Sunday, February 25, 2007

February 24, 1868:

Andrew Johnson is Impeached

Several generations of school kids learned, right down to 1998, that the only president ever impeached was Andrew Johnson. He has lost that distinction, but the story of a vindictive Congress colliding with a bullheaded president, against the agonizing backdrop of Reconstruction, still resonates. Besides, there was very little drama in the US Senate trial of Bill Clinton -- not even a simple majority voted to convict. In Johnson's case, of course, the entire matter came down to one vote.

"Enormous crowds were milling about the Capitol, where that Monday [February 24, 1868] the lucky holders of tickets to seats in the tightly packed galleries had a field day," wrote Hans L. Trefousee in Andrew Johnson (1989). "After listening to speech after speech, they witnessed what they had come to see, the passage of [Rep. John] Covode's resolution impeaching the president of high crimes and misdemeanors by a strict party vote of 128 to 47. Then the House appointed a committee to draw up specific charges.

"While these dramatic events kept the spectators at Capitol Hill spellbound, the president was quietly taking dinner with Colonel Moore [William Moore, his secretary]. When the news of the House vote was brought over to the White House, he took it very calmly, simply remarking that he thought many of those who had voted for impeachment felt more uneasy over the position in which they had put themselves than he did in the one in which they had put him. As he had already told the reporter from the Washington Express earlier in the day, he was confident that 'God and the American people would make all right and save our institutions.' After all, he had merely wanted to bring the matter of the Tenure of Office Act before the Supreme Court. If this argument was somewhat disingenuous -- he was really interested in deciding a political question as well -- it made for good reading."

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