After the bloody national catastrophes of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln, the people of the reunited union deserved a period of calm. That was not to be. “Peace had come,” the journalist Matthew Josephson later wrote, echoing Jeremiah, “but there was no peace.” Brenda Wineapple quotes Josephson in our cover story, an excerpt from her soon-to-be-published book on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. President Lincoln had been determined to undertake the reconstruction of the badly damaged South, while fulfilling the promise of emancipation to grant full citizenship to those who had been enslaved. Hopes that his successor—a southern Democrat who had argued against secession before the war—would advance Lincoln’s goals were soon dashed. As Wineapple writes, President Johnson instead “sought to obstruct, overthrow, veto, or challenge every attempt by the nation to bind its wounds after the war and create a just republic.”
The Republican majority in Congress eventually could not take it any longer, and after several attempts, the House impeached the president in 1868. There followed a dramatic trial in the Senate, presided over by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, in which the articles charging impeachment failed by a single vote. Johnson’s bid to extend his presidency ended when the Democratic Party did not nominate him.
Impeachment as a subject has its attraction today for reasons that need no elaboration. But several points in Wineapple’s article are especially pertinent to the present. One is that if a president is not guilty of treason and bribery—and there is no reason to hurry past those crimes in this instance—then the other constitutionally mandated reasons for impeachment are less concrete. Just what is a high crime or misdemeanor? In the two subsequent impeachment proceedings in our history, this question seemed less concerning in the case of Richard Nixon than in that of Bill Clinton. Another lesson to draw from Wineapple is that, however deserving of impeachment a president might be, there is no diminishing just what a radical step it is. It means, she points out, not only that an individual has failed. It also implies that an electorate has failed and thus, too, democracy itself.
During Watergate, Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor whom President Nixon ultimately fired, warned in another echo, this one of John Adams, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.” That ringing phrase ought to be on more lips today. If impeachment is a stain on representative government, how much worse the ignominy if impeachment were deserved but ignored?
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