Ohio History Journal

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16





John Sherman

and the Impeachment

of Andrew Johnson





In Irving Brant's recent study of the impeachment process by the United States

Congress, he characterized the Radical Republican attempt to remove Andrew

Johnson from the presidency in 1868 as "the most insidious assault on constitutional

government in the nation's history." "It was," Brant charged, "carried on in direct

violation of the limitations deliberately placed in the Constitution to prevent such a

happening. If it had been successful and had been accepted as a precedent, it

would have converted a government of divided powers, of checks and balances, into

a congressional dictatorship."1 Few authorities have reached the extreme con-

clusions Brant has put forward. A majority of those who have studied the question

have generally divided along two lines. One group has concluded "conviction defi-

nitely would have demolished the separation of powers concept and reduced the

presidency to a plaything of the ascendant group in Congress." More recent writers

have conceded that the impeachment might have irreparably damaged the presi-

dency but believe it more likely that the threat of impeachment might have limited

the President's prerogatives and led to its more frequent use when the Chief Execu-

tive overstepped the bounds of propriety.2

Whatever the constitutional impact of a conviction might have been, the attempt

was rooted in real fears by many Republicans that Johnson was exercising question-

able presidential power, usurping proper congressional functions, and threatening

to overturn the results of the Civil War by returning "traitors" to positions of au-

thority in the South. The logical consequence of such actions, in the eyes of Re-

publican opponents to Johnson, was the threat to the construction of a Republican

party in the South and the practical, if not legal, return of southern Negroes to in-

voluntary servitude. Moreover, Johnson's continued abuse of patronage, one of the




1. Irving Brant, Impeachment: Trials and Errors (New York, 1972), 4.

2. James E. Sefton, "The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson: A Century of Writing," Civil War History,

XIV (June 1968), 142-143. The Sefton article is an excellent review of impeachment historiography,

ibid., 120-147.


Mr. Bridges is Director of Research at the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield.