The Benefits of Impeachment: Some Lessons from Andrew Johnson

Johnson

Historian Gregory Downs thinks that Trump should be impeached even if the Senate keeps him office. There is a good chance that the time between the impeachment in the House and the trial in the Senate might “curtail Trump’s worst behaviors” and neutralize him politically.

Downs uses the impeachment of Andrew Johnson to make his point.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Washington Post:

Johnson’s adept attorneys succeeded in protecting his tenure in office in two ways. First, they sought to delay the Senate trial. Then, they used that delay to persuade Johnson to keep his hands off Reconstruction. As the trial hung over him and then dragged on through April and May, a chastened Johnson pledged to appoint a moderate secretary of war, stop shuffling generals in the Southern states, and let the Army and African American Republicans complete their work in the South. By April, a half-dozen former Confederate states had ratified their new constitutions and asked Congress for readmission. Only then, in mid-May, did the Senate finally vote on Johnson’s fate.

Even with his acquiescence to Reconstruction, Johnson survived only by a single vote in that Senate tally. Although the 14th Amendment was not ratified until July 1868, the impeachment trial that put Johnson’s fate into question allowed freedpeople, white Southern Republicans and the Army to freely engage in the crucial work of making what some scholars call a “Second Constitution,” a refashioning of the federal government’s role in protecting individual rights through the 14th Amendment’s pledges of equal protection and due process. Most significantly, those reconstructed states provided the votes to ratify the proposed amendment, which has subsequently shaped Supreme Court decisions on desegregation, voting rights, same-sex marriage, freedom of speech and assembly, and many other basic rights we enjoy today.

Impeachment also did play a role in Johnson leaving office by weakening him politically. In 1866, Johnson had explored the creation of a new party that combined Democrats and conservative Republicans. When that collapsed, he spent part of 1867 trying to engineer nomination by the Democratic Party, his old home. But the trial helped make him untouchable, and the Democrats turned to a different candidate, New York’s Horatio Seymour, leaving Johnson off the ballot.

Analogies are never perfect. We are not now in a period of Reconstruction, or a moment when Congress and the president are primarily at war over such a specific set of laws. Nonetheless, as Johnson did, Trump threatens the nation’s stability by attacking our faith in elections and the rule of law, as well as our global alliances. His tweets and incendiary rhetoric are dangerous, and although no one can say how he would respond to a looming trial, one possibility is that he, like Johnson, might tone down his behavior to avoid removal. And this possibility makes it worth taking the political risk posed by impeachment.

Trying to judge the worthiness of impeachment solely by whether it ends in conviction and removal would be a mistake. If the presence of a trial disciplines Trump to stop encouraging foreign interference in U.S. elections and to start curtailing his destabilizing rhetoric, impeachment will have been worth it, whether it ends in conviction or acquittal, in 2020 reelection or defeat. While many will call for a speedy impeachment trial if the House votes to impeach, senators might look to the Johnson case to ask whether a deliberate process will sustain pressure on the White House to behave more responsibly, and give the president the opportunity to save — or destroy — his tenure in office.

Read the rest here.

Meacham: Trump is Now Tied With Andrew Johnson as Most Racist President in U.S. History

Here is presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Meacham on MSNBC:

I’m not sure how you measure this, but Trump would certainly be high on the list.  Johnson was pretty racist.  So was Andrew Jackson. (Meacham’s biography of Jackson won the Pulitzer).

Trump’s remarks were made at a time when racism in America is less overt and more subtle. His comments were also made at a time when we might expect our leaders to have learned lessons from America’s racist past.  Perhaps this all makes Trump’s remarks even more egregious than Johnson or Jackson.

What Do Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Andrew Johnson Have in Common?

carter_kennedy_was_drinking_before_1980_snub

Fillmore, Pierce, and Johnson were sitting presidents seeking reelection who failed to win the nomination of their political party.  And it almost happened in 1980 as Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party nomination.

Could it happen in the GOP in 2020?

Jon Ward of Yahoo News discusses Kennedy’s challenge to Carter in his piece “Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and a lesson from history for President Trump.”  Here is a taste:

The heightened anxiety of the time—from gas lines, to rising costs for basic goods, to unemployment—was reflected in the public’s desire for a stronger form of leadership in the White House. More than half of the country—55 percent—still thought Carter was honest in a June CBS News/New York Times poll. But 66 percent said they wanted someone “who would step on some toes and bend some rules to get things done.” Democrats in the poll overwhelmingly said they wanted Kennedy to be their nominee in 1980, with 52 percent for Kennedy to 23 percent for Carter, and 8 percent for California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Beyond economics, Americans were worried that their country was “in deep and serious trouble” because of “moral threats which cut right through the social fabric,” according to one survey by Democratic pollster Peter Hart in Wisconsin. Hart’s results showed widespread concern over “a lack of morality and religion and the breakdown of the family structure.” People said they were “afraid that people have become too selfish and greedy, that the people are apathetic and just don’t care.”

Hart’s survey in Wisconsin showed a desire for “a reemergence of the more traditional approach to life and a turning away from the more publicized free-wheeling attitudes of the 1960’s and 70’s.” This should have given the Carter White House some reassurance that Kennedy, whose life bore all the hallmarks of excess and privilege, might not be as formidable a foe as the polls showed. But when things are going badly and you’re getting blamed, it’s hard to think clearly, and the Carter White House was spooked.

The New York Times columnist Tom Wicker noted that many of those polled about Kennedy supported him despite holding less liberal views than he did on health care and government spending. “He is a glamorous figure with a great name,” Wicker wrote. “Those who are trying to draft him are looking for a winner.”

Carter remained publicly defiant about his political future, despite his tanking popularity. One day after the June numbers appeared, he hosted several dozen congressmen at the White House for a briefing on the Panama Canal treaty, which was struggling to gain support. The House members were seated at round tables, in groups of ten or so. Carter went from table to table. While he spoke to one group, he was asked by Representative Toby Moffett of Connecticut how he felt about the 1980 election. Carter claims that Moffett asked him if he was even going to run for reelection, “which was kind of an insult to an incumbent president.”

“Of course I am,” Carter told Moffett.

Moffett persisted. “What about Ted Kennedy?” he asked.

“I’m going to whip his ass,” Carter said.

Representative William Brodhead, a Michigan Democrat, was taken aback.

“Excuse me, what did you say?” he said.

Moffett cut him off. “I don’t think the president wants to repeat what he said,” he told Brodhead.

Read the entire piece here.  And check out Ward’s new book Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight That Broke the Democratic Party

Historian Yoni Appelbaum Makes a Case for the Impeachment of Donald Trump

If you are a fan of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, you will remember our interview in Episode 3 with Yoni Appelbaum, historian and IDEAS editor at The Atlantic.  In this piece, Appelbaum makes a case for the impeachment of Donald Trump.  Here is a taste:

The oath of office is a president’s promise to subordinate his private desires to the public interest, to serve the nation as a whole rather than any faction within it. Trump displays no evidence that he understands these obligations. To the contrary, he has routinely privileged his self-interest above the responsibilities of the presidency. He has failed to disclose or divest himself from his extensive financial interests, instead using the platform of the presidency to promote them. This has encouraged a wide array of actors, domestic and foreign, to seek to influence his decisions by funneling cash to properties such as Mar-a-Lago (the “Winter White House,” as Trump has branded it) and his hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Courts are now considering whether some of those payments violate the Constitution.

More troubling still, Trump has demanded that public officials put their loyalty to him ahead of their duty to the public. On his first full day in office, he ordered his press secretary to lie about the size of his inaugural crowd. He never forgave his first attorney general for failing to shut down investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and ultimately forced his resignation. “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Trump told his first FBI director, and then fired him when he refused to pledge it.

Trump has evinced little respect for the rule of law, attempting to have the Department of Justice launch criminal probes into his critics and political adversaries. He has repeatedly attacked both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. His efforts to mislead, impede, and shut down Mueller’s investigation have now led the special counsel to consider whether the president obstructed justice.

As for the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, Trump has repeatedly trampled upon them. He pledged to ban entry to the United States on the basis of religion, and did his best to follow through. He has attacked the press as the “enemy of the people” and barred critical outlets and reporters from attending his events. He has assailed black protesters. He has called for his critics in private industry to be fired from their jobs. He has falsely alleged that America’s electoral system is subject to massive fraud, impugning election results with which he disagrees as irredeemably tainted. Elected officials of both parties have repeatedly condemned such statements, which has only spurred the president to repeat them.

These actions are, in sum, an attack on the very foundations of America’s constitutional democracy.

Read the entire piece here.

Sports and the White House: Some Historical Context

Brooklyn Atlantic

The Brooklyn Atlantic, 1865 (Library of Congress)

On the day that the Philadelphia Eagles were supposed to visit the White House, Yoni Appelbaum of The Atlantic writes about the first time a championship sports team visited the White House.  It happened in the Johnson Administration–that’s Andrew Johnson.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Here’s the thing about the pilgrimages that championship sports teams make to the White House each year. It’s a tradition rooted in efforts to achieve national unity. Like the broader American project, at their best these visits promote an expansive vision of America, a diverse society finding commonality in shared symbols and common rituals.

But the first such visit was rooted in a very different vision of American society—uniting white Americans by excluding blacks from sports, from civic rituals, and from political equality. As President Trump disinvited the Philadelphia Eagles from the White House on Monday, he loudly insisted that he still wished “to honor our great country” and “celebrate America.” His statement did not specify, though, which version of America he intended to celebrate.

In 1865, the United States was engaged in the project of Reconstruction, building a new society in the wake of the Civil War. It was also engaged in playing ball. Union soldiers brought home with them a passion for the American game, and fans flocked to ballfields to enjoy the pleasures of peacetime.

Read the rest here.

Allen Guelzo on Why History Shows Impeachment May be a Bad Idea

Andrew_Johnson_impeachment_trial

Abraham Lincoln and Civil War scholar Allen Guelzo reminds us what happened when Andrew Johnson was impeached.  The subtitle of his recent Wall Street Journal piece is “Many members of Congress in 1868 hoped to remove a president they merely disliked.  It didn’t go well.”  Here is a taste:

If the Democrats win the House in November, they’ll come under pressure to impeach President Trump. Even if Robert Mueller fails to turn up some astounding surprise, many Democrats want to impeach Mr. Trump because they simply don’t like him. Since the Constitution specifies that a president can be impeached for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” such a move would mean Democrats consider being disliked by the House majority to be a disqualifying crime.

That is precisely what many members of Congress thought 150 years ago this week, at the conclusion of the first impeachment of a sitting president, Andrew Johnson. The 17th president’s impeachment offers the important lesson that although the mechanism for impeachment is easy, the subsequent process of trial, conviction and removal from office is not. A failure at that stage of the process covers everybody with embarrassment—impeachers and impeached alike.

 

Read the rest here.

Guelzo seems to be preparing for the Democrats to take the House.  It is definitely a possibility.

“Removing a President is an Ugly Process”

Johnson

Andrew Johnson

So writes Jon Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

In his Atlantic piece “The High Price of Presidential Impeachment,” Grinspan argues that the impeaching of a POTUS “can dangerously inflame tensions in an already divided nation.”

Here is a taste:

There were, in the late 1860s, real fears that impeachment could spark a second Civil War. That rebellion was barely over, and posed a number of unanswered questions. What did the nation owe to millions of freed slaves? How should the federal government treat Confederate leaders and seceded states? What should northerners do about the atrocious outbreaks of racist violence unfolding in cities like New Orleans and Memphis?

Things were little calmer in Washington. A victorious, sometimes-cocky, Republican Party controlled more than three-quarters of both houses of Congress. Yet in the White House sat Andrew Johnson, put into power not by a popular vote, but by Lincoln’s assassination. And Johnson, it was painfully clear, was hostile to blacks, lenient with rebels, and hell-bent on fighting Congress.

{President Andrew] Johnson was, possibly, the worst man to lead the country at such a tense moment. Racist, crude, and grumpy, Johnson nursed an incredible persecution complex. At best, he was a formerly illiterate tailor who had worked his way up from poverty to the most powerful position in the nation, like his fellow Tennessean and personal hero, Andrew Jackson. At worst, he was paranoid, resentful, narcissistic. Washington politicos described a man who “always hated somebody,” “always defeats himself,” and was “always worse than you expect.”

There were, still, millions who sided with Johnson. White Democrats, especially in the lower north and the south, felt overwhelmed by Republicans. To them, Republicans were social-justice warriors intent on revolutionizing race relations and centralizing Federal power; most Democrats just wanted to return to the old union and old Constitution. Such Democrats launched the most bitterly racist campaigns in American history, rallying behind Andrew Johnson as a symbol of their struggle against change.

Read the entire piece here.

Johnson, Not Jackson

Johnson

If you want to draw a historical analogy between Donald Trump and a previous POTUS, historian and writer Joshua Zeitz thinks that Andrew Johnson, not Andrew Jackson, “provides the best model for Trump’s collapsing presidency.”  Johnson, of course, was the first president to be impeached by Congress.

Here is a taste of Zeitz’s piece at Politico, “When Congress Almost Ousted a Failing President.”

It was an ugly scene that left reporters slack-jawed. The president of the United States—a man notoriously short of temper and stubborn in his disregard for polite convention—had addressed a howling throng of political supporters outside the White House. Rambling and incoherent, he managed to refer to himself over 200 times over the course of an otherwise wild, angry screed. He incited the crowd to violence against his political enemies, including prominent member of the House of Representatives. A moderate news outlet critically observed that he was “the first of our Presidents who has descended to the stump, and spoken to the people as if they were a mob.”

Though Donald J. Trump has attempted to situate his presidency in the tradition of Jacksonian populism, it is another Andrew—Andrew Johnson, the man who staged that lowly performance—who provides the more apt comparison. A full-throated white supremacist and rabble-rousing populist, Johnson—who came to power in 1865 after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination—offended friends and foes alike with his unrestrained rhetoric and rash exercise of executive authority. As president, he veered from one self-manufactured crisis to another. His political enemies suspected that he colluded closely with enemies of the state.

And Zeitz concludes:

But for Democrats, and some Republicans, who quietly hope for Trump’s impeachment and removal, the case of Johnson offers only cold comfort. In 1868, Congress established a high bar for presidential removal. It’s not enough to be obnoxious or racist, nor to incite violence and mismanage affairs of state, nor even to collude spiritually with enemies of the American government. Precedent establishes that to be removed from office, a president must manifestly violate the law, as was the case with Richard Nixon, whose far-reaching and well-documented efforts to obstruct justice, evade taxes and suborn criminal conspiracy would almost certainly have resulted in impeachment and conviction had he not resigned first.

We’re a long way from that. And Democrats opposed to Trump will have to do what Johnson’s opponents did: rely on the president to undermine his own credibility and capacity to govern, one crazy speech (or tweet), and one ill-considered action, at a time.

Read the entire piece here.

The Worst President Ever

Nixon

Was Nixon the Worst?

Michael David Cohen is the editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.  He is also writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence, Rhode Island.  Michael is also the author if Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  Here is first post:

Greetings from OAH 2016!

Providence welcomed us historians today with a gentle spring rain. At least, by Noah’s standards. Surely I was not the only one who arrived at the Rhode Island Convention Center soaked to the bone. My umbrella fared rather worse, blown inside out by the day’s refreshing breeze. Nonetheless, after changing into dry clothes, I made it to the Exhibit Hall in time for the conference’s first plenary session.

As one who spends his days studying a U.S. presidency, I was looking forward to the presentation titled “Worst. President. Ever.” It did not disappoint. Guided by chair Claire Potter, panelists David Greenberg, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Jacob Weisberg (who assures us that, despite the original program, he is not Sean Wilentz) offered their insights both on who was the worst president and, perhaps more important, on how we should judge presidents as best or worst.

Dr. Greenberg argued that, although only a few things make a president great, our chief executives can be bad in a variety of ways. He grouped the failures into four categories: “completely insignificant and forgettable presidents” (such as Millard Fillmore, for whom, he noted, even the White House’s website offers faint praise); those who responded terribly to a crisis (think Herbert Hoover); those who accomplished much that we don’t like (some may say Indian remover Andrew Jackson); and those guilty of corruption or abuse of power, crimes “that transcend party and politics.”

Mr. Weisberg suggested similar criteria for badness. A bad president may have accomplished something harmful, through either action (entered a war or dropped atomic bombs, for example) or inaction; may not have left a significant lasting impact (cough, William Henry Harrison); or may have displayed bad character. The first two being opposites—bad impact and no impact—no president could have achieved all three types of bad.

Though they hesitated to settle on a single “Worst. President. Ever.,” their typologies led both these speakers to select the same candidate for the dubious honor. Richard Nixon, as Weisberg put it, was the only president to have attained true “Shakespearean villainy.” Despite his oft-cited accomplishments, especially in foreign policy, Nixon’s abuse of power—Greenberg’s transcendent evil and Weisberg’s character flaw—damaged the presidency and the American people’s faith in government. It propelled him to the top (or bottom) of the list.

Dr. Gordon-Reed, though she shared her co-panelists’ condemnation of Nixon, gave a different answer to the plenary’s question. Her two approaches to presidential failure were to find a leader who responded poorly to an intractable crisis and to find one who chose not to follow the best available path. The former approach yielded James Buchanan, who has so often been lambasted for his weak response to secession. But what, Gordon-Reed asked, could Buchanan have done? No promising solution presented itself.

The latter approach yielded Andrew Johnson. Republicans in Congress and elsewhere

Johnson

Or was it Andrew Johnson?

proposed alternatives to his Reconstruction policies that held the hope of unifying the nation across both regional and racial lines, expanding true citizenship and independence to recently emancipated African Americans. But, owing to his “stubbornness” and to the fact that “he hated black people,” Johnson forswore that path. The president who put his “petty prejudices” ahead of the good of the nation earned the title of Worst. Buchanan can rest easy for once: not a single panelist named him President Number 44.

The speakers’ initial presentations and the questions from audience members brought much more nuance to the conversation than this summary indicates. They also brought more names. Franklin Pierce, Ronald Reagan, Herbert Hoover, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, and Thomas Jefferson all received consideration for Worst, though Gordon-Reed quickly responded, “Jefferson is no part of this conversation, okay?” I was pleased to hear at least a brief reference by Weisberg to James K. Polk, whom I study and who so rarely gets any attention, good or bad. George W. Bush came up several times, though the panelists hesitated to evaluate very recent presidents. (Weisberg did admit to having once debated, against Karl Rove and Bill Krystol, whether Bush was the worst president of the past hundred years. Weisberg lost.) Even Abraham Lincoln, the racist emancipator who angered half the nation by reunifying it, was raised by several audience members in this conversation on America’s worst president.

One question that noticeably did not come up in the plenary was whether determining overall greatness or badness is of historical value. Certainly historians and other Americans love to rank. I was excited when once surveyed for a presidential ranking. As Dickens wrote, many people prefer “being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Yet, if Nixon went to China and his people bugged the Watergate, does it help for us to name him overall as 44, 36, or 12? Does it help to compare his record with James Buchanan’s? Can a presidency be graded as a whole or compared with one in another historical context? It’s a sign of a great panel that I’m left with questions as well as answers.

This was just my first session of the conference. I’m looking forward to plenty more sessions, questions, conversations with old colleagues, and meetings with new ones. Perhaps I should go easy on the discounted books, though. I’ve already bought two more than I have room for in my suitcase.