The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
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Harper's Weekly, May 2, 1868, page 274

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The counsel for the President occupied two weeks in offering testimony. But the moral evidence was already in. For three years the country has had the Executive in full view, and we presume no one who seriously wishes that the legitimate results of the war shall be secured, has supposed that such a result would be possible while a man who is doggedly bent upon committing the political power in the late rebel States exclusively to the late rebels is in the Executive chair. Yet he ingeniously avoided committing the technical overt act which would bring him by the letter as well as by the spirit wholly within the constitutional conditions of impeachment. Consequently the country, willing to impeach, did not demand impeachment. It was felt to be better to endure to the end of his term, and then replace him by a loyal, intelligent Magistrate, who would co-operate with the representatives of the people, instead of thwarting them upon every opportunity. But, as often happens to men in his position, the President’s cunning sophisticated and betrayed him. He deliberately violated the law. Instantly public opinion assented to the constitutional remedy. The dominant party in Congress, which in December had emphatically refused to impeach, in February promptly and unanimously presented articles of impeachment.

The public interest in the trial has been unflagging. Its daily progress has been most carefully studied, and its significance can not be overestimated. That amidst the profound agitations, acrimonies, and party heats that necessarily follow a civil war, the Chief Magistrate of the nation can be tranquilly tried with perfect assent upon his part, and with entire conformity to the fundamental law, is the most signal illustration of the advance of civilization. There is nothing that would so mark the actual gain of political society in the perfect supremacy of law, and nothing, consequently, that would so essentially weaken every government resting upon privilege and force as, after trial and conviction, the peaceable deposition of the President and the quiet progress of the government. It would then appear that whether the head of the government be assassinated or legally removed, the political structure does not test upon a person, but upon all people, and that the system is not even jarred by any personal fortune.

The President’s defense has been wholly conducted by Mr. Stanbery, Mr. Curtis, and Mr. Evarts, and with a decorum and dignity equal to their ability and befitting the gravity of the cause. The case for the Managers has been mainly intrusted to General Butler. His skill, coolness, promptitude, and knowledge have been conspicuous; but, unhappily, his want of tact and courtesy and his peculiar training in the courts have been not less so. Inevitable as we believe the result of the trial to be, we can not but think it has been often harmed both by the manner of General Butler and by the method of conducting their case adopted by the Managers. It was desirable, within proper limits, to allow testimony, in so exceptional a case and before so exceptional a tribunal, to take a wide range, and it was therefore a mistake to contest every point with the pertinacity of a criminal lawyer in a doubtful trial. The Senate, however, wisely resolved not to make any stringent rule upon the subject, deciding that it was better to settle each question of admissibility as it arose.

The effort of the defense was to prove that the President acted under competent advice, and that his design was simply to test the constitutionality of the law. This was the substance of the contest upon the admission of the testimony of General Sherman and of the Cabinet. The President’s counsel evidently hoped to show that the chief officers of the army were of opinion that Mr. Stanton should be removed for the good of the service, and that the President acted only after consultation with the Cabinet and for the highest public welfare. General Sherman’s evidence was at last admitted. But, of course, whatever the General might have testified that the President declared, the declaration itself could not be of the least importance. On the 22d of February the President removed the Secretary of War. On the 1st and the 31st of January he told General Sherman that he wanted to remove the Secretary merely to bring the matter into the courts. Very well; we are then obliged by the President’s antecedents and character to ask whether his word upon such a point must necessarily be trusted; whether we believe his sole object was what he declared it to be; whether his dispatch to Governor Parsons, for instance, or, in fact, his whole career, does not reveal an animus which forbids the theory that he was merely an honest magistrate troubled about the validity of a law. Or, again, supposing that he wished to thrust Secretary Stanton out and an agent of his own in, for the purpose of organizing opposition to the laws, would he be likely to announce it to the Lieutenant-General? Would he not, of course, declare that his purpose was as pure as purity?

That is the very head and front of this case. For if the violation of one law may be justified, if "the mere formal, technical infraction of the Tenure-of-Office Act" is of no consequence, provided the Executive pleads a constitutional doubt, then his plea of a Constitutional doubt must equally justify him in a formal and technical infraction of every other act and of every law upon the Statute-Book. Such an argument excuses him from obeying any law until he has chosen to bring the question of its validity before the Supreme Court, and until the Supreme Court has chosen to decide. It is no answer to say that there are some laws that can be tested in no other way. For it is better that some laws should not be tested than that the President should be permitted to decide what laws he may violate under plea of testing them. Nor is it sufficient to offer to show that there was no bad motive; but the President, even with the best intentions, can not be suffered to become dictator. If the Tenure-of-Office Act was a law, it was binding upon the President with all other laws. If Mr. Stanton stood within the terms of the law and the President removed him without consulting the Senate, the President is guilty of deliberately violating the law. If this shall be established by the Managers—and it seems to us as plain as any proposition can be—and the President be acquitted by the Senate, its decision will confirm him as Dictator.

The elaborate effort of the defense to show purity of motive seems to us useless. The Senate did wisely in admitting a reasonable number of declarations of the President that he had nothing but the noblest purposes in view, for really there is nothing else for him to say, except that Mr. Stanton is not within the law. We are glad to know all that we can of the President’s communications to men like General Sherman, and as little as possible of his orations to correspondents with note-book in hand. We know that the Cabinet thought the law unconstitutional. His counsel with the utmost ability will present his case. It is clear that the Senate is as candid and upright a tribunal as any impeached officer could desire. Its conduct from the beginning shows that it means to do justice. But we shall await with curious interest the argument that shall attempt to prove to the Senate of the United States that President Andrew Johnson, in the present condition of the country and with his notorious sympathies, associations, and hopes, may at his pleasure formally and technically violate the laws.

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