The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
ĽOvert Obstruction of Congress

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Editorial
Harper's Weekly, December 14, 1867, page 786

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IMPEACHMENT
The report of the majority of the Judiciary Committee recommending impeachment of the President has unquestionably surprised and disappointed the country; nor are the temper and reasoning of the part of the report which has been published likely to inspire general confidence. In alluding to the subject some two months since, we said that "technically and verbally up to the present moment the President has not violated the law." We were reminded that he had issued an Amnesty Proclamation in defiance of the law which forbade him. But he held that his authority for such an act was derived from the Constitution, and that the law itself was in violation of that instrument. That is, his action was but another illustration of the difference of constitutional interpretation between himself and Congress. What we had in mind was that no law of undoubted constitutional sanction had been violated by him; and that however unwise, for example, his removal of Sheridan and Sickles may have been they were both acts strictly within the reconstruction law.

The charge of usurpation made by the majority of the Committee is, in a certain sense, valid. There is no doubt that the subject of reconstruction belongs properly to Congress; and we can all now see that it would have been better to assemble Congress before beginning the work. But there is equally no doubt that the action of the President was at the time justified by the country, for the reason that it was felt to be necessary to do something to restore civil government, and because it was supposed that his action was temporary and provisional. It was an assumption of power condoned by the conscious necessities of the situation. But it was not felt to be then, nor do we believe any large number of persons now suppose it to have been, a usurpation with treasonable or injurious intention. It was in no proper sense a high crime, or even a misdemeanor.

When Congress assembled and it became evident that the President meant to insist upon his theory of Reconstruction as final the hostility between him and Congress began. His theory was undoubtedly both false and foolish. But he maintained it within his constitutional prerogative. His spirit was hateful, as his understanding is mean. But when his theories were confuted and his Constitutional efforts through the veto were overborne; when the Freedmen’s Bureau was continued; when the civil rights of the freedmen were declared; when the Reconstruction bill was passed; the President retained General Howard as Chief of the Bureau; he did not formally resist the extension of civil rights, although he was morally guilty of the New Orleans massacre; and he appointed under the Reconstruction bill the very commanders who were most agreeable to its framers. He has opposed the whole Congressional policy of reconstruction; he has vituperated Congress and publicly insulted eminent citizens; he has in express terms denied the authority of Congress as now constituted; and his conduct has incalculably prolonged and deepened the difficulty of reconstruction. But while as a stump orator he has denied the authority of Congress, as President he has recognized it; and the encouragement which he has given to the spirit of disaffection is that which a President in opposition may always give to the party opposed to Congress.

The charge of usurpation is the only really grave charge, and that this was criminal can not be proved. The report of the majority has not revealed, so far as published, any thing new upon the point; and if there were anything new of importance it would have been published in the abstract of the report. The vague charge of complicity in the assassination of President Lincoln wholly disappears; and we do Mr. Johnson the justice of saying that we do not believe it was ever seriously believed by any body. Indeed we feel more strongly than ever that the impeachment project sprang from the hot impatience of those who felt that the President was an "obstruction" to the rapid success of their views of the true policy of reconstruction; and was not the result of a profound conviction that he was clearly guilty of impeachable offenses. Yet if Presidents are to be impeached because they obstruct or oppose the will of the Congressional majority, it is very evident that it will become an ordinary party measure.

As we have often said, there can be no doubt that in extreme cases, when the great powers of the government come into conflict, Congress will prevail. However cunning a system of "checks and balances" and "co-ordinate powers" there may be, the supreme authority of every government resides somewhere, and extreme pressure will develop it. It is none the less true, however, that in our system the Executive is a well-contrived check upon the Legislative Department; while, if it transcends its restraining powers, it is submitted by the same system to trial and removal by the Legislature. The Legislature, however, is again and radically checked by the popular vote which elects it; and therefore its indictment and possible punishment of the Executive becomes also a question of expediency. To impeach and fail to convict would destroy the impeaching party. This consideration should not, of course, restrain any party when the positive guilt of the President is conspicuous and the national injury plain. But a party which believes that its possession of power is essential to the wise and permanent settlement of the most vital public questions ought to hesitate long before it impeaches the President under circumstances like those at present existing in the country.

It has been lately said with great vigor that a party must be plucky if it would succeed. Undoubtedly; but what is pluck in a party? It is invincible fidelity to principle. It is not obstinate tenacity of a measure merely because it is extreme. This kind of "pluck" in George III. lost England the American colonies. The same "pluck" in Charles X. of France lost him his crown; and Charles I. of England his head. What principle is involved in the impeachment of a President upon doubtful grounds? What principle is involved in straining the interpretation of evidence to reach him? The principle by which the dominant party in this country is solemnly bound is equal rights; and the policy to which it is pledged is reconstruction upon that principle. It holds to that policy because it believes it to be of the highest expediency. But impeachment has never been more than the whim of a few. It has never been sanctioned by the intelligent judgment of the country to which all the facts are familiar; and we do not believe it will be sustained by Congress.

Articles Related to Overt Obstruction of Congress:
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How Long?
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Reconstruction and Obstruction
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The Summer Session
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The Fortieth Congress
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Thanks to the District Commanders
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Impeachment Postponed
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A Desperate Man
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The Secretary of War
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Samson Agonistes at Washington (cartoon)
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The Stanton Imbroglio (illustrated satire)
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Secretary Grant
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Southern Reconstruction
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The Political Situation
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General Thomas
September 7, 1867, page 563


Southern Reconstruction
September 7, 1867, page 563


The General and the President
September 14, 1867, page 578


General Sickles Also
September 14, 1867, page 579


Southern Reconstruction
September 21, 1867, page 595


The President’s Intentions
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Impeachment
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The Main Question
October 5, 1867, pages 626-627


Suspension during Impeachment
October 19, 1867, page 658


"Disregarding" The Law
November 2, 1867, page 691


Impeachment
December 14, 1867, page 786


General Grant’s Testimony
December 14, 1867, page 786


The President’s Message
December 14, 1867, page 787


General Grant’s Letter
January 1, 1868, page 2


Secretary Stanton’s Restoration
January 25, 1868, page 51


Reconstruction Measures
January 25, 1868, page 51


The President, Mr. Stanton and General Grant
February 1, 1868, page 66


Romeo (Seward) to Mercutio (Johnson) (cartoon)
February 1, 1868, page 76


The War Office
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Secretary’s Room in the War Department (illus)
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The New Reconstruction Bill
February 8, 1868, page 83

 

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