Dump Johnson!

Chatterbox, who like everyone else in Washington has acquired a dilettantish interest in Andrew Johnson, can’t help but wonder: Would the nation be better off if the Radical Republicans had succeeded in ejecting Johnson from the White House in 1868? John F. Kennedy, who is often credited with being the first president to promote civil rights for blacks a century after their emancipation, condemns the Johnson impeachment in Profiles in Courage. So, more ambivalently, does Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in The Imperial Presidency (even though he acknowledges that life might have been better for African Americans had Johnson been got rid of). Even the leftish historian Eric Foner, whose book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution did much to spruce up the image of postwar Radical Republicans, takes a mildly dim view of Johnson’s impeachment.

Still, Chatterbox, emboldened by ignorance, thinks a decent argument can be made that Johnson should have been convicted by the Senate. Before proceeding, Chatterbox will remind readers that Chatterbox continues to favor censure, not conviction, for Bill Clinton. What follows is not a proxy argument about the Senate’s current predicament, but simply a zesty exercise in historical speculation. (Chatterbox should also point out that Schlesinger and Foner emphatically oppose Clinton’s impeachment.)

Andrew Johnson was a twit. Everybody pretty much agrees on that. There’s also a broad consensus that Johnson had little enthusiasm for providing basic rights to blacks. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which established black citizenship and extended to blacks equal rights before the law. Then he opposed the 14th Amendment, which codified these principles in the Constitution. What a jerk! And yet historians also say that Congress lacked a good impeachment case against Johnson for violating the Tenure in Office Act when he fired Edwin Stanton, secretary of war.

The legal questions surrounding Johnson’s impeachment more closely resemble Iran-Contra than Flytrap. Congress had passed a law saying the president couldn’t get rid of one of his Senate-approved appointees until the Senate approved a successor. Did Johnson violate this law when he dismissed Stanton over the Senate’s objections? It seems so. Was the law unconstitutional? Well, sure. The courts struck it down decades later. But did the president go to court to challenge the law? No, he just defied it, just like Ronald Reagan defied the Boland amendment with the arms-for-hostages deal in Iran-Contra. Reagan’s defenders said that the Boland amendment was unconstitutional too, but that didn’t cut much ice with his critics at the time. Johnson’s best defense was that the Tenure of Office Act didn’t apply to Stanton, because Stanton had been appointed by Lincoln, not by Johnson. But, as Foner observes in Reconstruction, if that were the case, why had Johnson indicated through his previous actions that the law did apply to Lincoln’s appointees? Also, if no law had been broken, why were Johnson’s lawyers simultaneously arguing that he had deliberately violated the Tenure in Office Act in order to allow the Supreme Court to rule on it–“an argument that would have allowed the President to determine which laws he was required to obey”? It seems to Chatterbox that the narrowly legalistic case for conviction, which lost by just one vote, is a respectable one.

All this, of course, sidesteps the common argument that Johnson was impeached not because his purported violation of the Tenure in Office Act was all that terrible, but because Congress thought Johnson was advancing bad policies. True. But Johnson really was advancing bad policies by impeding the extension of basic freedoms to black people. This country is still suffering from the devastating aftereffects of this “policy” failure. Doesn’t that count for something?

Okay, now let’s imagine what would have happened if Johnson had been convicted. The person to become president would have been Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio, president pro tem of the Senate and “a man disliked by moderates for his radical stance on Reconstruction.” (I’m still quoting Foner’s book.) Wade was also very pro-labor, so much so that his views on the need for “more equal distribution of capital” were quoted with approval by Karl Marx in the first German edition of Das Kapital. Pretty cool, huh? Suppose Wade had become president upon Johnson’s expulsion in 1868 and, later that year, had gotten himself elected on the strength of his incumbency. That would have meant no presidency for Ulysses S. Grant, on whose watch Reconstruction collapsed while corruption flourished in the White House. (Great general, bad president.) Might the racist defiance of the South have been crushed and Jim Crow averted under the pinko President Wade and his successors?

Chatterbox, in high excitement, rang Foner up to invite him to join this exercise in counterfactual history. He was very polite, but he didn’t quite buy it. “Wade is not a guy we know enough about,” he said. “What he would have done in office, God knows.” The end of Reconstruction policy under Grant “was a sign of what was happening within the whole Republican party,” he said. Foner believes it’s possible that “a firmer political leader … would perhaps have kept Reconstruction going longer. Whether in fact Ben Wade would have been that person I have no idea.” He also said that if you were going to get rid of Johnson, it would have had a much more beneficial effect with regard to shaping history had it occurred in 1865, rather than in 1868, by which time Reconstruction may already have been doomed.

But Foner didn’t say Chatterbox’s conceit was totally stupid, did he?

–Timothy Noah