The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
»Initial Impeachment Discussions

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Harper's Weekly, December 15, 1866, page 786

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HarpWeek Commentary: General Benjamin Butler was not well regarded in war or politics, but he was in the front rank of the movement to impeach President Johnson.


A President of the United States should be impeached only when his guilt is so evident that the country has virtually convicted him before he is tried; or when the revelations of his secret abuse of power are so overwhelming that they carry persuasion to every mind. The reasons are obvious. An impeachment of the Executive officer in the midst of fierce political differences would necessarily produce an excitement which should not be hazarded for any but the most conclusive considerations.

There have been many rumors of an intention of impeachment at the present session. But nothing is clearer than that the country does not demand that the President shall be impeached for any thing which he is known to have done. If there are secret plots and conspiracies and hidden Executive attempts, they are yet to be exposed. If they are known, it is the duty of those who are cognizant of them to bring them to the knowledge of Congress, which would then undoubtedly and decisively act. But the general grounds upon which the proposition is made are untenable, and are so judged by the country. We are, therefore, not surprised to see that General Logan, who is a member of the next Congress, and who was said to be preparing articles, has expressly denied the truth of the report; and Mr. Bingham, of Ohio, who was declared to be ready to begin impeachment at the opening of the present session, is equally decided with General Logan in his denial.

General Butler, a member of the next Congress, is very strenuous in urging that the President ought to be arraigned. General Butler is a man whose great services in peculiar exigencies of the late war are undeniable. He is a man of undoubted ability and resolution, and he would probably be the last man to deny that a gentleman who should claim to be a candidate for Congress from a district in which he had taken but a summer residence will never die of modesty. As a adroit and successful jury lawyer General Butler’s eminence is conceded; while Great Bethel and Fort Fisher and the James River campaign are willingly forgiven by the generous public heart to the military Governor who tamed rebellious New Orleans, who peremptorily hung rebels upon proper occasion, and who has not ceased to befriend the colored citizen and claim for him every where equal rights.

Yet General Butler does not seem to us to be the wisest national counselor at this time. He is emphatically a man for an active revolutionary epoch, the interregnum of law. In a reconstructive period like this, it is not only essential that a public counselor should be very sagacious and patient, as Mr. Lincoln was, but that his character should inspire the fullest public confidence, as Mr. Lincoln’s did. The moment self appears, the instant that personal ambition is suspected, the power of the man is gone, and his counsel becomes merely a matter of curious observation and criticism. The people no longer recognize in him their representative, but they feel as if a clever manager were using them for his own advantage.

Nor, is it doubtful that the general impression of General Butler is that of a shrewd man bent upon personal success, who will ride any horse that promises to bring him in? As he is reported to have said of himself, a man who voted a dozen times for Jeff Davis for President in the Charleston Convention of 1860 is a man who will dare any thing; and we doubt whether many officers in the service could have been found who, after the share which General Butler had in the closing campaign of the war, and who had been even contemptuously mentioned by the commanding General, would have gone home and made the speech which General Butler made at Lowell. That he is determined under all circumstances to fall upon his feet and will never say die is indisputable. But with all the popular admiration which General Butler’s pluck naturally commands, we doubt if there be a corresponding confidence in his wisdom.

In his late speech advising impeachment the General leaned much upon the precedent of the impeachment and conviction of Judge Humphreys of Tennessee for the words of a speech urging the State to secede. But even allowing that "words" may justify impeachment, is it wise to proceed upon them except in a case where the words plainly express something more than ill-temper? The President has spoken contemptuously of Congress, but he has constantly recognized its authority. Shall he be impeached for saying that he considers it an unlawful assembly if he consistently treats it as a lawful power? Is it desirable that passionate words shall suffice to impeach a President?

The other points of the General’s argument seem to us as unwise and insufficient as this. All his political friends agree with him that the President is the obstruction of the situation. They agree with Mr. Wendell Phillips that it is foolish to suppose that the President understands, or could understand, the principle which elected him, or the real purpose of the people. A narrow and passionate man is unquestionably a dangerous executive officer, and the country has been taught that the White House must be closely watched. But we have no right to hang an ill-favored man for murder because we fear he may pick somebody’s pocket. The law must be satisfied with overt acts, or, in extreme cases, as in that of Judge Humphreys, by words, when, in a quasi or actual state of war, words are effectively deeds. But that is precisely what the President’s are not. He has been upon all sides of the problem of restoration. At different times Senator Sumner and Mayor Monroe have been equally satisfied with him. His utter inconsistency convicts his intellect, but it pleads against the assumption of subtle and sinister design. General Butler will always make a bold and interesting speech, but he will hardly persuade the country that the President ought to be impeached at present, whatever may be the case hereafter; and we doubt if the General stands as the representative of the spirit which will compose the great difference. Not because he is radical; for the settlement will be radical; but because of a certain sensational quality which is felt not to belong to wise statesmanship.

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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