Reconstruction: Was It a Success or a Failure?
It took less than 50 years for historians to declare the impeachment οf President Andrew Johnson “a solemn theatrical fiasco.” From the perspective οf a century, Harvard scholar Raoul Berger called it “a sobering admonition against lighthearted resort to such removal οf the president.”
History may be no kinder in its view οf the current proceedings against President Clinton, or οf the partisans who are driving the process. Like the Radical Republicans οf 1868, they are in danger οf being remembered as zealots for a lost cause.
The problem today is with unseemly haste. A leaderless, lame-duck House is hurtling toward the second presidential impeachment vote in history without building public support and without conducting an independent investigation. Supporters know the effort could fait on the floor, or at least in the Senate. But in their rush to get this crusade into the history books, they act as if the only stain left behind will be an official blot on Clinton’s record.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde and Speaker-in-hiding Robert L. Livingston might look to protect their reputations. A review οf “The Impeachment and Trial οf Andrew Johnson” by Michael Les Benedict and other histories shows parallels that might give them pause.
Then, as now, high-minded morality was on the side οf the impeachers.
Then, as now, the matter was rushed through the House without attention to specifics.
And perhaps most tellingly, then, as now, Congress seemed to be at odds with the message οf an election.
When the postwar Congress convened in 1867, Republicans had a 143-49 majority in the House and a 4211 spread in the Senate. The Radical wing οf the party was dominant, eager to sweep aside Johnson, the Southern Democrat who had accidentally become president and blocked their plans to dismember the Confederacy. The most powerful Radical leaders, Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, towered over the House and Senate, respectively, and vilified Johnson at every chance. Impeachment resolutions were introduced in Congress early in 1867, and hearings tried to find a basis for such a move.
But then an election intervened. It is little noticed today because it was not a federal contest, but the local elections οf 1867 provided a shock. In state after state, Democrats rebounded. They won control οf the Ohio legislature — and in those days, senators were chosen by state legislatures. One οf the Radical leaders, Benjamin Wade, would lose his Senate seat. “The impeachment movement is dead,” mourned a Radical columnist.
Nevertheless, a lame-duck Judiciary Committee approved an impeachment resolution on a 5-4 vote. It lost on the floor, 57 to 108, largely because the report, described by Benedict as “injudicious in language, even violent in spirit,” failed to allege a crime.
But the Radicals pressed ahead nonetheless. They found their crime early in 1868 when Johnson fired Secretary οf War Edwin M. Stanton in defiance οf the Tenure οf Office Act, designed to keep the Cabinet and Reconstruction policy under congressional control. The law defined a dismissal as a “high misdemeanor.” And so the House did not need to think very hard. Within two days, by unanimous Republican vote, it impeached Johnson.
What the Radicals did not notice was that their Tenure οf Office Act did not apply to Stanton, who had been appointed by the previous president, Abraham Lincoln, and under the law’s provisions could be replaced. Johnson’s supporters did not make a big deal οf this at first, but it became a crucial argument in the Senate trial, persuading several moderate Republicans to vote against impeachment.
After losing by a single vote in the Senate, the Radical cause was extinct within five years. Stevens and Sumner, major figures in congressional history, now are frozen in memory mostly for overreaching on impeachment.
Even in this oversimplified version, there are no clear heroes or villains. Johnson was a racist, small-minded, intemperate man unsuited to his office. The Radical goal οf immediate equality for former slaves shines even more admirably now than 130 years ago.
Historians will have their own take on Clinton’s mendacity and his leadership, and it is not likely to be kind. There are no giants such as Stevens or Sumner in this Congress, and even Speaker Gingrich is on his way out.
But as today’s leaders resort to overblown rhetoric to puff up a matter the public has judged to be trivial, they risk looking out οf step with a nation that, now as then, wants reconciliation, not retaliation.