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The fiery but mortally ill Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania led the impeachment drive, abetted behind the scenes by the military hero and president-in-waiting, General Ulysses S. Grant.
The Senate trial featured the most brilliant lawyers of the day, along with some of the least scrupulous, while leading political fixers maneuvered in dark corners to save Johnson's presidency with political deals, promises of patronage jobs, and even cash bribes. Johnson escaped conviction by a single vote.
David Stewart, the author of the highly acclaimed "The Summer of 1787," the bestselling account of the writing of the Constitution, challenges the traditional version of this pivotal moment in American history. Rather than seeing Johnson as Abraham Lincoln's political heir, Stewart explains how the Tennessean squandered Lincoln's political legacy of equality and fairness and helped force the freed slaves into a brutal form of agricultural peonage across the South.
When the clash between Congress and president threatened to tear the nation apart, the impeachment process substituted legal combat for violent confrontation. Both sides struggled to inject meaning into the baffling requirement that a president be removed only for "high crimes and misdemeanors," while employing devious courtroom gambits, backstairs spies, and soaring rhetoric. When the dust finally settled, the impeachment process had allowed passions to cool sufficiently for the nation to survive the bitter crisis.
With the dramatic expansion of the powers of the presidency, and after two presidential impeachment crises in the last forty years, the lessons of the first presidential impeachment are more urgent than ever.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 37.
- Review Date: 2009-03-09
- Reviewer: Staff
Fresh from his masterful The Summer of 1787, Stewart takes on one of the seamiest events in American history: the vengeful impeachment of Lincoln's successor as president; the Senate failed to convict Andrew Johnson by a single vote. At issue was the continuation of Lincoln's plans to reintegrate the South into the union after the Civil War. But also at stake, as always, was party politics. Stewart takes readers through a tangled web of motives and maneuverings in lively, unadorned prose. He's skilled at characterizing his large cast of characters and, as a lawyer, has a practiced nose for skullduggery, of which there was much. Corruption deeply marred the entire impeachment effort. Justifiably, Stewart holds his nose about most of the people involved and admires few of them. As he sums it up, in 1868 “none of the country's leaders was great, a few were good, all were angry, and far too many were despicable.” Stewart offers little analysis and advances no new ideas about what he relates, but he tells the story as well as it's ever been told. B&w photos. (May)
After Lincoln: Johnson, partisanship and Reconstruction
Andrew Johnson, the military governor of Tennessee, was chosen by the 1864 Union Party convention (a coalition of Republicans and so-called "War Democrats" opposed to the Civil War) as Abraham Lincoln's vice-presidential running mate because he was a Southerner and a Democrat. A steadfast defender of the Union throughout the Civil War, Johnson was placed on the ticket as an expression of national unity.
After the assassination of Lincoln, Johnson's greatest challenge was the reconstruction of the nation. The most adamant Congressional opponents of slavery, the Radical Republicans, sought major changes in the secession states and in ways to assist the freed slaves. Johnson did not share their principles or their goals. With increasing bitterness, the president and the heavily Republican Congress fought over issue after issue. When Republicans increased their numbers in Congress after the 1866 elections, they decided to take the extreme measure of impeaching the president, for the first time in American history.
In his magnificent Impeached: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy, David O. Stewart, author of the highly acclaimed Summer of 1787, provides an extraordinary narrative that brings the many key players vividly to life while at the same time exhibiting an admirable clarity in discussing issues and events.
Although procedurally judicial, impeachment is a political action. Stewart excels in describing the often-complex strategies and machinations of the politicians on both sides as they use all legal, and even illegal, means to prevail. The author notes that definite conclusions are elusive, but the evidence indicates that corruptionbribery and patronagemay well have determined one of the critical moments in American history: Johnson was acquitted by a single vote in the Senate.
At the heart of Stewart's re-creation of the period is Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. As a lawyer before the war, Stevens represented slaves and sometimes personally bought their freedom; his home had been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Stevens' legacy includes the 14th Amendment to the Constitution as well as Reconstruction legislation. After two failed attempts to steer presidential impeachment through the House of Representatives, Stevens was successful on a third try. Although he was the logical choice to lead opposition to the president, he was frail and in poor health. He did serve on the Impeachment Committee and co-authored Article XI, the catchall article that had more support in the Senate than the other 10 Articles of Impeachment against the president. Six weeks after Johnson was acquitted, Stevens introduced five more articles of impeachment against the chief executive.
Historians and writers have drawn very different lessons from this episode in history. In an excellent overviewin which he discusses myths about the trial and disagrees with Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy, who were more sympathetic than he is to JohnsonStewart concludes that Johnson's presidency can only be seen as a tragedy. Although Johnson's personal rise from poverty to the White House is inspiring, his refusal to compromise with Congress on crucial aspects of Lincoln's legacy was unfortunate. Lincoln was too good a politician to alienate Congress and too strong and compassionate a leader to accept violence and oppression toward the freedmen and the Southern Republicans.
Stewart's book splendidly illuminates an important chapter in American history.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.