The impeachment of a president is a court of last resort—even one who willfully breaks laws while in office. Thus this lucid, timely study of the sole impeachment trial convened until 1998.
Andrew Johnson was an accidental president, brought into office with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He immediately began to alienate allies: He was not keen on the prospect of African-American equality, pretty much ignored Congress, and quietly undid some of the work of Reconstruction. Writes Wineapple (Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, 2013, etc.), ultimately, “he sought to restore the South as the province of white men and to return to power a planter class that perpetuated racial distrust and violence.” Moreover, he considered Lincoln-variety and more radical Republicans to be his enemies, not the former traitors who had seceded from the Union. For all that, as the author lays out in her carefully constructed narrative, Johnson made powerful enemies indeed. These included Lincoln’s secretary of war, the indispensable politician Edwin Stanton, whom Ulysses S. Grant called “one of the great men of the Republic”; and the expansionist senator Charles Sumner, famed for having been caned on the floor of the Senate after denouncing slavery, who definitively turned on Johnson—whom he called “ignorant, pig-headed, and perverse”—when Johnson allowed the Southern states to bypass the question of whether blacks would be allowed to vote. The last straw was when Johnson refused to sign a civil rights bill with characteristic scorn. As Wineapple writes, “if the winning combination had been demagoguery and orneriness, with a touch of malice, that…no longer worked so well." Johnson was hauled before a court of impeachment but was acquitted after a series of legal arguments that the author renders with verve and skill, no easy feat given the technical nature of some of them—though, as she notes, the central question is one fit for the present moment: “What constituted an impeachable offense?”
A superb contribution to presidential history.