Review: The Impeachers

the impeachers

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just NationBrenda Wineapple. New York: Random House, 2019.

Summary: A history of the accidental presidency of Andrew Johnson, his resistance to the civil rights fought for in the Civil War, and the impeachment proceedings against him.

Impeachment. Only twice in American history has Congress pursued impeachment proceedings against a President of the United States. Neither instance resulted in conviction of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” This book chronicles the first instance where this remedy was pursued, during the presidency of Andrew Johnson.

Brenda Wineapple gives us a well-crafted account of the presidency of Andrew Johnson, the circumstances leading to his impeachment, the key figures from the House of Representatives that prosecuted the impeachment, as well as the presiding Chief Justice, the defense, and the final denouement.

Andrew Johnson was always a bit of a lone wolf, rising from tailor to accidental president when Lincoln was assassinated. When the Civil War began, though sympathetic with the white supremacy of the South, Johnson argued against secession as unconstitutional, and that in fact it was impossible for states to secede from the Union, a position he maintained later on as president. When Tennessee seceded, he continued to take his seat in the Senate. Later, Lincoln named him military governor of Tennessee. When it came time for Lincoln the Republican to run for his second term, he did the unusual thing of offering Johnson, a Democrat, the Vice Presidency, partly to weaken the Democrats, and perhaps with a view toward the restoration of the Union.

Wineapple describes how Johnson quickly instituted his own version of Reconstruction, allowing many of the old leaders of the south to return to office, undercutting newly won civil rights for blacks, and looking the other way when blacks were violently attacked, lynched, and slaughtered. He undercut the efforts of moderate Republican Lyman Trumbull to extend the Freedman’s Bureau by vetoing the bill, even after Lyman’s extensive consultations with Johnson led him to think it would be passed. It increasingly appeared that all the sacrifice of Union troops was for naught, as Blacks still were treated as slaves in all but name. The crowning insult was Johnson’s campaign trip, the “swing around the circle” during the 1866 elections where he denounced Republicans Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Philips by name.

While Republicans in Congress seethed at this treatment and the reversal of gains fought for during the Civil War, all of this occurred under the cloak of legality. Wineapple then discusses the efforts to limit the military occupation, including the work of Secretary of War Stanton and General Grant. This was one of the remaining protections for Black citizens. To protect Stanton, Congress passed over Johnson’s veto the Tenure in Office Act, prohibiting the firing of cabinet officials without Congressional approval. Johnson, believing the act unconstitutional, eventually sacked (or tried to) Secretary Stanton, which represented the crossing of a threshold that triggered the vote of impeachment in the House, and the impeachment trial in the Senate.

Wineapple takes us through the trial, introducing us to the managers for the House prosecution: Benjamin Butler who presented much of the evidence, and George Boutwell, and the courageous Thaddeus Stevens, enfeebled and dying. She gives us sketches of Chief Justice Chase, the defense for the president, key senators like Ben Wade, who stood to succeed to the presidency if Johnson was convicted, and correspondents including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Georges Clemenceau. Then came the vote, 35-19, with a key Republican, Edmund Ross changing his vote to acquit at the last hour. Six other Republicans joined him and twelve Democrats in voting to acquit. Though never proven, there was evidence of payoffs.

Johnson served out his term, but was disappointed not to receive the appointment of his party. He eventually returned to the Senate, dying in office in 1875. Ulysses Grant succeeded to the presidency, reversing to some degree the effects of Johnson’s “Reconstruction.” But the promise briefly glimpsed by Lincoln was never to be.

Wineapple does an outstanding job of unfolding the history and the fascinating characters around the impeachment. Her account of the life and death of Thaddeus Stevens was particularly striking. Her book makes the case for the challenges of impeachment: the ambiguities of language and procedure. The truth was, Andrew Johnson was a disaster and a white supremacist and could not be removed for these reasons alone. Only the violation of a questionable law (later ruled unconstitutional) provided the pretext. Even this effort fell short. Wineapple also shows us that white supremacy is nothing new but has a long and ugly history in our country, one accustomed to the commission of sordid acts and the constraining of civil liberties with the pretext of respectable legality.

Essentially, impeachment is an unproven remedy for the removal of presidents considered to have committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Section IV of the 25th Amendment has never been attempted. This brings us back to the critical importance of the choices we make for who we elect to be president and vice-president. Whether in office by vote or accident, the only proven way presidents may be removed from office is by the Electoral College, reflecting (hopefully) on a state by state basis the results at the ballot box, an opportunity that comes only every four years. The attacks of White Supremacists on voting rights in Johnson’s day also remind us of the vital task of rigorously protecting voting rights for all our citizens, recognized as critical for “liberty and justice for all” then–and now.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Ecstatic Nation

Ecstatic NationEcstatic Nation, Brenda Wineapple. New York: Harper Collins, 2013.

Summary: Ecstatic Nation explores the period of 1848-1877, and the heightened feelings and frenzy of a country contending over slavery, going to war with itself, and then engaging in the conflicts of westward expansion and Reconstruction.

Ecstatic Nation opens with the death of John Quincy Adams in the chambers of the House of Representatives. Adams was the last tie with the founding generation, and the compact that was forged by intelligent, thoughtful men who created a nation. His passing marked a passage into a tumultuous period of national life as a growing nation wrestled with future of slavery and how the rights of men (and women) would be determined in this growing republic.

Wineapple gives us a narrative as expansive as the spirit of the people of this time, encompassing both the colorless James Buchanan and Rutherford B Hayes, and the colorful Nathan Bedford Forrest and P.T. Barnum and George Armstrong Custer. We have the revivalist Charles Finney and the advocates for women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

The book is organized into three parts. The first covers the years of 1848-1861 and the attempts to seek alternately compromises that balanced slave and free state representation as the nation pushed westward and territories became states and changed the political fabric of the country. We have the abolitionists including Frederick Douglass and the nullifiers like John Calhoun. We learn of the dashed hopes of women, who must wait another half century for the right to vote because a nation couldn’t focus on both abolition and women’s rights. And there are all those in between trying to preserve the fabric of the nation. Most striking, and tragic, was Stephen Douglas, dying months after his failed attempt to garner enough Southern support to win the presidency, and save the Union.

The second part is the Civil War itself and the paroxysm of feelings both on and off of the battlefields matched by the almost mystical sense Lincoln had of the war as some form of expiation for the sins of slavery, even while he sought for the military leadership that he found in Grant and Sherman to bring an end to the terrible conflict. We glimpse the anticipated the work of reconstruction that would give the black man what the Union had fought so hard to achieve, while pursuing the reconciliation that would heal the wounds of the war.

The third part tells the story of the dashed hopes of Reconstruction, beginning with the death of Lincoln in the midst of the glow of victory and renewed hope. We see amendments passed and rights bestowed to land and the vote, only to be seized away to be replaced with the law of Jim Crow. And there is the westward expansion, hungry for land and gold and the war on the Indian led by Sherman and Sheridan, punctuated by the tragic folly of George Armstrong Custer. The period ends with the election of the colorless Rutherford B Hayes, and the compromises he makes with southern states to obtain that presidency.

“Ecstatic” is indeed an apt description of the period. At the same time, it seemed to me that Wineapple was content to narrate the ecstasy of the period without attempting to tease out the underlying causes of the kind of messy, destructive tumult we went through as a nation. Yet one cannot read a narrative like this without wondering whether it would have been possible to avert the paroxysms of conflict and brutal expansion, or whether this was simply the inevitable outgrowth of social and political structures unable to contain the expanding and changing nation.

Nor is this merely idle historical speculation. I wonder about our own day and the seeming breakdown of political discourse, continued racial discord, gun violence and various social fault lines. We have our own bloviating pundits and politicians whose incendiary rhetoric seems to overwhelm the voices of reason trying to appeal to our highest ideals. It leaves me wondering who will prevail, and with what consequence?

Wineapple’s book neither asks nor answers those questions. It simply shows what a mess we can make of things, and how slow real social progress often can be. And perhaps that can be good to give us pause before we enter ecstatically into “crusades” that turn citizens with whom we differ into enemies who we must fight, defeat, and maybe even kill.

Is Collective Insanity Possible?

Ecstatic NationI’m in the midst of reading Brenda Wineapple’s Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877What the book raises for me is whether it is possible for a nation to descend into a fit of collective insanity, or at least ecstasy, in which it takes leave of its senses, with dire consequences to follow. In the first part of the book, she chronicles the increasingly incendiary rhetoric of political leaders and advocates both for slavery and abolition that seemed to stir a growing spirit of fear and anger in the nation that overwhelmed calmer voices like Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and even Alexander Stephens from the South who recognized the terrible conflict toward which the United States was headed.

Certainly, a survey of recent history suggests other examples of national collective insanity. The massacres in Rwanda stand out, where neighbors turned on neighbors in a horrific bloodbath of tribal warfare. People I’ve talked with from China speak with muted tones of the painful experience of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

This makes me wonder whether it is possible that this could occur once again in our country and what form this might take? There is anger and fear and even deep resentments or hatreds in many quarters against ethnic minorities, immigrants, the majority culture, and over those who differ with each other in matters of sexual expression. Efforts to work toward some form of a more perfect union are often trumped (!) by the soundbite smackdown.

I have to admit to being personally concerned that much of our national discourse, and the social media discourse that parallels this is indeed an exercise in playing with fire. We don’t seem to think that words can be dangerous or that speech freedoms might be abused. I will always defend our speech freedoms as a special gift and privilege. Yet the use of that freedom to sow fear and anger and intransigence contributed to the American Civil War and drowned out other voices like those of Lincoln who made this plea in his inaugural:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

I don’t think another Civil War is likely, but I think that civil anarchy is possible, a situation akin to the Wild West where power comes from the end of a gun and the rule of law is increasingly impotent to check disorder and violence. Do we realize that the American experiment of the past 239 years can quickly descend into either anarchy or into a reactive tyranny of repression?

I believe the way forward is to listen neither to the voices that foment fear and anger, nor to the voices of easy solutionism that promise that America’s greatest days are before us (which is why I’ll never be elected to office). I wonder if we need more voices warning of the abyss toward which we could be heading and calling on us to stop, and lament what has been or is in danger of being lost. I wonder if we need voices calling us back to both our highest national and spiritual values–the recognition that all are created equal and have dignity, and all are gifted contributors to our national greatness.

Our words matter as do deeds of justice, mercy and compassion. Those who play with fire often don’t realize they could burn down the house until they do. And that includes our national house.