Compelling Look at the First Presidential Impeachment

Andrew Johnson was the first United States president to face impeachment.

"The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation," by Brenda Wineapple. Random House, 514 pages. $30

This is a compulsively readable, meticulously researched and passionately suspenseful story of Andrew Johnson's impeachment, written by the celebrated author of "Hawthorne: A Life" and "White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson," among other historical narratives.

Wineapple seamlessly interweaves the issues at stake and the politicians, rascals, rogues, racists, and alcoholics in a book that is blisteringly timely and completely riveting.

In 1865, 40,000 freed slaves descended on Washington looking for work, out of 4 million who had been freed. The Freedman's Bureau was founded to help the former slaves with its offer of "forty acres and a mule," but was immediately overwhelmed. There was a tumultuous "orgy of blood" from 1865 to 1868, with numerous attacks on African Americans, including the massacre of dozens in Memphis and New Orleans.

Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was the wrong man at the wrong time.

He insisted that Reconstruction was unnecessary because the Southern states never really seceded; only individuals rebelled. He insisted that "This is a country for white men, and, by God, as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men."

He vetoed every Act of Reconstruction, which Congress overrode. He was a vindictive, venomous, paranoid demagogue, lashing out in all directions. As one commentator remarked: "He often mistakes the intensity of his own convictions for strength of evidence."

The Reconstruction Acts divided the South into military districts, allowed all males to vote, supervised elections, guaranteed the civil rights of all, registered voters, and finally gave Gen. Ulysses S. Grant "complete authority over the execution of congressional reconstruction."

At first, the House voted 108-57 not to impeach. But as the crisis grew, and as Johnson's absolutist vision expanded, it voted 126-47 to impeach. After Wineapple's fascinating exploration of men and deals and betrayals and bribes, the Senate voted 35-19 in favor of conviction, but fell one vote short of the necessary two-thirds.

What a cast! A tsunami of lawyers, such as William Evarts, Benjamin Butler and others swept over Washington with a vengeance, launching long-winded speeches -- one lasted 14 hours -- and tortuous explanations of policies. Had Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act? Had he sabotaged Reconstruction from the very beginning? Had he disgraced the office of the presidency with his absolutist tirades and verbal assaults?

My favorite character is Thaddeus Stevens from Pennsylvania, proclaimed a "Radical Republican" because he supported universal suffrage, land redistribution, and the disenfranchisement of former Confederate officials with his tart tongue and deliciously witty speeches. He was an idealist, a crusader, principled, pragmatic, and unstinting in his cause.

And then there's Grant, the Union general and national hero who kept his politics under wraps, to Herman Melville a man where "meekness and grimness meet," a butcher, a sullen alcoholic, casting his giant shadow across the bloodied postwar landscape.

This is simply an amazing, mesmerizing book, impossible to put down. And Wineapple brilliantly juggles all the angles and bloodshed in her propulsive narrative. In 1868 Grant became president, carried 26 states with 52 percent of the vote -- with 500,000 black men in the South assuring his election.

-- Sam Coale (samcoale@cox.net) teaches American literature at Wheaton College.

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This article is written by Sam Coale Special to The Journal from The Providence Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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