The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
ĽOvert Obstruction of Congress

back to the Andrew Johnson Home Page

Harper's Weekly, October 5, 1867, page 626

go to the previous article in this section
go to the next article in this section

The subject of impeachment has received fresh impulse from recent events. The later action of the President has bee so flagrant in its hostility to the plain intent of the laws that many persons who have hitherto steadily opposed the project of impeachment now begin to feel that there is no other remedy for the situation. But it by no means follows that those who have demanded impeachment were therefore right. It may be highly probable that a surly and willful man will break the peace, but it would be a great mistake to punish him for surliness. The criminal law must wait for overt acts.

The same reasoning does not altogether apply, indeed, to the case of impeachment, but its spirit does. When the cry for impeachment was first raised there was no general demand for such action, because there was no general conviction of its necessity. Certain persons were very sure that it would become a necessity, and therefore they insisted upon the measure. But they could not expect that the country would share their opinion without further evidence, and they probably did not. The wisest of them confided sufficiently in their own sagacity to believe that the President would show without much delay his intention to thwart the purpose of the people. The removal of General Sheridan was popularly accepted as the final proof of that intention, and it was understood, and even announced, that several prominent opponents of impeachment, including Mr. Wilson, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, were converted to the belief of its necessity

Yet, technically and verbally, up to the present moment, the President has not violated the law. The law gave him authority to remove General Sheridan. Indeed, it was on the objections urged against the Reconstruction bill that the President might appoint whomsoever he chose under the express conditions of the law; and when he named Sheridan, Sickles and the rest his action was regarded as a sign of acquiescence, while it was not denied that he might have named others at his pleasure. So with his suspension of Mr. Stanton. It is not a literal violation even of the Civil Tenure bill, which was supposed to bind him so closely. The President has taken good care to guard that point, at least to the present time. Should he go further and direct the reopening of the registry, in order to admit those persons who are excluded by law, then, of course, unless Congress intended to surrender the government of the country, it would impeach the President for breaking the law.

But it is plain that a President may properly be impeached and removed without any technical or literal violation of law upon his part. The offenses for which he may be impeached are not criminal in the ordinary sense, nor is his punishment such. He is impeached, if at all, for political offenses, and his punishment is simply removal from a political office. His guilt must be determined. Therefore, from the very nature of political offenses, not merely by verbal violations of a law, but by a conceded and evident and perilous obstruction of the execution of a law. If the plainly expressed sentiments of the President and his public action show that, deeming the law unconstitutional, he proposes to defeat its execution, and if his conduct accordingly exposes the nation to serious peril, Congress will undoubtedly act in the spirit and not merely by the letter of the Constitution which authorizes impeachment. The words of the fourth section of the second article of the Constitution of the United States are: "The President, Vice-President, and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for and conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." What is a high crime in this sense? What is a misdemeanor?

We would not strain the words of the Constitution. We would not lightly interpret even so mild a word as misdemeanor, for the precedent would be dangerous and it would be surely invoked. But while Andrew Johnson is President it is impossible that the great work of reconstruction can properly proceed. The experience of two years shows that in every way he will thwart and embarrass it, and that he will not hesitate, as now, to hold the whole country in agitating suspense. The question is whether his continuance in the Presidential office, watched by a permanent Congress, is not a greater peril than the process of impeachment. If the conduct of the President is such that Congress can not safely adjourn lest he should baffle the execution of the laws, is not his conduct a misdemeanor within the intent of the Constitution? It is useless to say that if the elections of last year most emphatically show the feelings the people? And are we now any nearer peace that then? Is there any less necessity of a permanent session of Congress than there was last year? Has not every election since the President’s policy was understood rebuked it, and has he changed his course?

The precedent of impeachment, when there has been no technical violation of the law, is undoubtedly dangerous. But great political offenders, as we have seen in the case of the rebel chiefs, protect themselves and mature their designs under technicalities and literal interpretations. The part of a great statesman in a great emergency is to determine when to rely upon the spirit of the law, even without the letter. It is a risk, indeed, but in great emergencies risks must be taken….

We believe that public sentiment would justify impeachment. But it is for the Judiciary Committee to determine whether the case can be so presented as to make conviction a moral certainty. If it can not, then the process should not be attempted. There must be something very different from Mr. Ashley’s charges as the ground of action. Acts must be fully proved which are a violation of law, or which imply an unmistakable intention to thwart the honest execution of the laws and to endanger the safety of the country.

Articles Related to Overt Obstruction of Congress:
February 2, 1867, page 67
February 16, 1867, page 99
March 16, 1867, page 163

How Long?
June 29, 1867, page 402

Reconstruction and Obstruction
July 6, 1867, page 418

The Summer Session
July 6, 1867, page 418

The Fortieth Congress
July 17, 1867, page 467

Thanks to the District Commanders
July 27, 1867, page 467

Impeachment Postponed
July 27, 1867, page 467

A Desperate Man
August 13, 1867, page 546

The Secretary of War
August 24, 1867, page 530

Samson Agonistes at Washington (cartoon)
August 24, 1867, page 544

The Stanton Imbroglio (illustrated satire)
August 24, 1867, page 542

Secretary Grant
August 31, 1867, page 546

Southern Reconstruction
August 31, 1867, page 547

The Political Situation
September 7, 1867, page 562

General Thomas
September 7, 1867, page 563

Southern Reconstruction
September 7, 1867, page 563

The General and the President
September 14, 1867, page 578

General Sickles Also
September 14, 1867, page 579

Southern Reconstruction
September 21, 1867, page 595

The President’s Intentions
September 28, 1867, page 610

October 5, 1867, page 626

The Main Question
October 5, 1867, pages 626-627

Suspension during Impeachment
October 19, 1867, page 658

"Disregarding" The Law
November 2, 1867, page 691

December 14, 1867, page 786

General Grant’s Testimony
December 14, 1867, page 786

The President’s Message
December 14, 1867, page 787

General Grant’s Letter
January 1, 1868, page 2

Secretary Stanton’s Restoration
January 25, 1868, page 51

Reconstruction Measures
January 25, 1868, page 51

The President, Mr. Stanton and General Grant
February 1, 1868, page 66

Romeo (Seward) to Mercutio (Johnson) (cartoon)
February 1, 1868, page 76

The War Office
February 1, 1868, page 77

Secretary’s Room in the War Department (illus)
February 1, 1868, page 77

The New Reconstruction Bill
February 8, 1868, page 83


Website design © 1998-2005 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2005 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to