A riveting look at one of American history’s most dismal episodes.
By the winter of 1868 congressional Republicans, enraged by Andrew Johnson’s systematic attempts to thwart Reconstruction, believed they’d finally caught Lincoln’s accidental successor in the “crime” necessary to remove him from office. The irascible and politically maladroit president—memories of his drunken vice-presidential inauguration were still fresh—had fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, thereby violating the Tenure of Office Act. The ensuing impeachment spectacle qualifies as the last battle of the Civil War and the first act of the tawdry Gilded Age. A practicing attorney who has defended a federal judge against impeachment, Stewart (The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution, 2007) demonstrates his legal acumen, explaining the constitutional bases for impeachment and teasing out “the tenacious opacity of the phrase ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’ ” He also critiques the strategies of the House managers and the president’s defenders and explains the evidentiary squabbles resolved by presiding Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. Also an adept historian, Stewart stresses the political nature of impeachment, where developments and outcome depend as much on events and the character and convictions of the protagonists. The author also profiles Benjamin Butler, the prosecution’s headstrong manager, the surprisingly slippery president-in-waiting, Ulysses S. Grant, and Edmund G. Ross, whose deciding vote against impeachment was likely purchased. Ross falls shockingly short of the profile in courage John F. Kennedy sketched, but the senator was only a small part of the gambling, bargaining, payoffs and bribes surrounding the trial. Stewart vibrantly renders these atmospherics, the poisonous politics, the personal animosities and the unbridled corruption that will leave readers rooting for both sides to lose.
Likely to become the standard version of this historic clash between a president and Congress.