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Precedent Johnson A look at often-humorous similarities and differences in the times and tactics of those for and against impeachment.


A crystal ball it's not.

Even so, the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, as reported in 1868 in The Baltimore Sun, reveals two things that are useful to know in the near certainty that Bill Clinton will follow him into history.

First, much has changed in American political life: the quality of oratory, the things members of Congress regard as important.

Much has not changed: Folly still has a hand in the proceedings.

President Johnson's opponents at least could refer to major historic events in their recent past to lend gravity to their bombast, if not legitimacy to their charges.

As Johnson popped in and out of the Senate chamber, infuriating his enemies by his mere presence, one of his prosecutors, Rep. Thomas Williams, likened the public response to the president's alleged crime to that evoked throughout the land by the Confederacy's attack on Fort Sumter seven years earlier.

So what did Johnson do to earn his impeachment? He had the temerity to fire one of his own Cabinet members in defiance of a law passed by the Radical Republican majority over his veto that forbade him to do that.

In this day and age, of course, firing Cabinet members is an accepted prerequisite of a president. But in those days, people in politics had different priorities. Sex, for instance, was not high on their list as a political issue. Sex was dirty, surreptitious and not spoken about much, except during smoky poker games. And unlike today's chief executive, President Johnson was having no illicit affairs that anybody could find out about.

Not one of President Johnson's persecutors had been outed as an adulterer, not the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, not the speaker of the House, or any of his henchmen. Unlike today.

But as those who attempted to throw Johnson out of office saw it, the firing of his disloyal secretary of war "smote on the sense of the nation and stirred the loyal heart of the people with the same electric thrill as when the reverberation of the guns which attacked our flag at Sumter were borne to the ear."

"Electric thrill?"

Foaming on, Rep. Williams said in his orotund way: "The great crime of Andrew Johnson, as now set forth, was his removal without color of law of Edwin M. Stanton, his conspiracy to keep possession of the War Department, to seduce officers of the army to ignore the laws of Congress, to set that body in contempt."

To which a presidential defender replied that while the attack on Fort Sumter was indeed "an attack upon the integrity of the Union; the impeachment of the President and his removal from office upon political grounds is an attack upon the constitution."

There are similarities shared by the two besieged presidents -- and, of course, some differences. Both were born poor, and struggled mightily against immense odds to win their high office. Both were Southerners: Johnson was born in Raleigh, N.C., Clinton in Hope, Ark. Both were populists, advanced legislation to benefit large numbers of people. Both men married women who helped their careers.

As with a lot of intense, self-educated men, Andrew Johnson never achieved the silky polish that is so characteristic of Clinton.

Also, Johnson was known as a man of principle. In fact, so strong was he in his devotion to the preservation of the Union that he was the only Southern member of Congress to remain in Washington in 1861 while all the rest went home at the outbreak of war. President Clinton is not exactly known for his principles.

Johnson was a tailor. Clinton, as far as can be discerned, has no other legitimate trade but politics. He is a lawyer, of course.

There were more dissimilarities between the president's opponents in 1867 than those pursuing the man in the White House today, or so it appears. During the Johnson trial, which endured from March 30, 1868, to May 16, much was said for and against him. He was accused of trying "to assume to himself royal prerogatives." He was referred to as "the high delinquent," the "high criminal," yet respect was never lost for the stature of his office.

"Whatever may be thought of his character or condition," said Rep. Stevens, "he has been made respectable and his condition has been dignified by the election of his fellow citizens."

No one in the House 130 years ago ever called the president a "sleazebag."

Nor, the reporting indicates, did anybody among the Republicans who indicted Johnson declare that he was voting ** "his conscience" with the sort of vehemence that suggested it was an exception to normal practice.

Attempts were made throughout Johnson's long trial to preserve decorum, sometimes unsuccessfully, and occasionally with vaudevillian consequences.

After a speech by Rep. John A. Bingham expressing his shock that Johnson would defy a law because he thought it an unconstitutional restraint, great applause erupted from the galleries.

Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, presiding, hoisted himself up upon the full height of his dignity, and ordered the sergeant-at-arms to clear the galleries.

Nobody moved. The galleries had been packed throughout the trial; tickets were at a premium. One can imagine the august chief justice staring at the august senators, who stared back as the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson briefly lost its way.

From The Sun of May 6, 1868:

Senator Grimes rose and moved that the order be immediately enforced, which was received with hisses from all parts of the galleries.

The Chief Justice again directed that the galleries should be cleared. No one left.

Senator Trumbull moved that the order to clear the galleries be insisted on.

Senator Cameron hoped the galleries would not be cleared. There were many in them who had a very different feeling from that expressed by the applause.

Senators Fessenden and Johnson called Senator Cameron to order, and the Chief Justice notified him that he was out of order.

Senator Conness moved to take a recess.

The Chief Justice thought it would not be proper to take a recess until the order was enforced, and the Senate refused to take the recess.

Senator Sherman said he thought many of those in the galleries had not understood the order, and the Chief Justice repeated the order.

Some ten minutes elapsed during which the order was being enforced, the ladies when they understood, generally departing without any trouble; but the gentlemen were not so docile.

The diplomatic gallery was filled with the foreign representatives and their families, who remained sitting.

Senator Anthony then moved that the order to clear the galleries be suspended.

Senator Trumbull and others objected.

Senator Conkling asked if the effect of suspending the order would be to throw open the doors and let all those come back who had just been put out.

The Chief Justice put the motion, and it was decided in the negative, and the occupants of the diplomatic gallery withdrew.

The galleries all being cleared, with the exception of the reporters gallery, Senator Morrill, of Maine, submitted a motion that the Senate sitting as a court of impeachment, adjourn until Saturday.

Senator Cameron objected to the consideration of any business until the order for the clearing of the galleries had been enforced. He was opposed to it, but he now insisted that the order be carried out and looking at the reporters gallery he saw that the order had not yet been carried out.

The doorkeepers then notified the reporters that they must also leave, and much disgusted, the knights of the quill took up their materials and marched out, and the doors were immediately closed."

After he was acquitted, Andrew Johnson served out his term uneventfully. He went back to Tennessee, but eventually was returned to the Senate by that state. His reception was not especially warm.

Before it all began, when the idea of impeachment was first advanced in the House by Republican Thaddeus Stevens, a Democratic member leaped to his feet and predicted:

"Go on, go on if you choose ... you may strip him of his office, but you will canonize him among those those heroic defenders of constitutional laws and liberty."

Andrew Johnson missed sainthood. So too has Bill Clinton, whatever the outcome of his trial. About the Senate? Who knows?

Pub Date: 12/19/98

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