Impeaching the President

In the first of our American Histories series, Sarah Churchwell explains the lessons to be learned for Trump and his opponents from what happened in 1868, when President Andrew Johnson was impeached by Congress and survived his trial in the Senate by a single vote. What are 'high crimes and misdemeanours' anyway?


Talking Points: 


What was Reconstruction?

  • The period immediately following the Civil War and the first attempt at civil rights in the United States.
  • The 14th and 15th amendments gave rights to black men. There were black legislators and black senators.
  • There was also pushback, namely from what would become the Ku Klux Klan.


Johnson became president after Lincoln’s assassination: his whole presidency was about overturning the gains of Reconstruction.

  • Johnson was a unionist but also a white supremacist: he basically pardoned the entire white South. 
  • This is the conflict that led to impeachment.


The immediate act that precipitated impeachment was Johonson breaking a law designed to restrain him, the Tenure of Office Act. 

  • There were 11 articles of impeachment.
  • He ultimately survived by 1 vote in the Senate. 
  • If he had been impeached, he would have been succeeded by Benjamin Wade, a radical Republican. The moderates didn’t like this.


One of the lessons of history is that it’s almost impossible to remove the president.

  • Johnson had clearly broken the law and the Senate was hostile. 
  • Trump has much more favorable circumstances.


Mentioned in this Episode: 


Further Learning:


And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking

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