Andrew Johnson, half-length portrait, facing left, circa 1885-1865
Andrew Johnson was the first President of the United States of America to be impeached.
On April 15, 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Vice President Andrew Johnson became president. Johnson's presidential administration was contentious and led to his impeachment.
The principal reason why the United States House of Representatives impeached Johnson was the existence of differing views over the nation's reunification following the American Civil War. Upon assuming office, Johnson retained all of Lincoln's cabinet officials. He at first followed a harsh policy toward the defeated Southerners, denying political rights to anyone who had supported the Confederacy in a military or governmental role during the rebellion. He also agreed to the arrest of several prominent Confederate officials. Johnson pursued this course at the urging of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, an Ohioan, and Radical Republicans in the United States Congress.
Johnson, however, did not desire to punish all Southerners for the Civil War. He blamed wealthy and powerful planters for the conflict. Johnson wanted to reunite the nation as quickly as possible, while punishing the leaders of the rebellion. He granted political rights to all Southerners who swore allegiance to the United States except for wealthy landowners and Confederate officials. Those Southerners that Johnson excluded from political rights could attain them by seeking a pardon directly from him. During late 1865, Johnson pardoned hundreds of applicants every day. He granted pardons to roughly ninety percent of the people who asked for them. By December 1865, Johnson also had allowed ten of the eleven seceded states back into the Union. His only conditions were that the states adopt a constitution that repudiated secession, acknowledged the end to slavery, and repudiated any debts that the states had entered into during the Civil War.
The Radical Republicans in Congress were angered by Johnson's actions. They refused to allow Southern representatives and senators to take their seats in Congress. In 1866, the Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill, which granted African Americans equal protection under the law with whites. The Congress also renewed the Freedmen's Bureau in 1866. President Johnson vetoed both of these bills, but the Congress overturned both vetoes. Following the congressional elections of 1866, the Republican Party controlled more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses of Congress. As a result of the Republican election victory, the Congress now dictated how the reconstruction of the Union would proceed.
The first action the Republican majority took was to enact the First Reconstruction Act, in spite of Johnson's veto. This act split the South into five districts. In each district, soldiers of the United States would enforce martial law. To gain admittance to the Union, the Congress required Southern states to draft new constitutions, guaranteeing African-American men the right to vote. The constitutions also had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted African Americans equal protection under the law. In effect, the Congress rejected Johnson's plan for Reconstruction and implemented a much harsher policy toward white Southerners.
While Congress repudiated Johnson's plan for Reconstruction, Johnson sought to destroy the Congressional plan as well. The Congress relied on Secretary of War Stanton to carry out their policies. Johnson decided to defeat Congressional Reconstruction by firing Stanton. By doing so, Johnson violated the recently passed Tenure of Office Act. This act stated that the president could not fire any officeholder that had received Senate confirmation until the Senate had approved a successor. Johnson violated this act by firing Stanton and replacing him with Ulysses S. Grant, an Ohioan. The House of Representatives immediately began impeachment proceedings. The president was impeached by a vote of 126 in favor of impeachment to forty-seven opposed on February 24, 1868. James Ashley, a representative from Toledo, Ohio, introduced the impeachment resolution. The Senate then tried the president on the impeachment charges. A guilty verdict would have removed Johnson from office. Salmon P. Chase, an Ohioan and the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, presided over the trial. In a vote of thirty-five to remove the president and nineteen opposed, Johnson remained president. The vote fell one vote short of having the two-thirds necessary to remove Johnson.
Johnson remained as president primarily because he privately had agreed to Congressional Reconstruction. More moderate Republicans also feared Johnson's successor if the Congress removed the president from office. Benjamin Wade, the president pro tem of the Senate, stood next in line for the presidency. Wade, an Ohioan, was a Radical Republican. Moderate Republicans feared that Wade would move quickly to secure African Americans equality with whites. They also were uncertain of the political and economic agendas that Wade would pursue. Johnson's willingness to work with the Congress convinced the Senate to keep Johnson as president.
Johnson's impeachment marked the first time in American history when a president was impeached. Two presidents have been impeached, but no president has been removed from office. Johnson's impeachment proceedings established a precedent. The Senate determined that no president should be stripped of power except for committing high crimes. In Johnson's case, many Republicans had differing views about how Reconstruction should proceed. Political differences could divide the government and its citizens, but they were not grounds to remove a president from office.
While Ohioans in Congress played a major role in Johnson's impeachment, many Ohioans did not share their leaders' views. While many Ohioans wanted to punish Southerners for the Civil War, they also opposed black equality with whites for both economic and racist reasons.