The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
»Initial Impeachment Discussions

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Harper's Weekly,
November 3, 1866, page 690

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HarpWeek Commentary: This is the first time that Harper’s Weekly discusses the possible impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

In the course of our political history it has been often said by stump orators, in the rhetorical culmination of their discourses, that the President ought to be impeached; but so serious a measure has never yet been adopted by Congress nor justified by the country. But when two gentlemen like General Butler and Mr. Boutwell, each of whom will be members of the next Congress, announce that they shall take the preliminary steps of impeachment, and when one of them states in detail the grounds upon which he would justify his action, it is but fair to suppose that they mean what they say, and intend to bring the subject before Congress.

Mr. Boutwell says, and with perfect truth, that an impeachment is not a revolutionary measure. It is no more so—indeed, in our history, not as much so—as an election. The Constitution plainly provides for impeachment as it does for any other emergency. It is the only way in which the official offenses of certain officers can be reached. But it is, of course, a measure of the very gravest character—one which in ordinary times would profoundly excite the country, and which in extraordinary times like these would produce an equally extraordinary agitation. It is a remedy which should be invoked only in great emergencies. The offense must be plain, the peril indisputable, to justify the temporary suspension of the executive authority in the person if its constitutional representative. For, unlike other trials, it seems, according to General Butler, that, in case of impeachment, the accused is to be considered guilty until he is proved to be innocent. He may be suspended from his functions until he proves his unblemished right to exercise them.

There are two questions which immediately present themselves. Has the conduct of the President made him liable to impeachment? And if so, would it be wise to impeach him?

We are certainly correct in saying that there is no general conviction at present that the President ought to be impeached. That his Presidency is a national misfortune, and that but for him the country would be rapidly returning to a normal condition, is unquestionable. That he is entirely unfitted by natural capacity and training for the office he holds is painfully conspicuous. That he comprehends neither the causes nor the consequences of the war, and is curiously ignorant both of the American people and of the dominant idea of our politics is undeniable. But these, although misfortunes for the country, are not impeachable offenses. And we are to remember that the President did not thrust himself into his office, but came to it by constitutional election and succession. Much is said of his personal habits, but it is rumor merely. It has not appeared, nor has it been seriously alleged, that he has habits which substantially prevent him from properly fulfilling his official duties.

Ought he then to be impeached for perilous political offenses? He is charged with usurping the prerogative of Congress in settling the questions left by the war, and with a shameful prostitution of official patronage to personal ends. But as to the first charge, his offense thus far is nothing more than a violent and indecent assertion of what is constitutional and of what Congress ought to do. He has expressed opinions, but he has as yet attempted no acts. He has indeed, denounced the opinions of those who differ with him as treason, and their holders as deserving of the gibbet. But this merely shows the mental muddle in which he has been long involved. It is natural to suppose that a man of his passionate temperament will endeavor to enforce his views in some way, and it is the part of wisdom to be watchful and ready. But until that time his views are merely his own opinions, and they are opinions held among a people who thoroughly comprehend the situation.

The President’s abuse of the appointing power, and his total misconception of the relations of the various officers to the Government, are indeed extraordinary, but they are not unprecedented. His conduct is not essentially different from that of other late Presidents, and will lead undoubtedly, as it should, to a legal remedy of a very menacing danger to which the Government is exposed. The whole question of appointment and removal, in its exact constitutional relations, is still an open one, and if the President be guilty of the grossest and baldest attempts at political bribery by patronage, his offense is not so peculiar as to justify, in the public mind, so extraordinary a correction as impeachment.

It would be enough, therefore, to prove the inexpediency, under the circumstances, of an impeachment, that the grounds of action are neither evident nor adequate to the public mind. But there are other reasons which render it especially impolitic. It would unnecessarily embitter and prolong the present party conflict. Under the circumstances—for it is circumstances which determine expediency—it would wear the air of an act of indignant revenge; and it would be curiously disproportioned to the present offense. If, indeed, as Mr. Wendell Phillips seems to suppose, the President is a conscious and malignant conspirator, in concert with others, to put the Government into the hands of its enemies, and to force its friends into the position of rebels, the situation is revolutionary, and demands unusual measures. But the elections show that, whatever may be the foul intentions of any man or party, the great mass of loyal American citizens are neither deceived nor asleep. They have paid a fearful price for their control of the Government, and they do not mean to relinquish it. Mr. Wade Hampton, and Mr. Alexander H. Stephens, and Mayor Monroe, and Raphael Semmes, and the President, and Mr. Seward, and Mr. John T. Hoffman, and Mr. Vallandigham, and Mr. Montgomery Blair, may say and do what they will. They can neither wheedle nor frighten the people who saved the Union from securing it in the way which seems to them most just, most generous, and most enduring. And that security no more requires the impeachment of the President than the hanging of Jefferson Davis.


Articles Related to the Initial Impeachment Discussions:
The President Judged by Himself

August 25, 1866, page 530

Reconstruction and How it Works (cartoon)
September 1, 1866, pages 552-553

Which Is The More Illegal (cartoon)
September 8, 1866, page 569

The New Orleans Report
October 20, 1866, page 658

The New Orleans Massacre
IMarch 30, 1867, page 202

Text from Illustration of Andy’s Trip

October 27, 1866, pages 680-681

The Great Campaign of ’66
September 29, 1866, page 610

What Next?
October 27, 1866, page 674

King Andy (cartoon)
November 3, 1866 page 696

Shall the President be Impeached?
November 3, 1866, page 690

The Popular Will
November 24, 1866, page 738

Andy Makes a Call on Uncle Sam, Who Rises to the Occasion (cartoon)
December 1, 1866, page 768

Impeachment and General Butler
December 15, 1866, page 786

December 22, 1866, page 803

What Next?
December 29, 1866, page 818


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