The High Price of Presidential Impeachment

President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment shows how removing a president can inflame tensions in an already divided nation.

The impeachment of President Andrew Johnson on February 24, 1868  (Bettmann / Getty Images)

About 150 years ago, as Congress prepared to impeach President Andrew Johnson, someone discovered two bottles of what seemed like nitroglycerin in a Senate passageway. Hysterical politicians fled the building—until some bold newspaperman swigged the liquid. It was just bourbon.

The incident provided a powerful metaphor for the way impeachment turned a substance politicians could usually handle into something highly explosive. After months of drama, Lincoln’s former secretary John Hay concluded: “Impeachment is demonstrated not to be an easy thing. The lesson may be a good one some day.” The lesson, as good in 2017 as it was in 1868, is that removing a president is an ugly process, which can dangerously inflame tensions in an already divided nation.

There were, in the late 1860s, real fears that impeachment could spark a second Civil War. That rebellion was barely over, and posed a number of unanswered questions. What did the nation owe to millions of freed slaves? How should the federal government treat Confederate leaders and seceded states? What should northerners do about the atrocious outbreaks of racist violence unfolding in cities like New Orleans and Memphis?

Things were little calmer in Washington. A victorious, sometimes-cocky, Republican Party controlled more than three-quarters of both houses of Congress. Yet in the White House sat Andrew Johnson, put into power not by a popular vote, but by Lincoln’s assassination. And Johnson, it was painfully clear, was hostile to blacks, lenient with rebels, and hell-bent on fighting Congress.

Johnson was, possibly, the worst man to lead the country at such a tense moment. Racist, crude, and grumpy, Johnson nursed an incredible persecution complex. At best, he was a formerly illiterate tailor who had worked his way up from poverty to the most powerful position in the nation, like his fellow Tennessean and personal hero, Andrew Jackson. At worst, he was paranoid, resentful, narcissistic. Washington politicos described a man who “always hated somebody,” “always defeats himself,” and was “always worse than you expect.”

There were, still, millions who sided with Johnson. White Democrats, especially in the lower north and the south, felt overwhelmed by Republicans. To them, Republicans were social-justice warriors intent on revolutionizing race relations and centralizing Federal power; most Democrats just wanted to return to the old union and old Constitution. Such Democrats launched the most bitterly racist campaigns in American history, rallying behind Andrew Johnson as a symbol of their struggle against change.

Johnson put his presidency on a collision course with Congress. He referred, constantly, to his unfair treatment and to his many enemies, at whom he spat bold, baseless claims. After white police officers slaughtered dozens of black activists in New Orleans, Johnson ridiculously blamed “the radical Congress” for the massacre. On a disastrous speaking tour across the Midwest—in which he drank heavily and compared himself to Jesus—Johnson called for the lynching of his most hated congressional rival, Thaddeus Stevens. Even relatively neutral observers like Senator John Sherman eventually concluded that he was beyond help, sighing: “The truth is, he is a slave to his passions and resentments.”

Johnson’s enemies were nearly as intent on conflict. They set a trap for the president, making it illegal for him to fire certain officials. Of course, Johnson promptly fired them. His nemesis, Stevens, was heard hollering in Congress: “Didn’t I tell you so? If you don’t kill the beast, it will kill you.” Congress moved in, voting for impeachment in March 1868.

But impeachment means more than merely a trial in Washington. As news spread across the nation, many citizens assumed that politics was once again bleeding over into violence. Some braced for a second Civil War, this time fought not just by north and south, but also between Republicans and Democrats in places like New Jersey and Ohio. One man in Illinois was reminded of “Fort Sumpter times. Everybody is for fight,” while a Massachusetts woman, tired of warfare, merely shrugged: “Another revolution is upon us (Heaven help us that it be a peaceful one).”

An angry president, resentful of the political establishment; a devoted minority, supporting their leader as a symbol of the country they feared they were losing; a trial which blurred the lines between legal and political charges—it was all enough, 150 years ago, to threaten renewed war. Americans live in far more peaceful times today, but it’s not difficult to imagine how impeachment could rile an already agitated nation.

So, over the course of that trial, Congress stepped back from convicting Johnson. For one thing, he had only a few months left in his term before the presidential election in the fall. For another, if removed he would be replaced by the radical Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade—so pugnacious that he attempted to fight in the First Battle of Bull Run, as a sitting senator, armed only with his squirrel gun.

Impeachment, some cool heads hoped, would be enough to scare the president into behaving, without convicting him. “I think Johnson,” John Hay prayed, “will put some water in his whiskey now.”

Some see Johnson’s impeachment and trial as a key step towards a true Reconstruction of the South—putting Congress, which was far more supportive of black rights, in charge. Johnson was clearly in the way, spitefully vetoing more bills than all presidents before him combined. But impeachment also gave the impression that the Republican Party was stepping beyond the usual democratic process. Tired of what William Tecumseh Sherman dismissed as “the game going on at Washington,” many voters simply turned off. “One irony of Reconstruction,” argued the historian Mark Wahlgren Summers, was that the fear of a second Civil War probably made northerners give up on the whole process prematurely.

It’s unclear whether anything will come from all the current impeachment talk. But trying to remove a president can come at a very high price to the political culture. No Congress has ever successfully removed a president from office; it is impossible to predict the long-term effect it might have on American democracy. It’s hard to imagine that it will help calm partisan politics. Removal is a very blunt tool, an extraordinary measure that can be both entirely called for, and deeply damaging, all at the same time.

As the arch Ohio politician John Sherman wrote, back in the 1860s, it’s incredibly difficult to get rid of a president. Sherman complained that impeachment is slow, difficult, and ugly. “The Constitution provided against every probable vacancy in the office of President,” he griped, “but did not provide for utter imbecility.”