The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
»Impeachment, Trial, and Acquittal

back to the Andrew Johnson Home Page
back to the intro to this section

Harper's Weekly, March 14, 1868, page 162

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

The President of the United States is impeached, and will be tried under the Constitution and by the laws; and Mayor Hoffman of New York made an exceedingly silly remark when he said that the assassins of Abraham Lincoln and the impeachers of Andrew Johnson will be equally infamous in history. Whether Mr. Hoffman seriously thinks so, or merely said so under the pressure of party necessity, he is equally to be pitied. The immediate and remarkable change of opinion and of action upon the part of the House of Representatives was sufficient to show that impeachment was not a party measure. Indeed, however desirable it might have been thought in an exclusively party view, it was the almost unanimous conviction of the dominant party that the offenses of the President, however disastrous in their consequences, were not such open and absolute violations of law and of his duty as imperatively to demand impeachment. But when, emboldened by a wise forbearance, the President pointedly violated the law and defied the Representatives of the people, seizing with one hand the prerogative of Congress and with the other that of the Supreme Court, thus usurping all the functions of the Government, the remedy which the Constitution provides was instantly applied, and he was solemnly summoned to answer to the country and to declare the reasons of his conduct.

The summons revealed the truth that the President had no friends. No party in the country is responsible for him. The Republicans elected him, and he has striven in every way to defeat their policy. The Democrats thought him rather worse than Caligula’s horse; and although he nominates one of their advocates for the mission to Austria, and their late Presidential candidate Minister to England; although he consorts chiefly with the most notorious Copperhead, and hails Democratic successes at the polls as vindications of his policy; although he has struggled hard to deliver the late rebel States wholly into the power of the rebels, and to cause the abandonment and betrayal of those to whom he promised to be a Moses; yet the Democratic party have seen his two chief Secretaryships filled with old Whigs and Republicans, while the faithful have been kept from a monopoly of the patronage. This is the mortal sin which "the natural governors of the country" never forgive, and the Democrats, who were glad enough to use him as a party weapon against the Republicans, turn quietly upon their heels when he plainly transcends the law, and without a word for him betake themselves to maligning and falsifying those who bring him to judgment.

But all the Democratic orators in Congress, all the newspapers which oppose the impeachment, all the speakers at the "Conservative" meeting of protest— whether the wise Mr. Gerard, the consistent Mr. Brooks, or the foolish Mr. Hoffman— say but two things: first, that Mr. Stanton was not appointed by the President; and, second, that the President has a right to test the constitutionality of the law. The first point is a very small quibble. How did Mr. Stanton happen to be Secretary of War under the present Administration? Because the President, finding him in office, invited him to remain. It was the only way in which, under the circumstances, he could have been appointed; and it would be very hard to show that the request to remain was not a perfect appointment. As to the second point, the simple and sufficient reply is that if the President chooses to test a law he must do it as every other citizen does—at the risk of the consequences. The police do not release a sneak-thief until the constitutionality of the law against larceny, which he declares that he questions, can be determined. He is tried for violating the law. The position taken by the opponents of impeachment is really that when the President vetoes a proposed law for unconstitutionality, and it is passed over his veto by the constitutional two-thirds, he may still impose his veto. And refuse to obey the law until the Court holds it to be valid. If this be not a fundamental change in our system of government, we should like to know what would be? If this be not revolution, there is no such thing.

One of the most persistent defamers of Congress says that "it can not be unlawful for the President to violate an unconstitutional law, which is simply no law at all." If this means any thing, it is that the President may decide the question of constitutionality; or may refuse to execute the law until he can have a decision of the Supreme Court. But if he may refuse to execute one law he may refuse to execute all laws, until he has such a decision, and all legislation must wait, if he chooses to call it unconstitutional, until the Court pronounces; the Court, of course, taking its own time. When the people of the United States assent to such a doctrine as this they will assent to the over-throw of their own power, and will have intrusted the Government to one man elected for four years, and to nine men appointed for life.

Those who think impeachment an exciting disturbance are mainly the supporters of the reaction which would place the country as nearly as possible just where it was before the war. But the great national necessity is not the restoration of the old southern policy in the government— it is the completion of its destruction. What we want is peace, and what hinders it? The President. His obstinate refusal to co-operate with Congress, whether in the matter of the Freedman’s Bureau, of the civil rights of all citizens, of the Constitutional Amendment, or of the final reconstruction policy, has produced all the turmoil of the last two years. With the Government a unit in its general political policy, it can have time to attend to the financial and other necessities of the time. But those who sneer at Congress for doing nothing but discuss reconstruction forget that not only is that of necessity the paramount question, but that with the Executive incessantly striving to baffle its policy, Congress could not desert its constant care of the subject without guilt. The moment this state of things is changed and harmony restored, public attention will be concentrated upon other and pressing questions. The President will be fairly tried. He will not be convicted, we are very sure, except upon testimony and argument that will satisfy the most doubting; and should he be removed from office public confidence will be wonderfully quickened by the full accord between the great branches of the government, while a man whose conspicuous elevation has been a profound humiliation to every self-respecting American will sink suddenly and forever into oblivion.

Articles Related to the Impeachment, Trial, and Acquittal:
To see a list of the related articles go back to the
intro section.


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