Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy — David O. Stewart

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I’m going to keep this brief: Johnson wasn’t a good president and, as president, had few redeeming features as far as I can tell. He had had a lengthy career in politics working his way up the rungs and became vice president largely because he was a southern Democrat who was loyal to the union. In essence, not someone the Republicans ever wanted in charge, but someone who could appeal to constituents they wanted. Then the civil war ended, Lincoln was shot, and he became president. Whoops.

He and Congress differed over Reconstruction. He and the Republicans differed over the status of black Americans. He and his cabinet frequently differed over many policies. And he was very poor at compromises.

So Congress decided to try to reign him in. They limited his power, particularly in his ability to choose his officials and, crucially, to remove officials from office. Which was sort of short-sighted given Johnson was going to be in office for just four years and then his successor would need to deal with the mess. But rather than simply wait those four years out doing the best he could, Johnson had to pick a fight. So he vetoed everything (possibly a slight exaggeration) and tried to remove Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War (which Congress had prohibited).

And thus, he was impeached. Which is where Stewart’s book comes in. Not really a biography of a president, Impeached focuses intensely on the impeachment trial, breaking it down into key months, weeks, and sometimes just a few days, to explain why it happened and how it worked. And this proved really interesting. It brought some impressive political figures such as Thaddeus Stevens to the fore about whom I knew little to nothing, and it examined the ways in which political power at the time operated. Impeachment itself is something of an interesting topic: it is rare, for a start, but it also exists in a mid-way zone between a legal and a political charge. Stewart’s interest in and knowledge of the topic shone through and it was hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. I’m glad to have picked this book rather than a more conventional biography of Johnson, which I fear would have been as underwhelming as Buchanan.

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2 Responses to Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy — David O. Stewart

  1. It’s interesting to see that American politics were just as much a hot topic in the past as they are now.

    • Absolutely! I was struck by this idea very recently (and sorry for not replying sooner) when reading a description of a presidential candidate:

      His own weakness as a thinker was beside the point, for he was a crusader, not a theorist […] Yet for all his limitations, there was a tone in [his] words, an attitude in his figure, a bent in his mind, and a clear call to remedy the distress of his section that cut through the political platitudes of the day like a sharp knife. He gave voice to a great protest movement that rested on genuine distress.

      I couldn’t help but see Trump in the description. It was actually about William Jennings Bryan’s campaign of 1896, running against McKinley, and I should probably note that I have much more respect for Bryan’s views than those of Trump. But it’s interesting to note the occasional similarity!

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