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Review: The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple
Random House, 2019. 514 pp. $32

In May 1868, the Senate voted to acquit President Andrew Johnson of the articles of impeachment Congress had brought against him. Tradition holds that the acquittal quashed a vicious vendetta against a defeated, broken Confederacy, and that Johnson stood for the peaceful reconciliation that the postwar nation needed above all. But as Wineapple proves in this riveting, brilliantly researched (and timely) book, tradition is plain wrong.

Rather, the former Confederacy was doing its best to continue the war by other means — killing thousands of African-Americans and Union sympathizers; attempting to regain control of governmental and administrative bodies denied them as former rebels; and clamoring for readmission to the Union without having to fulfill the conditions set forth by Congress in the Reconstruction Acts. As for Andrew Johnson, he tacitly encouraged the racial violence; vetoed the Reconstruction Acts, though he knew he’d be overridden; refused to convene Congress for months, during which he pardoned former Confederates by the carload; restated his ironclad belief that the country “was for white men”; and removed Unionist Reconstruction officials, putting former planters in their place.

Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania Republican, believed that Andrew Johnson had betrayed the Federal cause in the Civil War and those who’d died for it (courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons)

Consequently, when Thaddeus Stevens, Radical Republican power in the House, and Charles Sumner and Benjamin Wade, his Senate allies, moved for impeachment, theirs was no vendetta. They believed that Johnson had transgressed the constitutional separation of powers to serve a policy that rendered moot the sacrifices of the Civil War and promised further racial violence and political division. Their ideal — which is why they were called Radicals — was political equality for all Americans, especially the franchise, without which an unjust society would never heal or change.

Wineapple details how the effort to impeach came up short, and what that meant for the South and the country at large. She focuses on the combination of racism, self-interest, lack of principle, and political chicanery that shaped the Senate vote, including, almost certainly, outright bribery. The removal of a president unfit to serve (a characterization that even his allies would have agreed with) further stumbled because of the plaintiffs’ murky legal approach. But, as the author astutely mentions in her introduction, even the concept of impeachment was (and, presumably, is) hard to swallow, admitting as it does that our national myths of triumphant democracy need revision, and that we’re capable of electing dysfunctional leaders.

Consider, for instance, her description of Johnson’s leadership style:

Andrew Johnson was not a statesman. He was a man with a fear of losing ground, with a need to be recognized, with an obsession to be right, and when seeking revenge on enemies — or perceived enemies — he had to humiliate, harass, and hound them. Heedless of consequences, he baited Congress and bullied men, believing his enemies were enemies of the people. It was a convenient illusion.
Those closest to him were unsure of what he might do next.

If that summary rings any bells, no wonder. But are those impeachable offenses, then or now? Wineapple doesn’t speak of current politics, but she doesn’t have to. The correspondences are there, but, more importantly, so are the historical lessons. Even with a substantial Senate majority to work from, the impeachers failed — and not for want of passion or skill. Among the obstacles? Benjamin Wade was president pro tempore of the Senate, and since there was no vice president anymore, he’d take office if Johnson fell. And Wade, radical of Radicals, believed in votes for women as well as for African-Americans.

Nothing less than the nation’s soul was at stake, the ideals of liberty on which we pride ourselves. That alone would make a good story. But Wineapple also has the congressional leaders, Ulysses S Grant, Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, and a host of other larger-than-life characters, any one of whom would make a fitting protagonist for a novel, let alone a player in a historical drama like this.

I wish that Wineapple had explained how Johnson was able to keep Congress from meeting for so many months. I also confess that the actual trial bored me, in parts, but only because the attorneys droned on so long that even the Senate galleries emptied, when tickets had once been so hard to come by. But otherwise, The Impeachers makes a thrilling narrative. Wineapple has researched her ground so thoroughly with private letters and archival papers that she seems to have listened in on public and private conversations from 150 years ago.

Read The Impeachers and be amazed. And, in case you’re interested, the current president pro tempore of the Senate, third in line for the presidency of these United States, is Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.