Review by New York Times Review
Impeachment is A doleful affair. The nation has impeached a president only twice, and in each case the Senate failed to remove him from office, leaving a split decision with no clear winner and no clear justice. The first presidential impeachment, of Andrew Johnson in 1868, has been by and large written into history as a Big Mistake. That's largely due to the efforts of historians of the Dunning School, who spent decades creating a narrative of Reconstruction as a tyrannical, corrupt and failed social experiment. The restoration of white supremacy in the South was seen as a right and proper undertaking to reconcile a torn nation. According to the Dunning School, the Radical Republicans who impeached Johnson are the villains of the piece, and the story of Johnson's impeachment is a cautionary tale about the overreach of ideologues. Given that context, not to mention the headlines of today, it's hard to think of a better time for a reassessment of Johnson's impeachment. Brenda Wineapple's ambitious and assured volume "The Impeachers" rightfully recenters the story along the main axis of moral struggle in American history: whether the nation is indeed a democracy for all its citizens or not. "To reduce the impeachment of Andrew Johnson to a mistaken incident in American history, a bad taste in the collective mouth, disagreeable and embarrassing," she writes, "is to forget the extent to which slavery and thus the very fate of the nation lay behind Johnson's impeachment." Johnson was, to put it mildly, an odd duck: "the queerest man who ever occupied the White House," according to a contemporary. He was a bullheaded but canny narcissist, given to drunken harangues and racist demagogy. His aides tried in vain to keep him from making impromptu speeches to rowdy crowds lest he do something like call for the hanging of a member of Congress. An unschooled tailor who worked his way up the political ladder to become a Tennessee senator, Johnson harbored a deep resentment of the aristocratic Southern planters, who viewed themselves as his betters. When that aristocracy threw its support behind secession in defense of slavery, Johnson loudly, proudly dissented. "If you persist in forcing the issue of slavery against the government," he declaimed, "I say in the face of Heaven, give me the government and let the Negroes go." When he rode out of the state to Washington in 1861, he was tailed by secessionist assassins who wanted him dead. Though he was a Democrat, a party associated in the North with treason, his courageous defense of the Union made him an icon of patriotic loyalty and a natural tojóin Lincoln's National Unity ticket as vice president in 1864. But Johnson is a case study in how the very same character traits that make someone heroic under one set of circumstances can make him downright deplorable under another Thrust into power after Lincoln's murder, Johnson was terribly ill equipped to settle the two major questions that faced the nation: how the Confederate states would be reintegrated into the Union and whether America would become a multiracial democracy or the upholder of state-enforced white supremacy. On the first question, Johnson held the eccentric view that since secession wasn't constitutional, it had, essentially, never happened. The states had never left, and now that the war was over their representation should be re-established as quickly as possible. To Congress's growing horror, he acted on this belief by giving pardons to Confederates and appointing traitors to positions of power throughout the South. This had predictable results: the reassertion of white supremacist power in the former slave states, and spasms of antiloyalist and antiblack violence. "In the summer of 1865," Wineapple writes, "a few miles north of Decatur, Ala., a paroled Confederate soldier lured a former slave into the woods. The man was said to have gotten too 'saucy' when he learned he was free, so the ex-soldier shot him three times in the head and hurled his body into a river." This was one of countless such incidents. Former Confederate soldiers, sometimes wearing their old uniforms, roamed the South as newly empowered sheriffs, harassing, beating and arresting black freedmen. At night, the newly formed Ku Klux Klan set upon "black men and women and their white Republican friends ... yanked them out of bed, and whipped them with beech sapling switches before they rode off." In the most shocking incidents, ones that dominated press coverage across the North, militias in Memphis and New Orleans, with the full backing of local white governments, massacred black men and women and white Republicans in the streets by the dozen while the United States Army stood by. The reign of racist terror hardly troubled Johnson, for he was to his very bones a vicious racist. "This is a country for white men," Johnson had been heard to say, "and by God, as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men." He scoffed at the accounts of violence as Radical propaganda, the lurid fabrications of abolitionist fanatics. He hated the Freedmen's Bureau and the radicals who supported it, even comparing it to slavery itself, and he loathed the idea of black suffrage. "Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people," he proclaimed, and warned against efforts to "Africanize the half of our country." Such views were not uncommon, of course, and in fact at the beginning of Johnson's tenure, Northern white elites, not to mention the masses, had little or no enthusiasm for actual racial equality. But as the atrocities in the South got worse and the defeated traitors appeared to be snatching an improbable victory from the ashes of defeat, Northern politicians radicalized, and increasingly saw Johnson's administration as a dangerous failure, his invective toward Congress and his constant vetoes of even modest legislation intolerable. After a supremely ill-fated midterm campaign in 1866, in which Johnson brayed before crowds like a self-pitying martyr, Republicans won landslide victories. Their overwhelming majorities empowered the socalled Radicals, men like Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and Wendell Phillips, who were not only abolitionists, but believed, in Phillips's words, in "impartial justice to all races and people." Johnson was determined to make sure that never happened, and when Congress convened in 1867, impeachment became a possible course of action. But there were several hard questions. The problems with Johnson were obvious: He was a racist demagogue unfit for the office he held. But was that an impeachable offense? Had he committed a high crime or misdemeanor? Contemporaries wrestled with the question of whether a clear-cut legal infraction was necessary, and the most aggressive members of Congress (and some of the most self-serving) started several investigations to find some kind of smoking gun. They pursued unfounded rumors that he had invited prostitutes into the White House, and was even implicated in the assassination of Lincoln. When those expeditions came to nothing, the House Judiciary Committee originally voted in 1867 against impeaching the president. but as Johnson vetoed bill after bill designed to protect black Southerners and white loyalists and strip former Confederates of power, tensions between Congress and the president mounted. Congressional Republicans, with huge majorities borne of the fact that the Southern states had still not been readmitted, took matters into their own hands. Using their veto-proof majorities, they began to institute their own vision of Reconstruction, partnering with two heroes of the war who still held positions in the executive branch, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Under congressional Reconstruction, the Southern states were divided into military zones to be occupied and administered by the armed forces while they rewrote their constitutions and rebuilt new biracial governments for all their citizens. Ratification of the 14th Amendment was made a condition of their readmittance to the Union. This made for some odd bedfellows. Even though the Department of War was constitutionally under the president, it operated as a kind of quasi-independent entity to administer Reconstruction against the wishes of the commander in chief. "It was Johnson who was defying the laws of Congress and, in turn, the Army was defying him," says Wineapple, the author of several books on American history and American culture. "The situation was approaching mutiny on one side," one of Grant's aides wrote, "or else treason on the other." In order to safeguard this arrangement against an increasingly vindictive and erratic president, Congress used its vetooverride to pass the constitutionally dubious Tenure in Office Act. ft required the president to get Senate approval to remove his own cabinet officials. On Feb. 21,1868, Johnson triggered the impeachment tripwire when he defied Congress and sacked Stanton. The House promptly impeached him on 11 articles, the bulk of which dealt with Stanton's removal. Though much anticipated, the actual trial of Johnson ended up being more than a bit anticlimactic. In Wineapple's telling, it quickly descended into near-constant disputes over process and authority: Who gets to rule what will and won't be admissible? What witnesses can be called? Did Johnson intend to violate the law or merely challenge its constitutionality? The question of conviction would turn largely on the president's intent, and this proved a difficult thing to divine. As the trial stretched on, it was easy to lose the essence of the actual conflict amid the long-winded men in love with their own voices. James Garfield, then a member of Congress, complained that "this trial has developed in the most remarkable manner the insane love of speaking among public men. Here we have been wading knee deep in words, words, words." In the end, exhausted with the entire enterprise, desperate to return to some facsimile of normality and aided by some possibly unsavory back-room maneuvering, enough Republicans joined Democrats to vote against removal and spare Johnson by a single vote. Johnson was saved, but damaged enough that he couldn't even secure his own party's nomination for president that year. Ultimately, as Wineapple explains, there was a miserable mismatch between the cramped proceduralism embedded in Congress's articles of impeachment and the depth of Johnson's actual transgressions. The man had betrayed the cause of the war. He had desecrated the memories of the dead Union soldiers, black and white. He was, every day that he stayed in office, endangering the lives of freedmen and white unionists throughout the South. But he wasn't impeached for any of that. He was impeached largely over the fact that he fired a secretary of defense who openly hated him. The true "high crime" that Johnson committed was using the power of his office to promote and pursue a White Man's Republic. That was a usurpation greater than any violation of a specific statute. And for that, Andrew Johnson deserved impeachment and removal. True then; true now. CHRIS HAYES is the host of "All In" on MSNBC.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 2, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review
For even a great leader, having to succeed Abraham Lincoln would present formidable challenge. Like most vice presidents, Andrew Johnson had been nominated as a balance to the party's ticket. A Southerner from Tennessee, yet adamantly pro-Union, he was nevertheless an unreconstructed white supremacist. A self-made success as a tailor, he lacked education and, it would seem, intellectual curiosity. Wineapple (Ecstatic Nation, 2013) follows the story of Johnson's impeachment by radical Republicans who found the new president's approach to Reconstruction insufficiently punitive of recent rebels. Her focus is on the congressmen and senators whose animus toward Johnson drove forward the impeachment process. Fans of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals (2006) will appreciate how Wineapple's narrative carries forward the saga of the men Lincoln so relied on during the Civil War, as, newly leaderless, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Secretary of State William Seward drifted back into conflict and competition. Appomattox scarcely resolved the Civil War's intractable issues, and Stanton and Seward's contradictions continued unresolved. And the impetus to restore the Union ran counter to the fight for rights of freed slaves. Photo portraits included.--Mark Knoblauch Copyright 2019 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
As scholar Wineapple (White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson) persuasively argues in this detailed and lucidly written history, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, who ascended to the presidency after a mere six weeks as Lincoln's v-p, was motivated by the impeachers' view of Johnson's actions as undermining the sacrifices Americans had made throughout four years of war. Many of Johnson's fellow Republicans believed that his policies were antithetical to their aims of reconstructing the nation and helping millions of former slaves build new lives as free people. In February 1868, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson, but this decision was based less on his alleged offense-violation of the Tenure of Office Act-than on his refusal to support his party's aims. While previous scholars have viewed the impeachment, which failed to remove Johnson from office and allowed him to serve out his term, as an embarrassing political grudge fight, Wineapple argues convincingly that it clearly upheld the limits of presidential authority and the power of the constitutional system of checks and balances. Her arguments are novel and her prose lively (she describes the 14th Amendment as "a farrago of political jockeying, political compromise, and nagging anxiety about the future of a country where all people are created equal"). This book has much to offer enthusiasts of both historical and contemporary American politics. Illus. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
The impeachment of a president is a court of last resorteven one who willfully breaks laws while in office. Thus this lucid, timely study of the sole impeachment trial convened until 1998.Andrew Johnson was an accidental president, brought into office with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He immediately began to alienate allies: He was not keen on the prospect of African-American equality, pretty much ignored Congress, and quietly undid some of the work of Reconstruction. Writes Wineapple (Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, 2013, etc.), ultimately, "he sought to restore the South as the province of white men and to return to power a planter class that perpetuated racial distrust and violence." Moreover, he considered Lincoln-variety and more radical Republicans to be his enemies, not the former traitors who had seceded from the Union. For all that, as the author lays out in her carefully constructed narrative, Johnson made powerful enemies indeed. These included Lincoln's secretary of war, the indispensable politician Edwin Stanton, whom Ulysses S. Grant called "one of the great men of the Republic"; and the expansionist senator Charles Sumner, famed for having been caned on the floor of the Senate after denouncing slavery, who definitively turned on Johnsonwhom he called "ignorant, pig-headed, and perverse"when Johnson allowed the Southern states to bypass the question of whether blacks would be allowed to vote. The last straw was when Johnson refused to sign a civil rights bill with characteristic scorn. As Wineapple writes, "if the winning combination had been demagoguery and orneriness, with a touch of malice, thatno longer worked so well." Johnson was hauled before a court of impeachment but was acquitted after a series of legal arguments that the author renders with verve and skill, no easy feat given the technical nature of some of themthough, as she notes, the central question is one fit for the present moment: "What constituted an impeachable offense?"A superb contribution to presidential history. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.