Senate acquits President Johnson, May 26, 1868

After a two-month trial, the Senate acquitted President Andrew Johnson on this day in 1868. Johnson had been impeached by the House three months earlier. When the final crunch came, 35 senators found Johnson guilty and 19 not guilty — just one vote short of the two-thirds majority required to remove him from office.

Johnson, a former Democratic senator from Tennessee who succeeded to the presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, had been accused by congressional Republicans of violating the Tenure of Office Act.

Ten days earlier, the Senate also failed to convict Johnson, voting by an identical margin — 35-19. In hindsight, that proved to be the key test: The anti-Johnson forces were counting on a guilty vote on the 11th, and last, article of impeachment. It was the first order of business before the Senate and a summary of the other 10 articles. If Johnson had been found guilty in that first vote, he would have been out of office.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Johnson was the sole senator from a seceding state who remained loyal to the Union. He had built his political career on backing the interests of poor white Southerners.

“Damn the Negroes,” he said, explaining his stand. “I am fighting those traitorous aristocrats — their masters.” In return for his loyalty, Lincoln named Johnson military governor of Tennessee in 1862. In 1864, Lincoln placed him on the ticket as his running mate.

As the first post-Civil War president, Johnson pursued a lenient policy toward the vanquished South, offering wide-scale amnesty for former Confederates. Congress, dominated by radical Republicans, repeatedly overrode his vetoes.

In March 1867, seeking to further weaken Johnson’s authority, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act over his veto. It barred the president from removing federal officeholders, including Cabinet members confirmed by the Senate, without the Senate’s prior consent.

In the eight decades since the 1787 framing of the U.S. Constitution, the question had repeatedly arisen, “If the Senate is responsible for confirming appointees, does it also have a role in removing them?” Johnson decided to test the act’s constitutionality by firing Edwin Stanton, the hard-line secretary of war and a favorite of the radical Republicans on Capitol Hill.

In 1887, Congress repealed the Tenure of Office Act.

Still, the issue of the Senate’s role in dismissing executive officers remained cloudy through the half-century after Johnson’s term ended. Finally, in 1926, the Supreme Court resolved the matter. Chief Justice — and former president — William Howard Taft seized on the case of Myers v. United States to settle permanently the president’s constitutional right to fire federal officials.

The ruling proved to be the ultimate vindication for Johnson, and it confirmed the wisdom of that small minority of senators who had prevented the Senate from removing him from the presidency.

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