By the Standard of Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment, Trump’s Would Be a No-Brainer

By the Standard of Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment, Trump’s Would Be a No-Brainer

A President came to office under a cloud, to help govern a badly divided nation. But he squabbled with his own party, which controlled both houses in Congress, and abused the pardon power in ways that emboldened white supremacists and vigilante terrorists operating outside the law. To avoid accountability for his actions, he dismissed a critical figure in the executive branch, and this proved to be the final move that led Congress to impeach him.

That may sound like a description of the near future, but it is actually the story of Andrew Johnson, the first President in American history to face impeachment. There are crucial differences, though, in the scenarios of 1868 and 2017. For all of his numerous faults, Johnson inherited a nation in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Donald Trump, on the other hand, seems intent on fomenting his own.

Trump’s actions are hastening the prospects of impeachment because they pose the same two questions that Johnson’s did: who can the President fire, and who can he pardon? Trump lurched toward potential impeachment charges in May, when he fired James Comey, the FBI Director investigating the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. Since then, Trump has left open the possibility of firing Robert Mueller, the special counsel continuing this investigation in the wake of Comey’s firing. Pundits have been spending considerable time weighing the legality of such a move and its likelihood of sparking impeachment.[1]

Trump’s potential use of the pardon has also been implicated in calls for his impeachment. In July, Trump asked his attorneys about his pardon powers, concluding that “the U.S. President has the complete power to pardon.” He exercised that power on August 25, pardoning the unrepentant Joe Arpaio, the convicted Arizona sheriff notorious for racial profiling and violating the civil rights of jailed citizens. Trump announced the unusual move by tweet under the cover of a hurricane, having failed to conduct the Department of Justice review typical of Presidential pardons.

To his critics, Trump’s actions not only embolden the white supremacists and nativists who view Arpaio as a hero, but they also reinforce an impression of Trump’s weak commitment to the rule of law. If the President is willing to pardon Arpaio out of affinity with his contempt for legal process, they say, why would Trump hesitate to pardon members of his inner circle, his family, or himself?[2] Does the President understand and respect the limits of his office? In short, the argument runs, Trump’s potential abuse of the pardon power for corrupt purposes portends a true constitutional crisis. Trump may have the legal power to pardon indiscriminately, but, say some legal scholars, he may still be impeached for abusing it.[3]

Andrew Johnson’s impeachment raised these issues as well. In the months after becoming President in April 1865, Johnson issued a proclamation granting widespread amnesty to those who had taken up arms against the Union. Though he initially excluded Confederate leaders and large slaveholders, he pardoned thousands upon request, including Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, respectively the President and Vice President of the late Confederacy. By permitting Confederate leaders back into office but denying the franchise to African Americans, Johnson aided the defeated planter class, which used violence and law to reduce freedpeople to an exploited agricultural proletariat.

Johnson also ran afoul of his fellow Republicans in Congress by firing a leading figure in the executive branch. Edwin M. Stanton, the pro-Congress Secretary of War, believed Johnson acted too leniently toward former Confederates. Republican legislators, mistrusting the President, had passed the Tenure of Office Act precisely to compel Johnson to heed the “advice and consent” Congress. Johnson defied it. He sought to replace Stanton with General Ulysses S. Grant, who he offered to pardon should Congress take exception (Grant refused). The move launched the impeachment effort, which ended when the Senate failed to convict Johnson in May 1868.

Thomas Nast, “Andy’s Trip,” Harper’s Weekly, October 27, 1866, 680-81.

President Johnson’s abrasive personality added vastly to his woes. “The truth is, he is a slave to his passions and resentments,” wrote Ohio Senator John Sherman.[4] Stubborn, self-righteous, and defiant, Johnson offered little grist for his eulogizers’ mills. One conceded that he was “too often swayed by fierce passion and prejudice. . . . His great mistake was that he believed Andrew Johnson to be infallible, and opposition embittered and rendered him obstinate and vindictive.”[5] Even the sympathetic Woodrow Wilson, who was a prominent history professor before becoming President, conceded that Johnson “stopped neither to understand nor to persuade other men, but struck forward with crude, uncompromising force for his object, attempting mastery without wisdom or moderation.”[6]

Yet while Johnson is justly deemed one of the worst Presidents in U.S. history, he did face a formidable challenge. He took up the White House by tragic happenstance rather than design — the first to succeed an assassinated predecessor. And he faced the nearly insurmountable charge of quickly reconstructing a nation torn apart by a horrendous war. There was no playbook for such a moment, for the Framers of the Constitution had never planned for it, and this put him constantly at odds with his legislature. “It is time it was settled who is master of the question of reconstruction of the rebel States, the President or Congress,” asked one confused Congressman in 1867.[7] Alas, the Constitution had no answer. Deprived of that referee, Congress and President became inimical forces, struggling tooth-and-nail for control of policy.

The magnanimous Abraham Lincoln had been unable to avoid quarrels with Congress, so it was unlikely the self-pitying Johnson would. “Who has suffered more than I?” he asked a Cleveland crowd, and then proceeded to label the Republicans who had “traduced and assaulted” him a “common gang of cormorants and bloodsuckers.”[8] The conflict between White House and Capitol Hill over control of Reconstruction dramatically magnified his character weaknesses and increased his likelihood of impeachment.

At the same time, the shaky constitutional foundations of his impeachment have always given Johnson’s defenders a potent source of lasting criticism. Republicans in Congress “determined to remove him by means of trumped-up charges, as disgraceful in origin as in substance,” wrote one.[9] Another praised Johnson for contesting the Radical Republicans’ plan to “Africanize the South” by enfranchising freedpeople.[10] Thomas Dixon’s racist novel The Clansman (1905) summarized the popular conservative view: “the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson would mark either the lowest tide-mud of degradation to which the Republic could sink, or its end.”[11]

The current President’s words echo Johnson’s with eerie precision. If Donald Trump is impeached, though, he will not have Andrew Johnson’s excuse. In 1868, two forces—the President’s volatile personality and a constitutional crisis over Reconstruction—combined to create the possibility of impeachment. Trump, however, inherited no constitutional crisis from his predecessor. Instead, his critics charge that he is fomenting his own—by challenging the legitimacy of the electoral process, by impeding legitimate investigations into his own malfeasance, and by undermining public accountability for his administration.

In 2017, only matters of character—an incapacity to admit wrong, consistently tell the truth, respect the mechanisms of constitutionalism, or maintain the high standards of the office—seems likely to doom the present administration. Should it be necessary to thus remove the current President, we can at least feel assured that history has seen something like this before. As fierce as our political divides may be, we are blessedly far from the discord of Reconstruction. We can feel confident that as rare and difficult as impeachment is, it may indeed still serve its intended function, as a remedy of last resort to secure the nation against an unfit executive.


[1] Laura Jarrett, “Can Trump Stop Mueller?” CNN Politics, accessed August 31, 2017,; Conor Friedersdorf, “The Case for Impeaching Trump If He Fires Robert Mueller,” The Atlantic, accessed August 31, 2017,

[2] Philip Bump, “If He’ll Pardon Arpaio, Why Wouldn’t Trump Pardon Those Who Ignore Robert Mueller?” Washington Post, accessed August 31, 2017,

[3] Frank Bowman, “Trump’s Pardon of Joe Arpaio Is an Impeachable Offense,” Slate, accessed August 31, 2017,

[4] John Sherman’s Recollections of Forty Years in the House, Senate, and Cabinet, vol. 1 (Chicago: Werner Co., 1895), 423.

[5] “Death Notice,” Portland (Maine) Daily Press (August 2, 1875), 1.

[6] Woodrow Wilson, A History of the American People, vol. 5 (New York: Harper and Bros., 1903), 1.

[7] “Speech of Hon. E.C. Ingersoll of Illinois,” February 7, 1867, Congressional Globe, 39 Cong., 2d Sess. (House), Appendix, 90.

[8] “Andrew Johnson, Cleveland Speech, September 3, 1866,” in Great Issues in American History, vol. 1, ed. Richard Hofstadter, Clarence Lester Ver Steeg, and Beatrice K. Hofstadter (New York: Vintage, 1958), 28-29.

[9] “Andrew Johnson and Impeachment,” Little Rock Arkansas Gazette (June 27, 1885), 4.

[10] Robert W. Winston, Andrew Johnson, Plebeian and Patriot (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1928), 386.

[11] Thomas Dixon Jr., The Clansman, an Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1905), 165.

Patrick Rael

Patrick Rael is Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He is the author of Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (North Carolina, 2002), which earned Honorable Mention for the Frederick Douglass Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He is also the editor of African-American Activism before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North (Routledge, 2008), and co-editor of Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature (Routledge, 2001). His most recent book, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (University of Georgia Press, 2015), explores the Atlantic history of slavery to understand the exceptionally long period of time it took to end chattel bondage in America.

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