Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews





The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew John-


York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.,

1973. x + 212p.; notes, appendix, biblio-

graphical essay, and index. Cloth, $6.95;

paper, $2.45.)


Among the countless studies of American

political institutions few have dealt with im-

peachment. Historians and political scien-

tists writing about Reconstruction or Presi-

dent Andrew Johnson have avoided treating

his impeachment in depth. Although few

scholars any longer accept the once com-

monly held view that there were seven Re-

publican "martyrs"' who destroyed their po-

litical careers by voting to acquit Johnson,

many have agreed with the late President

John F. Kennedy's assessment that Senator

Edmund G. Ross-joined by six other Re-

publicans-"may well have preserved for

ourselves and posterity constitutional gov-

ernment in the United States" (Profiles in

Courage (1955), p. 126). In recent years the

Reconstruction era has been subjected to

searching new analyses that have justified

much of Radical Republican Reconstruction

legislation. Notwithstanding these en-

hanced views of Radical Reconstruction, un-

til now there has not been a significant re-

evaluation of Johnson's impeachment, and

David Miller DeWitt, The Impeachment and

Trial of Andrew Johnson . . . (1903), re-

mained the standard study. Ohio State Uni-

versity Professor Michael Les Benedict has

persuasively rectified this oversight of sev-

enty years.

In his refreshing analysis of Johnson's im-

peachment and trial Benedict concludes

there were good, compelling, and persuasive

reasons for the removal attempt. After a

thorough examination of the legal and con-

stitutional bases for impeachment, Benedict

insists, convincingly, that it was intended to

be a political remedy for removing a dan-

gerous President before the end of his term

for reasons that might not necessarily be

considered criminal in the courts. Impeach-

ment, in Benedict's view, is a political rem-

edy grounded in constitutional law. The

basis for Johnson's impeachment was his

consistent refusal to execute the laws of

Congress and his insistence on reconstruct-

ing the southern states along lines repugnant

to the expressed will of Congress. By refus-

ing to cooperate with Congress and acting in

defiance of its will, by refusing to take ade-

quate steps to protect loyal southerners and

his insistence on working with suspect south-

ern leaders, by leaving southern blacks and

white loyalists at the mercy of state action,

Johnson was negating, in part, the results of

the Civil War. Added to these "sins," John-

son was attempting to build a new political

coalition that would return him to office.

His unsuccessful attempt to remove Secre-

tary of War Edwin M. Stanton was the spark

that ignited the impeachment fire which had

long been smoldering.

Examining charges against the President

and arguments advanced by leaders on both

sides of the question, Benedict concludes

that the impeachment proceedings were

"one of the great legal cases of history, in

which American politicians demonstrated

the strength of the nation's democratic in-

stitutions by attempting to do what no one

could justifiably expect them to do-to give a

political officer a full and fair trial in a time

of political crisis" (p. 143). He doubts there

was ever any real danger that conviction of

the President would have broken down the

separation and balancing of powers in the

national government and resulted in a Brit-

ish style parliamentary system. It was the

President, Benedict alleges accurately, who

overstepped his authority and threatened the

separation of powers. Despite the Presi-

dent's transgressions, however, the failure of

conviction demonstrated that impeachment

was a poor weapon and "the only effective

recourse against a president who ignores the