Why Was Andrew Johnson Impeached?

President Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson was the 17th President of the United States.
Last modified: January 8, 2023

Andrew Johnson was the 17th president of the United States, taking office after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. He was the first president to be impeached by Congress, although this didn’t result in a conviction.

Why was Andrew Johnson impeached?

The simple answer is that he was accused of breaking the law. Specifically, his actions challenged an act of Congress passed one year before, known as the Tenure of Office Act.

More generally, Johnson had been in a running battle with Congress since late 1865. This confrontation between the executive and legislature resulted from opposing views on the most important issue of Johnson’s presidency. This was how to tackle Reconstruction, and the Reintegration of rebel states defeated in the American Civil War.

What Was the Tenure of Office Act?

The Tenure of Office Act stipulated that the president could not remove members of his Cabinet without the approval of the Senate.

President Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson contravened the Tenure of Office Act.

The act was passed largely to protect Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, who had carried over that position to Johnson’s Cabinet.

Stanton was aligned with the so-called Radical Republicans, Johnson’s primary opponents in the United States Congress.

Whereas Johnson wanted to be lenient with Southern states, letting them establish new constitutions and state governments with little federal oversight, Radical Republicans were harsher.

They wanted to restrict ex-Confederates from rejoining Congress and ensure that freed African American slaves were guaranteed rights (such as the right to vote).

Edwin M. Stanton – A Boon for Republicans and an Obstacle for Johnson

Despite Johnson’s efforts to wrest control of Congress away from Republicans, they won an even larger majority in both houses during the 1866 midterms.

They could now pass laws despite Johnson’s constant vetoes.

The Radical Republican plan for the South, which involved carving it into military districts, required the collaboration of whoever was leading the Department of War. In this case, it was Edwin M. Stanton who was fully on board with Radical Republican plans.

In other words, Stanton was the key to Congress executing their vision for Reconstruction. If Johnson could replace him, he could frustrate the Radical Republicans’ plans, and that’s exactly what he did, resulting in his impeachment.

Johnson Violates the Tenure of Office Act

Back in the 19th century, Congress only met for a few months of the year. According to the Act, President Andrew Johnson was permitted to remove members of the Cabinet while Congress was not in session.

Ulysses S. Grant photo
Johnson replaced Stanton with Ulysses S. Grant.

However, if the Senate did not approve of this change when they reconvened, the president would have to reinstate the original official.

So, while Congress was in recess, Johnson suspended Stanton, replacing him with Ulysses S. Grant. When the Senate reconvened in December, they did not approve the replacement, and Grant resigned.

By this point, Johnson was no longer interested in working within the confines of the Tenure of Office Act. He simply announced to the Senate that he had chosen general Lorenzo Thomas as the new Secretary of War.

The House Votes for Impeachment

The charge of impeachment was led by Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican leader whom Johnson had previously called a traitor.

Stevens announced that this was not a partisan impeachment but one that would determine the future of the entire nation.

Drawing of House of Representatives
House of Representatives in 1886.

A resolution to try Johnson based on “high crimes and misdemeanors” (the requirement for the president’s impeachment as per the Constitution) was voted on in the House of Representatives on February 24, 1868. It passed 126-47 (possibly 128-47 – there are conflicting reports).

This vote was largely along partisan lines, with most Republicans voting in favor and most Democrats voting against.

Articles of Impeachment

As per the United States Constitution, the House of Representatives votes on whether or not to impeach, and the Senate convicts the president or dismisses the accusations against him.

The next step in the process was for the House to draft specific charges against the president.

United States Constitution
United States Constitution.

Eleven articles of impeachment were created – nine of these had to do with Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act. At the same time, another claimed he’d violated the Command of Army Act, and another that he’d made threats against members of Congress.

On March 4, 1868, the articles of impeachment were introduced to the Senate, and President Johnson’s impeachment trial began. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presided.

Trial in the Senate

It’s important to note that there had always been a question of whether the Tenure of Office Act was constitutional. In fact, the Supreme Court found it was “likely” unconstitutional decades later, in 1926.  

Senate Chamber
Johnson went on trial before the Senate.

In response to the argument on whether the act was constitutional, the prosecution argued that even if the president thought the law unconstitutional, he still had to obey it.

Members of Congress were, after all, the representatives of the people, and so, they reasoned, Johnson had violated the people’s will.

Since the articles of impeachment implied that Johnson had intended to violate the act, his defense argued that the intent was to challenge the act’s constitutionality by bringing it to the Supreme Court. 

They also argued that since President Lincoln had appointed Stanton, the Tenure of Office Act did not protect him from being fired by Johnson.

The Outcome

After several months of debate, the eleventh article of impeachment was voted on first. This vote came to 32 for, 21 against – Johnson was acquitted on this charge as it fell just one vote short of the two-thirds majority required to convict.

Following a 10-day hiatus, the vote was the same for the second and third articles – 32 for and 21 against.

The White House
Following his acquittal, Johnson saw out his term in the White House.

33 votes would be necessary to achieve the two-thirds majority required by the Constitution to convict Johnson. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, the Senate adjourned on May 26 without voting on the eight other articles.

This is why we can say that Johnson was acquitted by just one vote.

President Johnson would remain in the White House until March 4, 1869. He was viewed as damaged goods by the Democratic Party and did not receive the 1868 presidential nomination – that went to Horatio Seymour, who Ulysses Grant defeated.

Modern-Day Impeachment Trials

Andrew Johnson is not the only president to face an impeachment trial. In modern times, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump have both faced impeachment proceedings and a Senate trial.

President Trump
President Donald Trump faced two impeachment trials.

Quiz Questions about the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson:

Questions:

  1. What was the Tenure of Office Act?
    A. A law that stipulated that the president could not remove members of his Cabinet without the approval of the Senate
    B. A law that restricted ex-Confederates from rejoining Congress
    C. A law that ensured that freed African American slaves were guaranteed rights such as the right to vote
    D. A law that required the president to reinstate the original Cabinet member if the Senate did not approve of the replacement

  2. Why did Andrew Johnson replace Edwin M. Stanton with Ulysses S. Grant while Congress was in recess?
    A. To frustrate the Radical Republicans’ plans for Reconstruction
    B. To show his support for ex-Confederates
    C. To ensure that freed African American slaves were guaranteed rights such as the right to vote
    D. To demonstrate his loyalty to the United States

  3. Who led the charge for impeachment against Andrew Johnson?
    A. Thaddeus Stevens
    B. Abraham Lincoln
    C. Ulysses S. Grant
    D. Edwin M. Stanton

  4. Why did the House of Representatives vote for impeachment on February 24, 1868?
    A. To determine the future of the entire nation
    B. To punish Johnson for his actions in breaking the Tenure of Office Act
    C. To show support for ex-Confederates
    D. To demonstrate their loyalty to the United States

  5. What was the result of the impeachment trial in the Senate?
    A. Johnson was convicted and removed from office
    B. Johnson was convicted but not removed from office
    C. Johnson was acquitted
    D. The trial ended in a mistrial

  6. Who were the Radical Republicans?
    A. A group of politicians who wanted to restrict ex-Confederates from rejoining Congress and ensure that freed African American slaves were guaranteed rights such as the right to vote
    B. A group of politicians who wanted to be lenient with Southern states and let them establish new constitutions and state governments with little federal oversight
    C. A group of politicians who supported the impeachment of Andrew Johnson
    D. A group of politicians who opposed the impeachment of Andrew Johnson

  7. Why did Johnson want to replace Edwin M. Stanton with Ulysses S. Grant?
    A. To frustrate the Radical Republicans’ plans for Reconstruction
    B. To show his support for ex-Confederates
    C. To ensure that freed African American slaves were guaranteed rights such as the right to vote
    D. To demonstrate his loyalty to the United States

  8. Who was Lorenzo Thomas, and what position did he hold in Andrew Johnson’s Cabinet?
    A. He was a general and the Secretary of War
    B. He was a general and the Secretary of State
    C. He was a general and the Secretary of the Treasury
    D. He was a general and the Secretary of Defense

  9. Who did the House of Representatives vote to try Andrew Johnson based on “high crimes and misdemeanors”?
    A. Thaddeus Stevens
    B. Abraham Lincoln
    C. Ulysses S. Grant
    D. Edwin M. Stanton

  10. What did the Senate do when they reconvened in December after Andrew Johnson suspended Edwin M. Stanton and replaced him with Ulysses S. Grant?
    A. They approved the replacement
    B. They did not approve the replacement, and Grant resigned
    C. They voted to impeach Johnson
    D. They voted to acquit Johnson

Answers:

  1. A. A law that stipulated that the president could not remove members of his Cabinet without the approval of the Senate
  2. A. To frustrate the Radical Republicans’ plans
  3. A. Thaddeus Stevens
  4. A. To determine the future of the entire nation
  5. C. Johnson was acquitted
  6. A. A group of politicians who wanted to restrict ex-Confederates from rejoining Congress and ensure that freed African American slaves were guaranteed rights such as the right to vote
  7. A. To frustrate the Radical Republicans’ plans for Reconstruction
  8. A. He was a general and the Secretary of War
  9. A. Thaddeus Stevens
  10. B. They did not approve the replacement, and Grant resigned

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *