19th-Century Evangelicals on the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

1869_Zions_Herald_BostonThis morning I read chapter nine of Victor Howard’s book Religion and the Radical Republican Movement, 1860-1870.  The chapter is titled “Impeachment and the Churches” and it focuses on how Protestant churches, denominations, and clergy responded to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.  While Howard’s chapter covers a specific segment of mid-19th century evangelicalism (mostly northern, radical, anti-slavery churches who favored Republican Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War), it provides some interesting context in light of today’s announcement of articles impeachment and the expected court evangelical opposition to these articles.

Here is a passage on p. 155-156. (I added the links):

The lawmakers of the new Fortieth Congress met immediately upon the adjournment of the Thirty-ninth Congress and promptly undertook the task of amending the Reconstruction Act.  On March 23, 1867, a supplementary bill was passed which gave federal military commanders on the South authority to initiate Reconstruction by registering eligible voters and calling state conventions, but Johnson, as the radicals feared, used his presidential powers to obstruct congressional Reconstruction.  Basing his action on the investigations of the Military Board and the report of the congressional committee, General Sheridan had removed the governor of Louisiana and local officers responsible for the New Orleans massacre. Johnson ordered Sheridan to defer the removals, but Sheridan answered him with a protest against recalling the order.  The president sought the opinion of Attorney General Henry Stanbery, who declared that the military commanders were not authorized to promulgate codes in defiance of civil government of the states but were to cooperate with the existing governments which were set up under Johnson’s plan of Reconstruction.  Stanbery’s interpretation virtually emasculated the Reconstruction Act. Stanbery also denounced General Daniel Sickles’s acts in North Carolina as illegal.  The general angrily asked to be relieved of his duties so that he could defend his conduct before a court of inquiry.

The editor of the Baptist Watchman and Reflector asserted “If the President acts on this opinion…to obstruct justice, he will…inaugurate a new war in Congress.”  The generally conservative Ohio Baptist Journal and Messenger concluded, “The President’s conduct from the first has not been such as to inspire confidence in his ability or integrity.  Congress has therefore only the more solemn responsibility resting upon it to be calm, vigilant, and unfalterting in its adherence to duty. The editor of the Zion’s Herald was more direct.  “Without doubt, the easiest remedy would be the prompt impeachment and remove of President Johnson.”

Here is a passage from p. 159:

The Baptist Christian Times and Witness condemned Johnson’s course but still did not think Congress should impeach him, because the president’s term was drawing to a close and opinion on the matter remained very divided.  “Providence has graciously provided for the protection of the country during the remainder of the term…by giving to loyal people such a decided preponderancy in Congress to keep wrong doing in check,” explained the editor.  But J.W. Barker, editor of the Christian Freemanviewed the crisis differently.  “When he who bears the sword bears it so vainly as to be no terror to ‘evil doers,’ but to cause the good and loyal to quake, he has lost his divine commission as a magistrate,’ the editor charged. 

Here is Howard on p. 160:

By October 1867, several ecclesiastical bodies were going on record in support of the current objectives of Congress.  The New London (Connecticut) Baptist Association, for example, resolved that “the open hostility of the President to the laws of Congress and the consequent hindrance to the peaceful progress of reconstruction fill us with the most painful solicitude.”  The Grinnell [Iowa] Association of Congregational Churches characterized Johnson as “an aider and abettor of principles inimical to the best interests of the country.”