Johnson’s Impeachment

House Republicans, tired of presidential vetoes that blocked Military Reconstruction, impeached Johnson by a vote of 12647 for violating the Tenure of Office Act. The Senate then tried Johnson in May 1868 in front of a gallery of spectators. However, the prosecutors, two Radical Republicans from the House, were unable to convince a majority of senators to convict the president. Seven Republican senators sided with Senate Democrats, and the Republicans fell one vote shy of convicting Johnson.

The Politics of Johnson’s Impeachment

Although Johnson did technically violate the Tenure of Office Act, the bill was passed primarily as a means to provoke Johnson and give Radical Republicans in Congress an excuse to get rid of him. Indeed, Johnson’s trial in Congress exposed the real reason that House Republicans impeached the president: he had ignored them in the process of crafting Reconstruction policies, and they wanted retaliation.

The Senate, however, acquitted Johnson, aware that a frivolous impeachment would have set a dangerous precedent. If Congress had removed a president from office simply on the basis of a power struggle between the president and Congress, they might have endangered the system of separation of powers—an integral part of U.S. government. Although Johnson had stubbornly opposed Congress, he had not violated the Constitution and was not guilty of committing “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

In addition, another factor was the fact that, because Johnson had no vice president, the president pro tempore of the Senate was next in line for the presidency should Johnson be impeached. This man was a rather liberal Republican named Benjamin Wade, whose politics did not sit well with certain other senate Republicans. Some of these Republicans deemed the prospect of a Wade presidency just as unpalatable as the dangerous precedent of impeachment and thus voted with the Democrats to acquit Johnson.

The Fifteenth Amendment

The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments had abolished slavery and granted blacks citizenship, but blacks still did not have the right to vote. Radical Republicans feared that black suffrage might be revoked in the future, so they decided to amend the Constitution to solidify this right. They also believed that giving blacks the right to vote would weaken southern elites, who had regained political power in the South. In 1869, therefore, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, granting all American males the right to vote. Congress also required secessionist states that had not yet reentered the Union to ratify the amendment in order to rejoin. By 1870, three-quarters of the Union had ratified the amendment, and it became law.

Black Voters

After the amendment’s ratification, southern blacks flocked to the polls. By the beginning of 1868, more than 700,000 blacks (and nearly the same number of poor landless whites) had registered to vote. Not surprisingly, virtually all of them declared themselves Republicans, associating the Democratic Party with secession and slavery. Black civic societies and grassroots political organizations began to sprout up across the South, most led by prominent blacks who had been freedmen since before the Civil War.

Popular pages: Reconstruction (1865–1877)