When Congress Almost Ousted a Failing President

Roundup
tags: impeachment, Trump, Andrew Johnson



Joshua Zeitz, a Politico Magazine contributing editor, has taught American history and politics at Cambridge University and Princeton University and is the author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image. He is currently writing a book on the making of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Follow him @joshuamzeitz.

It was an ugly scene that left reporters slack-jawed. The president of the United States—a man notoriously short of temper and stubborn in his disregard for polite convention—had addressed a howling throng of political supporters outside the White House. Rambling and incoherent, he managed to refer to himself over 200 times over the course of an otherwise wild, angry screed. He incited the crowd to violence against his political enemies, including prominent member of the House of Representatives. A moderate news outletcritically observed that he was “the first of our Presidents who has descended to the stump, and spoken to the people as if they were a mob.”

Though Donald J. Trump has attempted to situate his presidency in the tradition of Jacksonian populism, it is another Andrew—Andrew Johnson, the man who staged that lowly performance—who provides the more apt comparison. A full-throated white supremacist and rabble-rousing populist, Johnson—who came to power in 1865 after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination—offended friends and foes alike with his unrestrained rhetoric and rash exercise of executive authority. As president, he veered from one self-manufactured crisis to another. His political enemies suspected that he colluded closely with enemies of the state.

But it was his impeachment and ensuing Senate trial that offer the best lesson for contemporary observers. If any president deserved removal from office, surely it was Andrew Johnson. And yet he thwarted his opponents’ attempt to drive him from office, however narrowly. His acquittal raised the bar for future generations and makes it unlikely that any president—no matter how widely despised, unsuccessful or objectionable—can be booted from the White House, short of committing a demonstrable crime.

In his own time, people either loved or hated Johnson. There was no in-between. Horace Greeley, the fickle, cantankerous editor of the New YorkTribune, called him an “aching tooth in the national jaw, a screeching infant in a crowded lecture room.” One congressman dismissed him as “an ungrateful, despicable, besotted traitorous man—an incubus.” Others, like Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, viewed Johnson as a worthy heir to Lincoln—one who was uniquely qualified to reunite the North and South. Love him or hate him, Johnson was fundamentally an enigma, even to those who knew him best. He was a bundle of political contradictions. Observers chalked up hiscomplicatedcharacter to the Tennessee frontier, where he passed his formative years and emerged from the shadow of poverty to achieve great wealth and prominence.

Johnson was born to a poor North Carolina family in 1808 and apprenticed at age 14 to a local tailor. Illiterate and unschooled, yet desperate to make something of himself, he broke his contract and ran away from Raleigh, a refugee from the law and from his employer, ultimately settling in the small Tennessee town of Greeneville. There, young Andy opened his own tailor shop, courted and married the love of his life, and quickly amassed a small real estate fortune. By candlelight, he taught himself to read and write, and painstakingly mastered the arts of history and rhetoric. 

Johnson’s outlook would forever be rooted in the parochial world of the Tennessee frontier. He was an “ultra” Democrat—an egalitarian who opposed banks, corporations, and big government and supported the poor and struggling farmers of his East Tennessee congressional district. But like most Southerners, Johnson’s egalitarianism was lily-white: He was a slaveowner and a racist. Even as those views were widespread, as Johnson climbed the social ladder to respectability, by virtue of his roots, he forever saw himself as an embattled outsider. He accepted this status, and reveled in it. ...




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