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America's First Impeachment

Abraham Lincoln was a tough act to follow.

In the 229-year history of the American presidency, only two chief executives have ever been impeached. The second was Bill Clinton, who was acquitted of perjury and obstruction of justice in February 1999. The first, 131 years earlier, was Andrew Johnson.

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Johnson was officially charged with violating the Tenure of Office Act in his February 1868 dismissal of War Secretary Edwin Stanton, but his impeachment had been years in the making. It stemmed from the resolute opposition of Congressional Republicans to the general direction of his presidency, which aimed at restoring the racial order of the prewar South.

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Johnson had been vice president under Abraham Lincoln, and he assumed the higher office on April 15, 1865 — six days after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox and one day after Lincoln’s assassination. The Civil War was over, but the president who had guided the country through it was dead, and the way forward was far from clear. How would the formerly enslaved, newly freed people become citizens? How should the leaders of the Confederacy be dealt with? And how could the North and the South be reconciled?

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Johnson, a Southern Democrat, had very different answers to these questions than did the Republican-controlled Congress. Soon after taking office, he began offering amnesty to erstwhile Confederates, enabling them to govern in the South and enact Black Codes that curtailed the basic freedoms of African Americans. If slavery had been abolished, the Black Codes were an attempt to reinstate something that looked very much like it. Pictured: an 1866 political cartoon from Harper's Weekly depicting Johnson as the treacherous Iago to an African-American Civil War veteran's Othello.

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Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens (left) and Charles Sumner (right) were committed to equal rights for African Americans. In 1866, they passed the Civil Rights Act, establishing birthright citizenship and guaranteeing equal protection of the law for all citizens, regardless of race, measures that would be written into the 14th amendment in 1868. Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act, but Congress mustered a two-thirds majority to override his veto. This happened 14 more times over the course of his presidency — an ignominious record that still stands, and gives a sense of the antagonism that defined Johnson’s relationship with Congress.

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In 1867, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which prevented presidents from removing Cabinet members without the consent of Congress. The law, which Johnson and others regarded as unconstitutional, was intended to keep Johnson from ousting any of the Lincoln appointees he had inherited — crucial executive-branch allies of the Congressional Republicans. Arguably the most prominent of these was Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War, whom Johnson dismissed on February 21, 1868. Pictured: Edwin Stanton (left) and a March 1868 political cartoon from Harper's Weekly (right).

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Stanton’s dismissal created a clear opportunity for Congressional Republicans to send their greatest political opponent packing. The House voted by a wide margin to bring articles of impeachment against Johnson, and on March 5, 1868, hearings began in the Senate. Pictured: members of the House of Representatives who led the impeachment proceedings against Johnson; Thaddeus Stevens is seated second from left.

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The historic event drew unprecedented crowds to the Capitol, prompting the Senate to issue its first-ever gallery passes to manage them.

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Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presided over the hearings. At the time, there were 54 senators, meaning that 36 guilty votes were required for the conviction by two-thirds majority that would remove Johnson from office.

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A vote was held on May 16, with a 35-19 split. Johnson was acquitted by one vote.

He served out the rest of his term, but lost his party's nomination in 1868. (It went to Horatio Seymour, who lost to Republican Ulysses S. Grant in the general election.) Johnson returned to Tennessee, his home state, but did not retire. He was elected to the Senate in 1875, at the age of 66, and died in office later that year.

A decade after the end of the Civil War, Republican efforts to promote racial equality in the former Confederate states — efforts that Johnson consistently opposed — were beginning to falter, too. Reconstruction was abandoned in 1877, and by the end of the century, the Jim Crow regime was entrenched throughout the South. It would be 50 years before the “Second Reconstruction” of the Civil Rights era began to topple that regime, and 20 more before another American president, Richard Nixon, faced a legitimate threat of impeachment.