Current calls for impeachment of the president call to mind another impeachment a century-and-a-half ago.

In 1861, U.S. Sen. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee opposed his brother southerners. He supported slavery, but claimed that secession was unconstitutional (although his stance was felt by many to be simply a part of a stubborn nature.)

At any rate, he was a relatively rare bird in Washington and, when Lincoln faced an uncertain 1864 election, Johnson was chosen as a vice presidential candidate. Party managers believed that as a Southern Democrat who had stuck with the Union, he would help the ticket among the border states and Copperhead Democrats. (Selection of vice presidential candidates in those days was based on “ticket” potential; presidential abilities were hardly considered).

Once president, however, Johnson’s character and beliefs were soon evident. A poor frontier boy, illiterate until grown and married, he was never far from his “poor white” origin. A Huey Long-type orator, he had risen rapidly through local and state politics in Tennessee, becoming governor and later senator – all the while steadily supporting slavery. He had never lost his hatred for Negroes, claiming them to be inferior beings incapable of making rational decisions. He remarked that Frederick Douglass, the great freedom leader, “would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.”

Congress considered men who had led the South to be traitors. With Lincoln’s approval, it had required the “cleansing” of ex-Confederate leaders from office, and had established rights for ex-slaves. These provisions were opposed by Johnson as a senator, and once in the presidential office, he not only refused to obey or enforce them, he also went out of his way to destroy them. He appointed persons to office in the newly returned states who would not swear loyalty to the United States as required by law. He returned property to whites that had been seized by the Army and allocated to ex-slaves (again violating the law). Despite the fact that several former secessionist states had recently elected unregenerate Confederate officials and had passed “black codes,” he personally invited these states to rejoin the Union with full privileges of governing themselves.

Congress took action with a series of laws known as Reconstruction Acts (passed over Johnson’s veto) which divided the South into military districts under martial law. Army chief U. S. Grant put Sherman in charge of this Reconstruction, where he used Army officers as registrars for voters, held registration drives, provided protection for elections and removed local politicians, judges – even the governors of states who refused to obey federal laws.

Johnson said he was willing to “oppose this law even though such resistance would likely produce violent collision between the two branches of government,” adding, “I am opposed to the Africanization of half of our country.” Over Grant’s strong objections, he fired Sherman.

There were ample grounds for impeachment – Johnson certainly failed to “take care that the law be faithfully executed.” But, unwisely, rather than facing the issue head on, Congress chose to charge him with a narrow technicality under the Tenure of Office Act having to do with the president’s power of removal of cabinet members. Confined to a judgment made exclusively on these narrow grounds, impeachment failed and black Americans were denied a future for another century.

Whether history provides advice today is a matter of opinion.

Rodney Quinn, who lives in Gorham, is a former Maine secretary of state. He can be reached at [email protected]

A limited number of his book, “Gorham During the Great Depression,” can be purchased at the Baxter Memorial Library.

Quinn’s Corner – A short – and timely – history lesson


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