Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States, had a tough job. He wasn’t even elected to be President of the United States. His predecessor was assassinated after waging a four-year war on several rebellious states within the federation his state belonged to, and his state was among the rebellious! He was picked by that same predecessor to be Vice President because of his ties to the opposition party (see Roger Schleuter’s explanation for Abraham Lincoln’s decision to pick a Democrat as his 1864 running mate). To top it all off, the assassination of Johnson’s predecessor occurred just five days after the rebels surrendered and ended the war.
That’s a tough slate.
Andrew Johnson hailed from Tennessee, which, along with Virginia (and possibly Cherokee country), bore the brunt of the violence associated with the Civil War due to its geographic location along the border of the rebellious Confederacy and the old Union. Johnson was a sitting senator from the state when it declared its independence from Washington and joined the Confederacy, but unlike his fellow senators from the rebellious Southern states, Johnson refused to quit his position. (The other senators quit in order to join the newly formed Confederate States of America’s government.)
Johnson’s decision to not support the Confederacy was straightforward. Under the constitution, the slave-holding states had no right to leave the Union and the Union had no right to abolish slavery. The election of an abolition-friendly politician did not give slave-holding states the right to attack a fort, much less leave the republic and form their own. That’s about as constitutionalist as you can get. So why does Johnson get low marks from historians? Probably because historians lean to the left and the left in general does not much like the American constitution, but also because Johnson’s post-war policies were different than Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction, and decidedly so.
Johnson gave the rebellious states a lot of leeway as they re-entered the union, which angered many Republicans and Northerners who had spent the last four years of their lives fighting the rebels. The policies carried out by the defeated rebels to re-implement racist laws only made matters worse, and Johnson’s decision to turn a blind eye - in the name of constitutionalism - threw fuel on the fire.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s impeachment trial had nothing to do with the regressive Black Codes in the South or the reintegration of rebel leaders into positions of power in federal politics. Nor did Johnson’s racism have anything to do with the impeachment trial. The impeachment trial was about Republicans covering their butts after their unconstitutional legislation regarding cabinet members became unpopular with the voting public.
Johnson’s impeachment trial wasn’t a Democrat-versus-Republican issue, either. Johnson was a pragmatic politician, as illustrated by his refusal to step down from the Senate. While Johnson kept a blind eye on self-governing events in the reconstructing South, and used his bully pulpit to oppose the 14th Amendment, he also tried to clear out Lincoln’s cabinet, which was a war cabinet and it did not make any sense to keep it around since the war was officially over. In one example, Johnson replaced a cabinet official with Ulysses S. Grant, so it wasn’t like he was corrupt or trying to fill cabinet positions with his cronies. But he was trying to purge his cabinet of warhawks, and the GOP did not like it.
In 1867, Congress had passed the Tenure of Office Act, which was designed to prevent Johnson from refilling his cabinet with peacetime bureaucrats rather than wartime bureaucrats. Johnson, of course, vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode Johnson’s veto and then, in March of 1868, tried to nail Johnson with violating the act. Johnson’s impeachment trial breezed through the House, which was dominated by Republicans, but the trial died, and rightly so, in the Senate. Andrew Johnson was the first President of the United States to undergo an impeachment trial.
Given the chaos that Andrew Johnson inherited, it is not surprising that his presidency was so tumultuous. A vicious, years-long civil war had just ended and a free people, bound together by a republican constitution, were trying to figure out how to heal wounds and go forward together.
Johnson, for his part, won the debate, at least in the long term. Subsequent Supreme Court rulings in the 1880s and 1920s supported his argument that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional. The 10 Republican senators who voted that Andrew Johnson was not guilty, thus preserving the balance of power between the three branches of government, were never again elected into a public office of any kind. They fell on their swords so that we could continue to be free. Johnson became the only man in American history to serve as a senator after serving as a President, when the people of Tennessee voted him back to Washington in 1875. He died in office just a few months into the job.