High Crimes And Misdemeanors : Throughline When Andrew Johnson became president in 1865, the United States was in the middle of one of its most volatile chapters. The country was divided after fighting a bloody civil war and had just experienced the first presidential assassination. We look at how these factors led to the first presidential impeachment in American history.

High Crimes And Misdemeanors

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Hey. It's Rund here. And this week, we wanted to revisit a conversation we had a few months ago that feels pretty timely. It's with the historian Brenda Wineapple.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: The author of the forthcoming book "The Impeachers: The Trial Of Andrew Johnson And The Dream Of A Just Nation."

ABDELFATAH: "The Impeachers" is now out, and it details the very first test of what the founders decided would be the ultimate consequence for presidential misbehavior.



Presidential impeachment.


ARABLOUEI: So presidential impeachment isn't a foreign concept for most of us. The last presidential impeachment was in the 1990s with Bill Clinton.

ABDELFATAH: Throughout all of American history, it's only happened two times - well, almost three. The point is, the country has rarely had to tackle the question of whether to fire the president and what that would mean, partly because it's really difficult to impeach a president.

ARABLOUEI: And that's by design. First, Congress has to decide whether the president has committed an impeachable offense. In the Constitution, it's defined as treason, bribery or something called high crimes and misdemeanors.

ABDELFATAH: Which, like, what does that even mean?

ARABLOUEI: Right. And figuring that out is just the first obstacle. Then a majority of the House of Representatives must vote to impeach. And finally, it goes to the Senate. There's a trial, and two-thirds of that body has to vote to convict before the president can be removed from office.

ABDELFATAH: So imagine trying this for the first time, back in 1868, with President Andrew Johnson. There was some intense drama.

After the break, Andrew Johnson becomes the president in the midst of a crisis - and then becomes the crisis himself.


AUGUSTA KUYAS: Hi. This is Augusta Kayas (ph) from Honolulu, Hawaii, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


ABDELFATAH: Let's set the scene to give you a sense of what the situation was in the U.S. at that time.


ARABLOUEI: So the Civil War came to an end in 1865. That same year, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The war was devastating, especially in the South, where thousands of people were displaced and destruction was everywhere.

ABDELFATAH: With the end of slavery, millions of African Americans were free, and their status as citizens needed to be decided. There were really different opinions about what that should look like. Basically, the country was a mess, and it was unclear how it was going to come back together.

ARABLOUEI: And with Lincoln out of the picture, the job of fixing the country fell to his vice president, Andrew Johnson.

WINEAPPLE: As a senator from Tennessee, he was the only Southern senator who stood up and protested against secession. And in the North, he was considered a hero, really.

ABDELFATAH: So why Johnson? Well, Lincoln, a Republican, chose Johnson, a Southern Democrat, to show that he was interested in representing all Americans, North and South. And even though the vice president is technically next in line, few people, including Johnson himself, actually thought he'd ever be running the country. But with Lincoln's assassination, it was now up to Johnson to deal with all the big questions facing the country.

WINEAPPLE: You know, how do you put Humpty Dumpty back together again?

ABDELFATAH: Right, right.

WINEAPPLE: You know, on what terms are you going to let these rebelling states back in the Union? You just say - oh, it's OK, you didn't mean it? You know, do you say - oh, well, you never really left? But they said they left. They had their own government and constitution.

ABDELFATAH: They fought a war over it.

WINEAPPLE: Yeah, they fought a war over it. So what do you do - do you punish them? Do you not punish them? It's an interesting question, really.


WINEAPPLE: The other thing is you've got 4 million people who'd been enslaved. What are you going to do? You know, are you going to give them civil rights? You going to give them political rights - which is to say, allowed to vote? How are you going to get these people jobs? They hadn't been allowed to learn to read and write. I mean, it's just an enormous - to use the words of today - humanitarian problem.

ARABLOUEI: And where did Johnson stand on that, those questions?

WINEAPPLE: He was not a progressive. He pretty early on vetoed the first Civil Rights Act and something called the Freedmen's Bureau bill, which was funding to deal with refugees, former slaves, that were...

ABDELFATAH: And he vetoed that.

WINEAPPLE: He vetoed both bills. And it was shocking, actually, to many people, particularly the ones who put together the bills - because they thought Johnson was going to OK it because they didn't think it was particularly radical. I mean, civil rights - you know...


WINEAPPLE: ...Well, of course you're going to give people the right to travel freely or to marry or to buy property. I mean, that seems basic.

ABDELFATAH: It sounds like his change in stance on some of these issues and policies was a surprise to some of the people in Congress and caught them off guard.

WINEAPPLE: Well, he didn't change. It's like the scales fell from their eyes.


WINEAPPLE: The fact of the matter is that he was always Andrew Johnson. He had never been - never mind an abolitionist; he'd never been antislavery. He only sort of consented to emancipation because it was politically expedient for him to do that. When he had money and when he's worked himself out of apprenticeship and then he became fairly well off, then one of the first things he did was buy slaves.

Johnson was an avowed white supremacist. And then a little bit later, when the 14th Amendment was debated and then it was going to be sent to the states to ratify, which was a way of codifying civil rights - you know, Johnson basically campaigned against it.

ABDELFATAH: Against the 14th Amendment.

WINEAPPLE: Yeah (laughter).


WINEAPPLE: Really, you know, I mean, that's quite something. And he went on a whistle-stop tour.


ARABLOUEI: At this point, clearly, Johnson's frustrating Congress. But when does it become all-out political warfare?

WINEAPPLE: By 1866, things are getting really bad. And then that particular spring and summer, there are uprisings - or, they were called, riots. They were basically massacres in two cities, one in Memphis and then in New Orleans. And it was - it was just horrible. And it's basically ex-rebels, Confederates against black people. They're basically race riots, except only one race is rioting, and the other's being slaughtered. And that seems to be a result of Johnson's policies.


WINEAPPLE: So more and more, Johnson is losing whatever kind of backing he might have had among even moderate Republicans in Congress.

At the same time, there isn't serious talk. There's talk about impeachment. But you know, think about this then. (Laughter) Going back - you just ended a civil war; the country's broken and in pieces; people are starving; you've got 4 million people who had been enslaved and deprived of all kinds of rights. And at the same time, you've got first presidential assassination. And now you're thinking of impeachment when that's never been done at the presidential level.


WINEAPPLE: So needless to say, there are a lot of people who are, like, really nervous about it.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, on what grounds would they even impeach him at this point? What were they saying?

WINEAPPLE: Well, what they would say, basically, is abuse of power, obstruction of Congress. But by your very question, you're getting to the heart of something. What is the nature of impeachment? Can somebody be impeached for political offenses? Or does it have to be an infraction of law? If it's political offenses, then anything goes at any time, the argument is.


WINEAPPLE: If it's an actual infraction of a law, then you have to wait till somebody breaks the law.

ARABLOUEI: If they're unsure about impeaching Johnson at this point, what changes?

WINEAPPLE: So there's a lot of political upset about Johnson because not only is he defying Congress but then, slowly and surely, he begins to defy the military. And what Congress starts to do in response is not impeachment but pass what are called the Reconstruction Acts, where it basically takes back its function and says, OK, we're going to determine what allows a state - a formerly seceded state - to go back into Congress and to regain their representation. And the way we're going to decide - we're going to divide the South, the formerly seceded states, into five zones, and we're going to oversee elections there. And those were the Reconstruction Acts.

Johnson, by this time, has a new attorney general and gets him to write rules that undercut the fact that these are military men who are overseeing these sections. And of course, Johnson and his allies were saying, this is military occupation; you can't do this.

ABDELFATAH: All right. So Congress has decided that the U.S. military should be responsible for, you know, maintaining law and order in the South. But Johnson, on the flip side, says it's military occupation. How does Congress respond?

WINEAPPLE: What Congress does is try to tie Johnson's hands. And so what they do is they pass laws that basically say that he can't really fire a federal officer without the, you know, advice and consent of the Senate.


WINEAPPLE: So - and they're doing that because they know that he wants to get rid of Secretary of War Stanton, who's backing the military, who's backing the Reconstruction.

ARABLOUEI: And what does Johnson do?

WINEAPPLE: He tries to fire Stanton, and Stanton won't leave. Stanton says, I'm not going. The Senate says, you don't have to go. And Johnson defies them and appoints somebody else.


WINEAPPLE: At a certain point, the House had no choice anymore. They had been avoiding going down this road. This is the third time it came up.



WINEAPPLE: They hadn't wanted to do it.

ABDELFATAH: Impeachment was the last resort.

WINEAPPLE: It's really the last resort.


ABDELFATAH: Maybe they didn't want to do it, but they did it. When we come back, the trial of Andrew Johnson.


TANYA: Hi. My name is Tanya from Spring, Texas, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


ARABLOUEI: All right. So it's February 24, 1868. And for the first time in American history, the House of Representatives is voting on whether to impeach a sitting president.

WINEAPPLE: So of course the House votes overwhelmingly to impeach him, and then the impeachment goes to the Senate for trial.

ARABLOUEI: Was this, like, high political drama at the time?

WINEAPPLE: Yeah, high political drama - it was - you couldn't get a ticket. Really, I mean...

ABDELFATAH: Wow. It was all over the newspapers?

WINEAPPLE: All over the front page, every newspaper in the country. I mean, how could it not be? I mean, think of it if it was today or yesterday. I mean, of course it's big news.

ARABLOUEI: And what does the trial in the Senate look like?

WINEAPPLE: The trial starts in March, and it's over by May.


WINEAPPLE: So it's not that long. But it's long enough to sow a lot of doubt. And because both sides argued brilliantly and because Johnson had some wonderful lawyers on his side making very interesting arguments, you know, that was persuasive to many. But there's always behind-the-scenes politics.


WINEAPPLE: So it's not just simple of - oh, it's up or down. It's like, what are the political ramifications? What's going to happen? Because it's 1868 - it's an election year. And the fact that the next in line for president was a man named Ben Wade - we don't know who he is anymore, but he was considered a radical Republican progressive. And that made a lot of people nervous.

ABDELFATAH: So what ends up happening with the trial?

WINEAPPLE: Johnson's acquitted by one vote.


WINEAPPLE: One vote.

ABDELFATAH: So he was one vote away...

WINEAPPLE: One vote.

ABDELFATAH: ...From getting voted out of office.

WINEAPPLE: That's right - one vote. But I should also mention one other thing - that money and bribery play a big part in what happens...

ABDELFATAH: Oh, really?

WINEAPPLE: ...And who votes, too. It's hard to prove. I would have loved to have proved it. But that particular one vote, his name is Edmund Ross. Let's just say that after the acquittal, he kept going back for more and more and more and more and more favors. And he did have financial problems. And it's very dubious whether his vote was as pure as he liked to pretend it was - or as courageous, yeah.


ARABLOUEI: So Johnson just barely...


ARABLOUEI: ...Gets away. Right?

WINEAPPLE: That's right. That's right.

ABDELFATAH: Coming up - how this decision affects us today.


KELVIN SANTOS: My name is Kelvin Santos (ph). I'm from Ponce, Puerto Rico, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


ABDELFATAH: So this was the first time that an impeachment trial happens...


ABDELFATAH: ...Against an American president.


ABDELFATAH: And even though he doesn't end up getting kicked out of office, I mean, what repercussions did this have?

WINEAPPLE: Well, you know what's interesting? You know what I think...


WINEAPPLE: ...Personally? I think the reason why I or you or, you know, other people really didn't know much about it...


WINEAPPLE: ...Is because nobody wanted there to be any repercussions. Nobody wanted to think about it. People wanted to just move ahead. Grant's famous political slogan for the 1868 race was "Let Us Have Peace." You know, one way to sort of understand that is to say, let's let bygones be bygones; let's forget about it.

ARABLOUEI: What lessons should we draw today - what an impeachment means for a society and the difficulty of an impeachment happening and what it actually, like, did to American society at the time then and could do today?

WINEAPPLE: It's twofold. You know, it's sort of a cliche, but I mean it. It is a court of last resort. I mean, nobody wants to go through that process because it suggests a kind of failure. It was a failure to get the right leader or the failure of the leader to lead. But at the same time, it also suggests hope. And what I mean by that is that there is constitutional means of redress that if there are mistakes, that you can rectify them and move forward - there's a mechanism for that...


WINEAPPLE: ...And that it can happen in an orderly way, which is how impeachment happened in 1868. There were arguments made by rational, serious people on both parts, legally and morally and ethically. And so I think that one can take heart in that.


ARABLOUEI: That's Brenda Wineapple. Her book, "The Impeachers," is out now.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE.

ABDELFATAH: This show was produced by me and Ramtin and...





MICHELLE LANZ, BYLINE: Yo, yo, yo, it's Michelle Lanz. (Singing) Say my name, say my name.

N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: (Laughter) OK. Smizing and somber - N'Jeri Eaton.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann.

ARABLOUEI: And Chris Turpin.

ABDELFATAH: Original music was produced by Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: And let's keep the conversation going. If you have an idea or thoughts on this episode, hit us up on Twitter @throughlineNPR, or send us an email to throughline@npr.org.

ABDELFATAH: If you like the show, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts.

ARABLOUEI: And tell your friends to subscribe.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


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