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Maryland senators have been down road before; Revisiting Johnson case shows similarities that cross the 131-year divide


WASHINGTON -- After extensive deliberations behind closed doors, Maryland's senators, both Democrats, voted to acquit the Democratic president of the impeachment charges. They claimed that he had been hounded by Republican critics whose motivation was political.

The year was 1868 and the president was Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln's hapless successor. The senators were Reverdy Johnson, an experienced Washington hand, and George Vickers, a Capitol Hill neophyte. And the underlying issue was the tension lingering after the Civil War.

Both senators foreshadowed one of the key defenses mounted at President Clinton's impeachment trial -- that even if the charges were true, they were not serious enough to warrant his removal from office.

In contrast to Clinton's expected fate, Johnson barely escaped conviction as the Senate fell one vote short of a two-thirds majority, 35-19. The Maryland senators provided pivotal votes. By one account, Senator Johnson helped to persuade several wavering colleagues to vote to acquit; a few months later, the president rewarded Senator Johnson by naming him ambassador to England.

Andrew Johnson, a Democrat who supported the Union, had succeeded the assassinated Lincoln in 1865, and was reviled by congressional Republicans for his conciliatory approach to the former Confederate states. Although Johnson had been elected on a Republican ticket, he allowed Southern states to water down or ignore laws intended to guarantee civil rights to freed slaves.

Angered, a strong faction of abolitionist Republicans in Congress confronted President Johnson by passing a law in 1867 to strip him of the authority to remove Cabinet officials. He nonetheless sacked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and the House initiated impeachment proceedings against him.

Maryland, a slave state that had yielded to intense military pressure to stay in the Union, retained distinct Southern sympathies, and the two Democrats it sent to the Senate were in the minority. Reverdy Johnson was the sole Democrat among seven senators asked to recommend rules for the trial.

A native of Annapolis who had been admitted to the bar at age 19, Reverdy Johnson had held several state offices, had been U.S. attorney general and had served nearly a decade in the Senate when the president was tried.

Vickers, a Chestertown lawyer, had taken office just 16 days before the start of the Senate trial. A Democratic stalwart, he was appointed by the General Assembly after the Senate refused to seat former Maryland Gov. Philip F. Thomas, a Confederate sympathizer.

In explaining his vote to acquit, Maryland's senior senator argued the offenses committed by the president were not of high consequence. "We have been told in substance [by Republicans] that party necessity requires a conviction," Johnson wrote in a statement placed in the Congressional Record. "The same is invoked to avoid what it is madly said will be the result of acquittal -- civil commotion and bloodshed. Miserable insanity; a degrading dereliction of patriotism!

"No more dishonoring efforts were ever made to corrupt a judicial tribunal," he wrote.

In his formal statement, Vickers said the law preventing Stanton's removal was an intrusion on the executive branch's power.

"If the president, the attorney general, and other Cabinet officers were mistaken in their construction of the law, which I do not think, such an error was a venial one, and cannot properly be considered a high crime or high misdemeanor," wrote Vickers, who served out the remainder of his six-year term and retired in 1874.

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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