Photo credit: Elena Seibert
All my books begin with a question, and so The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation
began with a question inspired by Ecstatic Nation
: Why neither I nor many other people knew much about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, the first-ever impeachment of an American president; especially since it occurred at such a crucial time in the nation's history, shortly after the Civil War, when the country was reeling from more than 750,000 deaths and the horrific assassination of Abraham Lincoln, when four million people had been freed from slavery but had nowhere to go and no obvious source of income.
The country seemed broken. The new president was a Southerner and white supremacist, so whatever would happen to the nation, everyone wanted to know — and then, just three years after Appomattox, that President was impeached and brought to trial in the Senate.
When I heard anything about this impeachment — this major event in American history — I heard it was the result of a bunch of cracked partisans out to get a courageous president. Was this impeachment, then, as preposterous and partisan an event as it was made out to be?
So, when we were deep in the Obama presidency, when no one was talking about impeachment, I decided to dig in. And what I discovered was chilling, exciting, and profoundly important: the extent to which the aftermath of slavery lay behind Andrew Johnson's impeachment, which also meant the very fate of the nation was involved in its outcome. “The epoch turns on the negro,” Wendell Phillips said in 1868. “Justice to him saves the nation, ends the strife, and gives us peace; injustice to him prolongs the war.” That is, I learned the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was not concocted or executed by a bunch of wild fanatics but rather by thoughtful people seriously concerned with the direction the country was taking at a time when the nation stood at a turning point in its future — and slavery and the effects of slavery were rightly considered noxious. And just when the country needed a leader who recognized this and sought not just mercy for all but a way forward, treating all people equally under the law — as citizens — President Johnson abused presidential power, restored rebels to power, held Congress in contempt, called for the assassination of his perceived enemies like Senator Charles Sumner and Representative Thaddeus Stevens, and he fired his War Secretary, violating the Tenure of Office Act that had been passed specifically to protect this secretary.
Everyone in 1868 was concerned, as we are today, with the institution of the presidency.
I also learned there are and have been people in and out of government with a farseeing, fair, and equitable vision of what American can be.
thus tightly zooms in on the critical events leading up to the overwhelming vote to impeach a sitting president — such as the bone-chilling massacres in Memphis and New Orleans in the spring and summer of 1866. It focuses on the trial as well as the almost Shakespearean characters driving impeachment forward and the larger-than-life people ably defending the president. It focuses on the infuriating figure of President Andrew Johnson, who, before the Civil War, had been the only United States senator from the South to oppose secession. That had taken courage. He was burned in effigy from one end of Tennessee to the other.
met with President Johnson in the White House and noted that he dressed to perfection. Not a crease anywhere — and not a man to be trifled with. "A man (I should say)," Dickens privately remarked, "who must be killed to get out of the way."
Not quite. But Andrew Johnson was acquitted in the Senate by just one vote. That vote was cast by a junior senator from Kansas, although it likely had been bought, or at least bribed, with favors. Still, President John F. Kennedy praised that vote and that voter in his Profiles in Courage
. But who was really courageous? I wanted to learn that too.
I also learned this important fact: that everyone in 1868 was concerned, as we are today, with the institution of the presidency. Mark Twain
and Walt Whitman
, for instance, recorded what was happening in Washington — and they too appear in the pages of The Impeachers
. For I did not wish to write a traditional political history. Rather, I hoped to learn, and I want my reader to learn, about the writers, the artists, the journalists, and the lawyers who were involved in the trial in one way or another. Both Whitman and Twain lived in Washington before and during the trial, which happened to be the hottest ticket in town. And color-coded tickets were quite hard to come by, although the British novelist Anthony Trollope finagled one of them when he visited the nation's capital.
To enter the Senate during those spring days of 1868, when the trial was taking place, men and women handed their precious tickets to the uniformed Capitol police. The police then ushered the spectators inside the building after checking them for explosives. Reporters pushed into the Senate gallery to grab a good seat, where they spent their time furiously scribbling; some people brought their lunch. Outside, newsboys shouted the latest. It was as if time stood still.
But it didn't. It hasn't. I think our current administration might learn from history, as I certainly have. Of course, we cannot predict what people will learn. But overall, I do think there's an important lesson to be had: impeachment is a constitutional process that was undertaken in 1868 only after great and serious deliberation. It was not done casually, and it was the court of last resort. At the same time, once begun, impeachment can certainly imply a vision for a more responsible government. Back in 1868, impeachment held out hope for a far more perfect union, one in which slavery no longer held anyone in thrall.
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is the author of the award-winning Hawthorne: A Life
, Genêt: A Biography of Janet Flanner
, and Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein
. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in many publications, among them The American Scholar, The New York Times Book Review, Parnassus, Poetry
, and The Nation
. A Guggenheim fellow, a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, and twice of the National Endowment for the Humanities, she teaches in the MFA programs at Columbia University and The New School and lives in New York City. The Impeachers
is her most recent book.