Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

February 24 marks the 142nd anniversary of the date on which the United States House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. This marked the first time (out of only two in our country’s history) that this particular check on presidential power contained in the Constitution was tested. America's Founding Fathers had a deep fear of executive power, which stemmed from their experience with what they deemed the tyrannical rule of the English monarchy. They had included several checks on the president when they wrote the Constitution, and impeachment was seen as perhaps the last resort in checking presidential tyranny.

But what exactly is impeachment? Have your students read Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, which explains when a president maybe impeached, and Article 1, Section 2.

Once they understand the process, students can consider the impeachment of President Johnson, which occurred amidst an atmosphere of bitter political struggle between the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress and Democrat Johnson, who opposed the Radicals' desire to inflict a harsh program of Reconstruction on the South. (Johnson was a United States Senator from Tennesee in 1861 but remained loyal to the Union when his state seceded that year.)

Johnson was formally impeached in the House of Representatives on February 24, 1868, in an indictment of eleven articles for alleged “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The House’s main charge was that President Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act when he replaced Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War with Lorenzo Thomas. The Tenure of Office Act, passed in 1867, provided that the president could not remove anyone from office who had been confirmed by the Senate without the consent of the Senate. Radical Republicans had passed the law over Johnson's veto in 1867, in the hope that Johnson would violate the act by trying to remove unilaterally the Radical Stanton from his cabinet post.

The impeachment trial began on March 5, 1868 with Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding. President Johnson was acquitted on May 16, by a very close vote – only one shy of the number required for conviction.

Have your students review the cases of both the prosecution and the defense. How would your students have voted if they had been in the Senate? It mightbe interesting to hold a mock impeachment trial in your classroom.