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: Grant

Grant

GrantRon Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: A biography on the life of Ulysses S. Grant from his Ohio childhood, his years of failure in business, his rise during the Civil War, his presidency, and later years, including the completion of his memoirs as a dying man.

Many people know the work of Ron Chernow from his great biography, Alexander Hamilton, which served as the basis of the Broadway play, or his biography, Washington: A Life. Chernow has done it again in this biography of Grant, which will likely raise Grant in the rankings of presidents, and establishes Chernow as one of the premier presidential biographers. I honestly can’t say enough good about this book. It is rare to come to the end of 960 pages and wish there were more. I have his Washington: A Life on my TBR pile and will move it up!

Chernow gives us a Grant caught between the ambitions and expectations of father, father-in-law, and socially ambitious wife. It is little wonder in some ways that he struggled with drinking, which Chernow explores throughout the book. Grant quietly resigned from the Army in the early 1850’s likely because of drinking problems on a backwater post in the Pacific northwest. He was a failure at farming a plot of land provided by his father-in-law, and unhappy running a store owned by his father under his younger brother in Galena, Illinois, and continued to struggle with drink. One heroic aspect of Grant’s life was his gradual mastery of this problem during the Civil War (with occasional lapses) and in his presidency (where he remained sober) and later life. The vigilance of his aide, John Rawlins, and wife Julia certainly helped, but Grant’s own eventual mastery is evidence of the resolute nature of this man.

Chernow explores the complicated nature of this man, who seems a bundle of contradictions. He could keenly recognize the opportunities of a battlefield situation and the outlines of grand strategy that led to victory after victory culminating in Appomattox and yet could not assess the character of his closest associates, who often betrayed his trust, in war, in his cabinet, and at the end of his life, when he was bankrupted by Ponzi-schemer Ferdinand Ward.

He could seem like someone with low energy and little drive until a crisis, where he would remain calm, and give decisive direction. He was the first general Lincoln found who would take the fight to the enemy and ruthlessly prosecute it to the end, gaining the reputation of being “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Then he grants magnanimous peace terms to General Lee and his troops, for which many gave him their undying respect. In later life, touring Europe, he at once dazzled people with his grasp of military history and strategic concepts, showing far more brilliance than people credited, and yet he had no desire for reviewing troops, having seen more than enough of this in his time.

His presidency as well was a bundle of contradictions. His administration was a mix of men of integrity, and corrupt friends, who tainted his reputation as their corruption became evident. Most noteworthy, and a theme of Chernow’s was his vigorous efforts both during the Johnson administration, and in his presidency, to protect and extend Reconstruction, including Black voting rights and office holders, while healing the rift with the South that led Frederick Douglass to write this in summary of his career: “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.” John Singleton Mosby, a Confederate general wrote on learning of his death: “I felt I had lost my best friend.”

In addition to Reconstruction, his skill in avoiding war with Great Britain over the Alabama, turning it into an occasion to cement the alliance with Great Britain we enjoy to this day, his management of the nation’s finances in paying down war debt, and his fostering of economic growth outshine the corruption of his associates, who he defended at first, but then dealt with when evidence was clear that they had betrayed his, and the public’s trust. His administration was probably better than the taint of scandal that has come down to us. As Chernow notes, he loved his friends too well rather than wisely.

He was a man of few words, except when unbending with close friends. His orders and his speeches were models of clarity and concision. Yet this same man, dying of cancer of the throat accomplished the stupendous feat of writing the 336,000 words in his final years, finishing them just before he died. Many critics consider the Memoirs the one of the greatest works of this genre, described by Chernow as written in a “clear, supple style.” Apart from minor changes of punctuation and grammar, he needed little editing. Writing this work, motivated in significant part to provide for his family after the financial debacle with Ferdinand Ward left him nearly penniless, was perhaps the most courageous act of his life, as he struggled on in great pain and increasing weakness. He finished the work on July 16, and died a week later on July 23, 1885 at age 63.

All this, and so much more, you will find in Chernow’s Grant. Chernow, while cognizant of Grant’s faults, doesn’t bury Grant’s greatness in his failings. He proposes that there is far more to this General and President than we have credited. And as a writer, he celebrates another writer, whose Memoirs are going on my reading list!

 

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.

Review: Crucible of Command

Crucible of CommandCrucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–The War They Fought, The Peace They Forgedby William C. Davis. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2015.

Summary: This is a dual biography of Grant and Lee that studies their contrasting origins and yet similar qualities of command through back and forth narratives covering similar periods leading to their climactic confrontation, the peace they established, and its aftermath.

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee have been the subjects of numerous biographies, including Grant’s own memoirs. What distinguishes this book is that it attempts, and I think, succeeds in rendering parallel accounts of these two men’s lives who met first in Mexico and finally at Appomattox Courthouse (and once later when Grant was President).

Davis traces their contrasting childhoods and characters. Lee was the Virginia patrician who loved his home state and rarely traveled from it except on assignments. By contrast, Grant was the merchant’s son who moved around, wanted to see the world and was a failure at everything except leading men in battle. Both were educated at West Point, Lee at the top of his class, Grant in the lower half. They briefly encountered each other in the 1840’s during the U.S. invasion of Mexico. In the years leading up to the Civil War Lee struggled with resolving the Custis estate while Grant struggled through a series of failed business ventures, finally working in his brother’s store in Galena, Illinois.

When war comes, Grant re-joins the army, commanding troops in Kentucky and Tennessee. Lee resigns his commission, and after serving as an assistant to President Davis, eventually gains command of the Army of North Virginia, which he leads for the remainder of the war. We see both learning to command large forces. Grant in his tactical defeat at Belmont, his victories at Forts Henry and Donelson and near disaster at Shiloh. Lee’s first command is in western Virginia where he is defeated at the battle of Cheat Mountain. What is clear about both is that they learn from mistakes, develop command staffs around them they can trust and win a series of striking victories that ultimately bring them opposite one another in the campaigns of 1864-1865 where the Union’s overwhelming superiority eventually outflanks and surrounds Lee. We discover hardening resolves, of Lee against the Union even while he extricates himself from slave-holding, and Grant from an indifference to the issue of slavery to increased support of emancipation and the capabilities of black soldiers.

The author also explores the political realities each faced and their skill in handling this. Lee learned through constant communication to win the trust of Davis who easily could have micromanaged the war. Grant had to deal with political generals and a sometimes hostile press. Part of the success of both men was their skill in navigating the political realities that military leaders cannot be ignorant of.

While reading this book, I forgot the last phrase in the subtitle–“the peace they forged.” This book does not stop with the dignified surrender of Lee nor the magnanimity of Grant in allowing the Confederates to return home with their horses and side arms. It explores the subsequent years and the efforts both made to promote reconstruction, efforts subsequently frustrated. And both men die in their early 60s, after serving as Presidents, Lee of a college, Grant of a country.

William C. Davis interweaves the narratives of the two lives skillfully, and while we see differences between the two men, we see two great military leaders, formed by common training and experience, coping with similar exigencies of war. Davis observes that in some ways, Lee has fared the better of the two, mostly because of the corruption in Grant’s administration. But it seems that, while on opposite sides, they were a pair of shining stars of equal brightness. And for the reader interested in biography who thinks they must choose between these great lights, Davis has provided the alternative of discovering them together.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher as an ebook via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”