Once again the topic of impeachment has a measure of currency. That circumstance prompted me to read something about the one presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history that was not the product of political grandstanding -- that of the seventeenth president, Andrew Johnson, in 1868. [Footnote: Impeachment is a two-step process. First the House of Representatives must vote articles of impeachment; then the Senate conducts a trial of the sitting president to determine whether he is guilty under any of those articles. Richard Nixon resigned before the House voted articles of impeachment and therefore no trial before the Senate took place; as shameful as Bill Clinton's conduct was, I view the impeachment proceedings against him to have been political grandstanding.] For my history lesson, I turned to IMPEACHED by David O. Stewart.
It was an unnecessarily arduous lesson. To his credit, Stewart conducted prodigious research, but then, seemingly, he crammed all that research into the book. Thus, IMPEACHED is too detailed and long. Nor is it optimally organized. There are many instances of undue repetition. I was tempted to give up a little over one-third through, but by that point I had progressed beyond page 100, which is my traditional "fish-or-cut-bait" mark in reading books -- so I persevered. Thankfully, the book picked up shortly thereafter. In the end, I feel I learned what I had set out to learn, but my grade for my teacher is B-minus.
The Andrew Johnson impeachment trial came about primarily through the confluence of two factors. One, of course, was the badly fractured nation, which had just endured a bloody civil war, seen its leader and greatest president ever murdered, and now was uncertain how to go about readmitting the defeated southern states, how much freedom to give to the ex-slaves, and, in general, how to "reconstruct" the South. The second was Andrew Johnson. He was a Democrat and a Southerner (from Tennessee), who had distinguished himself in 1861 as the only Senator from a southern state to stand with the Union. In 1864 he had been placed on the Republican ticket under Lincoln as a gesture towards reconciliation and unity, to show that the Republicans were not just a northern party. Even though, in two ways, he represented factions that had lost the Civil War, he was elevated to President by an assassin's bullet. Making matters even worse, Andrew Johnson was obtuse, frequently delusional and (according to many) drunk, and pathologically averse to compromise. He was one of the three worst presidents in American history.
Johnson soon locked horns with the Republican-dominated Congress. The escalating stalemate, which at times became farcical, takes up about the first third of IMPEACHED. It is a slog. The rest of the book covers the passage of eleven articles of impeachment by the House (after three earlier attempts failed); the trial in the Senate, where impeachment failed to muster the necessary two-thirds majority by only one vote; and the super-abundance of evidence of bribery and corruption surrounding that vote. Indeed, Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas, who had vacillated back and forth and ultimately cast the decisive vote against impeachment, almost certainly was enriched monetarily and afterwards was rewarded by still-President Johnson with a host of opportunities for lucrative patronage. That JFK (or his ghostwriter) memorialized Ross with a "profile in courage" is laughable.
Stewart does a relatively good job in expounding on the difficulties of giving precise meaning to the language in the Constitution that impeachment shall be only for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors". He also is to be commended for the dispassionate perspective, both political and historical, with which he discusses that singular moment in U.S. history. And speaking of perspective, one takeaway from the book is that the politics and circumstances of the country were more parlous in the late 1860s than they are 150 years later.