know that when the 13th amendment was being considered, the delegates from the members of the house from kentucky tried to get a kentucky exception to the 13th amendment and did not do so. mark is currently working on two books, one on andrew johnson's impeachment and the other on guilded age politics. he's the author of the ordeal of the reunion, a new history of reconstruction which came out four years ago and dangerous, fear, paranoia and the making of reconstruction and i'm delighted, really, that he's come to join us and tell us about the taming of andrew johnson. [ applause ]
>> thank you, all, for that. most kind of you. and thank you for giving me a chance to be up here and to spiel for the half-hour that i've got here the best i can. we were asked and advised that we should essentially treat this talk kind of the way we would giving a -- teaching a class as opposed to reading a paper. i think in my case, that's very dangerous. if i were doing it when i was teaching a class, it would be a very brief amount of time before i began to stand on the table, among other things, and i would begin to go off into any number of vague references to things that have nothing to do with history like hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats. my other problem is i like to pace around. i like to get mileage for my speech as was once said and i'm going to try to restrain that as best i can. fortunately i have a microphone
for that purpose if i absolutely need it. let me start out by talking a little bit and offering a few pictures here of sorts. and this, in fact, is not just andrew johnson, but this is an interesting political cartoon, i think. look at it, if you will, and what you discover is playing off of a familiar painting by a french artist at the time of the assassination of julius cesar. we have the cartoonist showing the slain. they have just saved the republican. what, i ought to ask you right here and now, what is wrong with that picture? does anybody know? is there a problem there that any of you know from your history courses? what? he was not convicted.
he was not assassinated out there. it doesn't make sense. it just -- it's a baflement. you think to yourself, wait, what's going on here -- out there? there's the impeachers, actually, and so on and you look at it, and johnson is acquitted. this never happened. and you ask yourself, why didn't -- did he actually draw this before the trial was over thinking that johnson would be convicted? well, it sounds like a plausible thing and then he had to use it sooner or later, except that's not the case. look carefully at the would be asass sins right there and what you discover right there, there's thaddeus stevens. not to be mixed up with tommy lee jones. anybody looking at the cartoon
could know that thaddeus she knows died three months after the end of the trial, in august of 1868. this cartoon must have been done after the trial was over. it must have been done many months after the trial was over and that makes it even more of a mystery out there that simply doesn't seem to make sense. why do a cartoon about johnson's destruction when you would know by that time that that's not the case out there? johnson escaped conviction by a single vote. what's going on? has somebody been messing with the time-space continuum again? and marty mcfly races back to save that senator? as hermione granger's time
controller gotten out of control again? there's a better explanation than any of those. and the fact of the matter is that the reality is something very, very different. that, in fact, what was happening is this cartoon comes out when johnson leaves office in 1869. no longer has the power to do damage to just about anyone, it could be said. but, of course, what he was suggesting was something that we may not think about which is, we think of impeachment as a tremendous failure. in fact, it was, in a sense, a monsterous mistake. in another way, it was actually a tremendous success. because that was the only way that congress could have done the impossible. and that was the taming of andrew johnson. let me try to explain that, if i can, in what follows. to do that, i'm going to have to explain a little bit about
andrew johnson himself. i'm going to have to explain what this is all about. why was johnson impeached? well, i think you probably know the answer to that pretty clearly as well as anyone can. you probably know that on the 21st of february 1868, as you may know, secretary of war was dismissed from the war department by andrew johnson sending general lorenzo thomas to order him to vacant the premise so it would be put in andrew johnson's hands. and within the course of barely three days, the house of representatives overwhelmingly, by more than a two-thirds vote, voted to impeach andrew johnson. it's a striking and remarkable moment. and you have to ask yourself,
why? nobody thinks, for example, of a president, for example, fired his secretary of state or the like that there would be impeachment resolutions brought. nobody in the past has ever done this. why would this happen in the case of edwin stanton of all people, particularly when you consider what a thoroughly unpleasant and difficult and bullying human being he actually is out there. what's going on? we have to understand that, the only way we can understand the impeachment trial is to understand why. and then to understand because that is bound up with the question of how in the end the republicans actually won. in fact, the republicans not only insisted on impeaching johnson, they gave orders to stanton to hold on to his office, to barricade himself inside, to make sure that people brought in his meals and they sent members of the house to act as guards, able to use force if necessary to keep him from being
ejected from the job. it's not something you very often see in governments outside of, say, some third world nation. it's a very peculiar kind of thing. this is even more peculiar, if you want a symbol of american radical republicanism, you think of -- you're more likely to think of thaddeus stevens. you might think -- if you thought of a moderate to relatively conservative republican, you might think of john a. bingham. what could bring these men together both in favor of impeachment? that's the question to ask. the reality is of congress, he might have been designed by simply taking all of the qualities and ideas of thaddeus stevens and leaving them out. it's as simple as that. what is it that makes them act that way? to do that, we have to understand andrew johnson. that's the obvious point out there. andrew johnson, like his
predecessor, had, in fact, been born in a log cabin. being born of humble circumstances doesn't necessarily make you a humble individual always. humble beginnings often can make very proud men. and andrew johnson, it could be said, took from his poverty a sense of his own self-worth. his birth in a log cabin gave him a sense that he was one of the people, represented their thoughts in ways no better born adversary could be. he was flavored with envy of the well-read, intellectual as well as handed. it may have made him less sympathetic to those at the bottom who continued to struggle without the same ability to rise. in all, it could be said, one critic had it very much right in his jibe that johnson had the pride of no pride. and he might have added the
self-satisfaction of an insecure man. two qualities that very often go very much together. now, all of this, it could be said, would have mattered not at all if johnson had simply been the democratic vice president-elected on a republican ticket as he was in 1864. the pugnacious tennessee governor, the courageous united states senator, the vice president stoked to the gills on liquor saw that the secretary of state had to pull him down by the coattails would have gone down to fame as with william wheeler, hannibal hamlin. nobody could have predicted that somebody would have shot abraham lincoln. i do not criticize -- of course, i don't, no, not me.
i do not criticize johnson in every way. he was brave, patriotic, he was incorruptible, but his idea of how to reconstruct the union was that presidents should do it by executive action and that it was none of congress's business and a very good reconstruction could be made simply by ignoring the former slave's rights beyond a simple mere freedom out there. and so, when congress tried to put through a civil rights bill, johnson vetoed it and when it tried to pass a bill to provide aid to refugees and freedmen, andrew johnson vetoed it. and when they proposed a 14th amendment, johnson tried to veto it. as a result of this, congress decided that it could make no deal with the president and it must make a reconstruction of its own. in 1867, over johnson's veto, it put through a series of acts to force the creation of elections
down south by black and white men alike to create constitutions based on the equal protection of the laws. and if those constitutions were passed by a majority of all the registered voters and if the new governments then adopted the 14th amendment, they would be back in the union as good as they had ever been, represented in congress as much as they had ever been before. that was the reality, that was the simple fact. but it should be very obvious that if this reconstruction was going to happen, it was vital that the army be able to protect the rights of black people to register and to vote against intimidations, threats and terrorism. in fact, that means that whoever controls the army controls reconstruction and it was very
clear that andrew johnson would do everything within his constitutional powers to hinder reconstruction going through and going through successfully. which is why congress by a series of laws, tried to take the control of the army out of the president's hands and put them in the hands of the secretary of war who they could trust. edwin m. stanton. it should give us a clear idea of why when johnson tries to take away the power of that secretary of war, to put in one of his own people, congress should be very, very angry. but congress was always very, very frightened. and to understand that, we have to understand a bit more as well. this man, in fact, this andrew johnson, who treated the constitution as if it was his only friend, as if it was a golden retriever to follow him wherever he went was a man, in
fact, who believed in what he was doing. but his policy republicans would have said means the death of many innocent people. and they saw johnson, in fact, as taking powers that no president had ever taken before in peacetime, to dominate, to dictate to create state governments in the south. and so here is andrew johnson as a cesar looking down as a 1 massacre in the arena. who is being massacred out there? it's the black people of the south by the forces of law and order in new orleans and in memphis, by the mobs of ex-confederates who butchered them. it meant nothing but lawlessness personified and justified. providing a vote for black people in the south, black men, was a daring and bold thing. it was not accepted by most of the white south and it was one
thing that could well be resisted with the aid of that government. so it is not very surprising that when johnson came up for trial, there would be senators who from the 1st were determined that this man should go whether he had broken any law or not. charles sumner, radical republican from massachusetts, was only sorry that he could only say guilty or not guilty when asked how he stood on johnson. he would have liked to answer as he said guilty of that and so much more. well, that should not be in that sense in the remotest sense surprising. what makes it worse, though, is that andrew johnson is, well, he's not, shall we say, very presidential. not by the standards of the 19th century. it could be added in fact he's extremely unpresidential. why would you be afraid to have
him in control of the arm? let's try a few things. what would you think of saying a president of the united states who accused leading members of the congress of being guilty of treason, who accused the congress of planning to annihilate, exterminate, 8 million people in the south. what would you think of a president who regularly asked who has suffered for you more than andrew johnson? what would you think of a president who compared himself to jesus christ? what would you think of a president who alleged that congress had no right to pass legislation because there was no legal congress, that in point of fact it was in his own words a body hanging on the edge of government pretending to be a congress of the united states? would you like to trust the army to someone like that? would you feel safe with someone like that? most republicans did not. and that was one reason why in 1867 they tried to protect the
secretary of war. they tried to protect edwin m. stanton against this would be king, this would be cesar who would gladly annihilate his enemies or execute them. charles sumner and the cartoonist of this. and point of fact, what they did was called the tenure of office act. it was clear, if a president appoints a member of his cabinet, he cannot -- with the advice and consent of the senate, he cannot remove him or dismisses him without the advice and consent of the senate. that was the tenure of office act. and, in fact, there were many scholars at the time who would argue that this was, in fact, essentially a constitutional act. johnson had tried to get rid of stanton by following the rules of the tenure of office act. what he had done, in fact, in august of 1867 had been to try
to suspend stanton from office, which he was allowed to do when congress was out of session. when congress came back into session, the senate decided that the suspension was not viable and that stanton remained as secretary of war. having abided by this act as long as he had, johnson now it could be said was going to -- is prepared to use action and force to put stanton out, to deliberately violate that tenure of office act. so, fft, you got two things happening. first, andrew johnson is violating a law of the united states duly passed and the second thing you realize right then and there that if he gets hold of the army, all of reconstruction is in danger and may be the republican itself. and so when you think of the man he had proposed for secretary of
war in stanton's place, this is the man. this was a man who was on record, thomas ewing jr. arguing that the congress was illegal. do you feel safe with him in charge of the war department? of course, you don't. he would stump around the house chambers saying, didn't i tell you? what good did your moderation do you, if you don't kill the beast, it will kill you. that is where reconstruction came from, where, in fact, impeachment came from. and yet at the end of a trial that followed over the next three months, the vote ultimately would be 35 votes to convict, 19 to acquit. one vote too many, in fact, on the acquittal side to be overturned and johnson escaped by that one vote.
you know that, i know that. that's part of our story. ten republicans, three of them republican in name only, and seven in good standing were what voted -- what the vote to acquit came from. in other words, it was members of the republican party that you've simply got to have everybody on the same page. and in fact the republicans did not. charles sunder for example would have voted to convict even if the articles of impeachment had been a laundry list. charles sunder is on the left. the poet henry longfellow is on the right out there a close friend of his. but most republicans needed more than that. they needed the charges to be proven, the charges to be legal. in point of fact many of us like to think of this trial as if it was a partisan trial with people voting their political opinions.
as a matter of fact, that's not true at all. the republican senators weighed the evidence carefully and out of 11 articles of impeachment by the time before the vote came it was very clear that most republicans could not support more than about one of those articles, that the other articles could not be voted on because in large part they almost certainly would end in johnson's acquittal. now, the seven republican senators in good standing who stood courageous to acquit johnson included the political small fry peter van wickal of west virginia, joseph of tennessee and edmund ross of kansas. but the big guns that made it possible for them to act, the ones that were the respectable voices were much more important figures like james w. grimes the chairman of the iowa committee, of high standing and mustrategic in the leadership of the senate.
or chairman of the senate judiciary committee and the author of the 1866 freedom rights act. these people count more than anyone else in making it possible for other senors to vote to acquit. why did these good republicans in good standing vote to acquit andrew johnson? why did it happen? there were a few republican senators who let it be known if their votes were needed for acquittal it would be available. so it actually wasn't the suspense riddled story we often see out there. it's not clear at all even the senator from ohio that would have replaced andrew johnson as president would have voted in fact if his vote had really mattered much. point of fact it's a nice thing
that you can cast your vote only when it's pretty much decided whether johnson was going to be acquitted or not which was in fact the case. why did these people vote to acquit? was it because one of the managers as he put it treated the trial of the president just the way he would in a court stealing case, well it is a little bit like that. that's benjamin butler right there, a man whose qualities it can be said included great ideas. was it because the prosecution's arguments didn't hold up very well? well, yes they did because it became very clear as they began to look at the law that johnson might not have violated the tenure of office act. he didn't appoint stanton to secretary of war, abraham lincoln did. which means in fact maybe johnson had every right to dismiss the secretary of war if he chose to do. it's a tricky matter. was it because there was
corruption out there and vote buying out there? well, point of fact there was vote buying out there by the president, but it didn't really work. apparently $30,000 was spent to buy three senators and none of those senators voted for conviction anyway because after all, who's going to tell? is andrew johnson going to say these guys are not honest. an honest one is one -- these people have been stolen from me? the moment you do that you've got an indictable offense. you can convict him hands down out there. there's nothing to it. in point of fact, the corruption didn't make much difference. the real answer to it is something very different. suppose andrew johnson were acquitted what worse could he possibly do? every republican knew what that would be. he could sabotage reconstruction completely, he can choose somebody as secretary of war to handle the army to make it impossible. so what ultimately happens out
there is something very different. it was a deal. the deal was made by several of those judges of the president having dinner with the president where the president offered them something really crucial. he offered them the chance to decide who they would like for secretary of war. and they looked to -- to general grant to see who general grant would trust as secretary of war. and point of fact out there andrew johnson all at once was playing ball very much the way he ought to have played it to begin with. he did not try to challenge the trial. he did not insist that the house was an illegal body with no right to impeach. he did not insist that the senate was an illegal body with no right to try him though he toyed with those ideas, private, he was prepare today be tried out there.
and point of fact by the time andrew johnson comes up for a vote to convict or acquit, much of the fears of what he can do have vanished. republicans had feared that the democratic party might nominate him for president that summer, which would only add to his power for mischief and maybe saddle the country with him for another four years. but the moment andrew johnson was impeached all the democrats went to go, hey, i never met this guy before in my life. we have nothing to do with this, we know-nothing, nothing. it was wonderful to watch. and it became very clear they would nominate anybody rather than andrew johnson for president that summer, which went andrew johnson was automatically a lame duck. they even talked nominating for president a person as republican as they come. we could say mr. ashley's patron
portland chase who believed in the equal rights of man continued to stand on that one issue. and by that time seven of the southern states had voted on those reconstruction constitutions and in every state a majority of the voters voted to ratify. that his power of damage was lost. but the staerkt of war's power out there is critical. have the king come up with control of it army and he's put himself in checkmate, which is exactly it could be said what happened. under the advice of general grant the senators going to judge whether johnson was guilty
or not got him to agree to nominate a good union general, a conservative man but a man who believed in abiding by the rule of law and of the congress for secretary of war and to send that nomination in. there is in other words a clear connection. the story is very clear. the moderates voted to acquit partly on the issues involved. partly on the law, but also because they had removed most of the risk. andrew johnson had been tamed, so 11 months later with johnson retired at the end of his term there was good reason for the drawing in this cartoon. the impeachment managers had killed all the andrew johnson that actually mattered as a viable and powerful force. and yet -- and yet -- how do i
start it? he gets off topic momentarily but not that far. in arkansas' convention when it was over and they had made the mest constitution arkansas had ever had the delegates congratulationsed themselves on creating a society based on equal rights and one delegate rose and he said, not so fast. we have created a plan of government. we have gone through a river of blood to get to a promised land. but, gentlemen, we have not crossed the river jordan yet. we are not yet over. and that is also the truth about reconstruction. reconstruction is saved at least for the moment by andrew johnson being defeated and checked. by the end of the year it was very clear that there were many other forces to undo reconstruction.
look at this. this is headline from the richmond wig at the killing of a black voter. and the headline is, one vote less. see that? that's what you've got. general sheridan once said if he had a choice between living in hell and living in texas he'd live in hell and rent out texas. and that's the story for louisiana as well, georgia as well. terrorism and violence in tremendous array to take those states away from a majority of the black and white voters that supported reconstruction. by intimidation, by violence, and the rise of the klan. reconstruction would be on life supports even with the departure of andrew johnson. it would be at the edge of failure. which means in point of fact we come to thaddeus stevens in the weeks before he died. he felt a deep sense of failure not at the failure to convict johnson alone but his belief that reconstruction as it had
been setup was not good enough, not strong enough, would not last. to a reporter he would say and did say my only regret is that i have lived so long and so uselessly. is there a moral to all of this. the so what question, the most important question in history. and the answer to that is in that time since there are no final victories. the battles in america must be fought over and over again. it's always been that way through my lifetime and my parents lifetime. we need to remember in fact not just then but in all-times, in all ages it is a never ending task to see the government of the people, by the people for the people shall not perish from
the earth. thank you. anybody have questions? what would you like to know? >> mark, i feel a little bit awkward asking a question at the conference i'm running but i have actually a two-part question. the first one is that you referred to a number of republicans who voted for acquittal as brave men and implied what they were doing is correct, and that is -- i wonder if that's what you meant to have us think. and the second question is a standard interpretation of the failure to convict johnson is that so many republicans could not stomach the thought of ben
wade being president. and i wonder how both of those things fit into your narrative. >> glad to do it. first of all, a person can be brave without being right. i called them brave because i saw themselves as taking their political careers in their hands. that does not mean they were right. if i'd been able to vote i probably would have voted gelt of that and much more. but it doesn't change the fact that what they did took a fair bit of courage, and they were honored by it. now i want to caution another thing about this. very often very bad books by very bad historians -- i'm thinking of a person that wrote a book called profiles of courage, for example, or profiles in courage. but there are others. we'll say these people destroyed their political career because none of them was ever elected to the senate again. in large part because in many of
their states the opposition party came into power and they elected their guy. it had nothing to do with being purged. as for the republicans who voted for acquittal it took barely a month before they were brought back into the republican fold. and the paper that denounced them the most insisted they had nothing to say about these peoples conscience, that they had acted in conscience. in point of fact it was a bravery, but turned out the bravy was not as necessary, and they did not pay the kind of price for it we often think they pay. that's one kind of thing. ben wade was a rough, raw brute kind of man, insulting and very good at the use of racial epithets even as he spoke for racial equality, a remarkable thing. you can beat a man like charles summoner over the head with a cane in the senate 1856. nobody was going to beat ben wade not when he very
conspicuously put two pistols into his desk. it's not going to happen out there. you don't mess with him. that's the fact. but ben wade also in fact on economic matters leaned toward an easy money system that benefitted debtors over creditors. he spoke in favor over the rights of labor. and for many of the eastern republicans for whom the gold standard or equivalent was a god this was very frightening. and they saw in ben wade a very dangerous man to have as president and a man in terms of his personal habits was not particularly presidential. i mean that's a simple fact. i think ben wade in fact was a remarkable and talented man, but there's no question grimes and trumble absolutely detested him. and that certainly was a factor. but so were the other arguments as well. so that kind of answers that question i hope. other questions?
>> nobody in this day and age believes the tenure in office would apply certainly to the current person. when did tenure in office cease to become dispute snd. >> the tenure of office act was largely gutted, just a small framework was left because the republicans assumed they could trust general grant. general grant wouldn't make mistakes if you give him more leeway. except for his cabinet which was appalling was perhaps a reasonable argument. i think the tenure of office act was repealed fully and completely in 1887. for a while republicans actually tried to use it against grover cleave and found themselves absolutely stymied and utterly embarrassed by it. so it has not been on the books now for about, well, about 125
years, something like that. what else? >> i believe that this -- the naming of andrew johnson as vice president was the last time in american history that a party picked as their candidate for that office a member of the opposing party. is this simply a coincidence or one lesson that somehow has seeped into the minds of people who make the decision of who would be vice president? >> well, that's a fair question. except wasn't joe leiberman nominated as vice president on the republican ticket? that was my impression. mccain wanted him there, okay that was my mistake. but it was a tempting kind of thing. i knew there was some reason i disliked leiberman but i couldn't remember what it was. let's use another issue out there which is back in the 1860s, '70s and '80s president
didn't really pick their vice president. they leave that to the party. and johnson and lincoln were essentially in the same party. that is to say they were both unionists. they were supporters of the union and the party in 1864 was called the union party. but if you look at the votes coming in, the union party is overwhelmingly made of republicans. that's the simple fact of it. it is more a name change than a reality. and the democratic vote that year is not all that far below what the democrats in the north usually got. so in that sense, yeah, there hasn't been anything like this much in the -- ever since. but in some ways johnson and lincoln were of the same party because both of them were determined that the union should be saved at all costs. and andrew johnson, slaveholder that he was, was a man that in 1864 had come to support the emancipation proclamation and
would twist arms in tennessee, his native state, to get that state to ratify the end of slavery as in fact it did. so johnson didn't look like that absurd choice not back then. what else? i guess we're set. great. >> weeknights this month we're featuring american history tv programs as a preview of what's available every weekend on c-span 3. during the great depression almost one quarter of the u.s. working population was unemployed. this gave rise to an increasing number of itinerant workers commonly referred to as hoboes. tonight jeffrey urban with the franklin d. roosevelt presidential library and museum
explains the origins of this term and how hoboes have been romanticized in popular culture. >> every saturday at 8:00 p.m. eastern on american history tv on c-span 3, go inside a different college classroom and hear about topics ranging from the american revolution, civil rights and u.s. presidents to 9/11. >> thanks for your patience and for logging into classes. >> with most college campuses closed due to impact of the coronavirus, watch professors transfer teaching to a virtual setting to engage with their students. >> gorbachev did most of the work to change the soviet union. but reagan met him halfway, reagan encouraged him, reagan supported him. >> freedom of the press which we'll get to later i should just mention madison originally called it freedom of the use of the press, and it is indeed freedom to print things and publish things.
it's not a freedom what we refer to institutionally as the press. >> checkers in history on c-span 3, every saturday at 8:00 p.m. eastern. lectures in history also available as a podcast. find it where you listen to podcasts. >> coming up on american history tv, a conversation with the author of the book "the politics of popular portrayals of andrew johnson's impeachment." we'll hear about how the impeachment was portrayed in a novel, and in jfk's 1957 book "profiles in courage." >> brook thomas is a professor in the english department at the university of california at irvine. i think you just take a meritous status which means he has more time to talk. and i'm honored he is