Brenda Wineapple

Impeachment and the Righteous Republicans

Air Date: July 15, 2019

Historian Brenda Wineapple discusses her new book “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a New Nation."

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The subject today: impeachment Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and the righteous Republicans and the first ever impeachment in American history. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the first U.S. president to fall victim to assassination the country entrusted it’s survival to an accidental president, Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee who had forged a unity ticket with Lincoln for reelection. Despite Lincoln’s assessment that Johnson was, in his words, “a good man” or at least he thought the new leader abandoned the promise of emancipation and enfranchisement and defied the protection of America’s newest citizens. My guest today will analyze this history and its contemporary relevance. Brenda Wineapple is author of the recently released and critically acclaimed “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation” heralded as a “riveting and absorbing book” by The New York Times and both “a guidebook” and “cautionary tale for our times” by the Boston Globe.

I am so delighted to host you, Brenda. Thank you for being here.

WINEAPPLE: My pleasure. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And as I said, the opportunity to lavish praise on a deserving American unsung hero, Charles Sumner, which we’ll get to, but I want to start it here. Why did Lincoln think that he needed to pacify his real inner motivation to end slavery and preserve the union, in selecting Andrew Johnson? It seemed to me that that smoke filled room decision was one that the nation would regret, but he ends up winning reelection in a landslide and the states that had succeeded were not part of the electoral math. So why did he think he had to in some way nullify his stronger emancipation stance by having, yes, a unionist, but a pro-slavery unionist in Andrew Johnson on the ticket?

WINEAPPLE: Well, first of all, I’m not sure that, but by putting Johnson on the ticket, Lincoln was thinking that it was nullifying his move toward, you know, solidifying emancipation. I think the easiest, simplest way to look at this is Lincoln wanted to win in 1864 and he wasn’t sure he was going to, he was running against a very popular war Democrat George McClellan in the first place, the major, you know, major victories for the union hadn’t happened and although the seceded states weren’t voting, there was the matter of the border states. And because Andrew Johnson was the military governor of Tennessee as well as a Democrat, as a southerner, it looked very good to, is what we call today balancing the ticket. So I think there were many, many reasons. And Lincoln, I think it was savvy enough to figure one that he could handled Johnson in to remember vice presidents were more or less nullities.

HEFFNER: See, well, that’s what I want to ask you. Because it was the first ever assassination there had been: an assassination attempt on Andrew Jackson. Did it not cross his mind that this might happen? I mean, now if you run for president and serve in that office, it must cross your mind.

WINEAPPLE: Well, it’s certainly crosses the mind of the public, that’s for sure today and probably the candidate Lincoln, you know, presumably had dreams of dying. But when you think that it was a brutal civil war that was being conducted in that everyone was dying, of course you would think of, you know, he may in fact not live, but he was a relatively young man and he really didn’t think that he wasn’t going to, you know, fulfill his term. What he wanted to do was to continue in office to prosecute the war. So as most of us, he wasn’t thinking about his own death at that particular time.

HEFFNER: But that is a realistic consideration today, especially with the composition of the Supreme Court and you think of would be the person assuming the office, because that’s the person who would shift the entire pendulum of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Trump and Pence, or in the case of Obama and Biden. And so the history is different.

WINEAPPLE: History is different in that particular way, and also one of the salient differences between then and now is that the country was at war. I mean, that’s just an unthinkable idea.

HEFFNER: With itself

WINEAPPLE: With itself, yeah and today we talk about how divided the country is and how partisan the country is and how split the country has. But it’s metaphorical. I mean, it’s true, but it’s metaphorical. In 1864, the country was split, you know, the 11 states that seceded and they were calling themselves the Confederate States of America and they believed that they were a different country, and wanted a different constitution.

HEFFNER: But why did Lincoln think that the war Democrats would be competitive in this environment?

WINEAPPLE: Well, George McClellan was a very popular leader. He was a very popular leader. And it wasn’t as if he was talking about necessarily he may have done this, you know, peace with the, with the south. But he was like many of the Democrats at that particular time; they were very nervous about two things. One was the way Lincoln was suspending things like Habeas Corpus, you know, the wartime powers that he was arrogating to himself. So the Democrats, and they’re not the same as the Democrats today, but the Democrats then were in favor of less presidential control, less executive power. And they felt that Lincoln was abusing that particular power. And at that particular time, it wasn’t clear that that the north was winning. Plus of course and finally what you had mentioned, which was the issue of abolition and emancipation, and of course the Democrats were not, that was not a front burner issue for them.

HEFFNER: If you have a moral stance, like the Radical Republicans, and I didn’t read radical as a student…

WINEAPPLE: No you called them righteous …

HEFFNER: Righteous because

WINEAPPLE: I love that.

HEFFNER: So these righteous Republicans stood up in a way that Lincoln did not. And I just want to set this context before we move into Johnson’s term and impeachment.

WINEAPPLE: You have to remember one thing and it’s a matter of dispute, whether, it’s interesting actually, whether Lincoln really was involved in the choice of Johnson.

HEFFNER: Right.

WINEAPPLE: So to assume that Lincoln was involved is itself a kind of jump. I make that jump. You make that jump because I personally feel there’s no way that Lincoln who was the consummate political strategist would just allow anybody to be pushed in the smoke filled room. Having said that, I think Lincoln again, and I sort of repeat, but I think he was so interested in prosecuting the war at this particular time and in terms of emancipation, abolition, what becomes the 13th Amendment, he, you know, was Frederick Douglass famously said, you know, from the vantage point of the righteous republicans, he seemed tardy and slow but from the vantage point of history, he seemed, you know, very quick in the vantage point of everyone else. So I think that he really wasn’t taking Johnson and the vice presidency into his calculus… at this particular time.

HEFFNER: And he wasn’t considering his moral view of the universe.

WINEAPPLE: No.

HEFFNER: when making that selection and now you ought to, you really ought to consider…

WINEAPPLE: Well it’s a different thing.

HEFFNER: So Johnson comes in …

WINEAPPLE: And I think he was very confident about himself. That’s another issue too, Lincoln I think was a very confident man.

HEFFNER: So Johnson comes in and comes in and folks like Sumner and Stevens are not at initially so worried and they’re not petrified.

WINEAPPLE: Not at all. I mean, not at all. Johnson during the war, first of all, as I said, Johnson was the first, the first, the first and only southerner, southern senator in the United States Congress to stand up against secession. So he was hailed in the north, he was reviled in the south. In the south he was considered a traitor, but he himself considered anyone who wanted to secede as traitors themselves and he constantly said, you know, that traitors must be punished. And that’s the so-called righteous or radical Republican point of view. So that’s very, very important.

The second thing is, you mentioned the, the president had been killed. The war was basically, you know, over, but not quite, nobody knew what was going to happen. People wanted to believe that this particular vice president, whom presumably Lincoln chose, would then continue on the path that that one hoped Lincoln was on. It’s not really sure where he was at that particular point. So they were willing to cut him slack. They were willing to say this guy has possibilities, more than possibilities, that he was so vehement about wanting to punish traitors and you know, in saying that the union must be preserved, that they were of course going to feel that he was on their side fully, you know, and cooperatively. So they wanted, they were hopeful. Why not? And because, and it was interesting too, that there was a very peaceful transfer of power.

It was within hours of Lincoln being pronounced dead that Andrew Johnson in dignified fashion took the oath of office from the chief justice and he kept Lincoln’s cabinets. So…

HEFFNER: For the moment!

WINEAPPLE: For the, well, yeah, well pretty much for a long time from, you know, a fairly long time, this is 1865 so there was reason for people to be hopeful and psychologically speaking, they wanted to be hopeful.

HEFFNER: But, fast forwarding…

WINEAPPLE: Sure.

HEFFNER: He didn’t want to keep the cabinet and the congress said you can’t fire… cabinet members.

WINEAPPLE: Well – that’s quite a bit of fast-forwarding because three years is a, is a fairly long time.

HEFFNER: So what happened in those years?

WINEAPPLE: Well, he did, you know the Democrats and he had been a Democrat, they wanted, they wanted Johnson to get rid of people like Edwin Stanton and even William Seward, the Secretary of State Seward and Stanton the War Secretary and Johnson dithered. He never did that.

He said he was going to, but he kept them for a long time. He eventually, in the end, you know, in the summer of 1867, in the fall fired Edwin Stanton, the War Secretary. Congress by that time had passed what was called the Tenure of Office Act. It was an act that was passed particularly to hinder Johnson from, or stop Johnson from impeding and obstructing reconstruction as the radical or righteous Republicans may have conceived of it and in the direction that they were moving. So in that particular sense, they passed not just reconstruction laws, but also this Tenure of Office Act that even Edwin Stanton, whom it was supposed to protect, said it didn’t seem Constitutional because what it mandated was that though, say the president could not fire anyone who had been approved by the Senate unless the Senate approved that firing. They wanted to, they wanted to in some sense put guardrails around Johnson because he had been so, as I said, abusive and obstructive really in terms of reconstruction and their vision for new America, a just America an equal America.

HEFFNER: And but the point that I’m making is it wasn’t three years later that they discovered his obstructionist tone.

WINEAPPLE: Oh no, no. They discovered it the summer of 1865

HEFFNER: He comes in office; he retains Lincoln’s cabinet. But he says to the nation or to the government explicitly by virtue of his behavior, we don’t want to admit these people of color as coequal since

WINEAPPLE: Not at all. He certainly did not. I mean, in this Johnson comes into office in April 1865, right? Congress is in recess. Congress: the Republicans are happy to welcome him, hoping that he’ll do very well. And they say to him, since we don’t go back into session until December, let’s call a special session and he won’t do it. So right away he’s aggregating Executive Power and privilege to himself and he begins to so-called reconstruct along lines that are shocking. They’re shocking. For one thing, he says, secession didn’t happen. That was just a war for four years. And he said secession didn’t happen because it wasn’t legal. And, and Stevens, Thaddeus Stevens said, that’s like saying, you know, murder can’t happen because it’s illegal, you know.

HEFFNER: Now I see some parallels to today. Seeing a reality in plain sight, ignoring it.

WINEAPPLE: Yeah. Exactly. So he begins to appoint people to governorships. You know, he begins to pardon former confederates, people like Alexander Stevens, who had been the vice president of the confederacy. And he, he’s basically saying that these 11 states can now reenter the union. They can take their seat in the government. That’s appalling. Especially since the 13th Amendment not only abolished slavery, but in abolishing slavery it said these people who had been enslaved and considered three fifths of a person are now whole persons, which changes the, it actually makes the representation in the south huge. And so the south, immediately those 11 states immediately take their place in Congress. Then they have their power again.

HEFFNER: The Radical Republicans in the house take up impeachment.

WINEAPPLE: Yes.

HEFFNER: He’s impeached.

WINEAPPLE: Yes.

HEFFNER: There is a trial.

WINEAPPLE: Yes.

HEFFNER: Now it’s a fascinating history that I can’t go through in every detail, but one of the things that was most striking is that the pace at which people begin to agree on impeachment and who steps up when,

WINEAPPLE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Is important to whether or not it conviction occurs. In this case it was one vote shy of conviction.

WINEAPPLE: Exactly.

HEFFNER: Had Johnson been convicted, the presidency would have been in the hands of a…

WINEAPPLE: Radical republican.

HEFFNER: Pro equal rights, radical, righteous Republican.

WINEAPPLE: It’s interesting in that sense, absolutely, they did stand up. They united. Johnson had this rare power of uniting people who by themselves wouldn’t have been united, but impeachment actually went slowly, because there had been people trying to impeach Johnson long before he was actually impeached. When Johnson is, Wendell Phillips, a very radical person outside of Congress said Johnson finally stepped on a statute, what he meant by that is finally Johnson broke the law and as soon as he broke the law and it was a law congress had passed, then lo and behold, the House of Representatives said you can’t do that. And they were united and they voted overwhelmingly to impeach. Now Wendell Phillips also said smartly, I think that they would never have done that if they didn’t feel they had the votes, and it was assumed they did have the votes when they voted to impeach him finally, you know, in early 1868, so it seems quick when it finally happened, but, but there had been people angling for impeachment and doing investigations for about a year before.

HEFFNER: But how about the conviction side on the senate?

WINEAPPLE: Yeah. The conviction side on the Senate is, you know, the constitution stipulates you need two thirds of the Senate and as you say, he was acquitted by one vote, a junior Kansas senator. There were seven Republicans who voted. They were called recusant Republicans and they voted to acquit Johnson. They, from one point of view, you could say they got cold feet, from another point of view, you could say the argument that the prosecution made didn’t work for them, from a third point of view could say that the chief justice who presided had his fingers on the scales. And then finally you could say some of those people were probably what we would call bribed or given favors or, you know, there was money probably passed, dark money passed amongst some, it came close.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t Sumner say that if one of his fellow senators stood up sooner, they would have had a better chance of convicting, was he referring to one or two people, one or two senators who were either late to the march towards conviction? Were there people who could have been more decisive?

WINEAPPLE: Yeah, there were several people…

HEFFNER: Who was he referring to?

WINEAPPLE: I think you’d want, you know, for one thing he was referring to, I think William Pitt Fessenden who was the senator from Maine and Sumner and Fessenden had long had a, had a fractious relationship, shall we say. And Fessenden was much more conservative than Sumner. And Fessenden had no use for Sumner and vice versa. So he was referring to him. But I think there was good reason to think and if you read the trial’s transcripts that that Fessenden is very early on is backing off from impeachment and is very wary of it. But he was a man who didn’t really want to rock the boat and was afraid of Ben Wade. A lot of these senators were afraid that if you get this radical, this radical who believed not just in, you know, black enfranchisement, but giving women the vote, I mean, that’s how radical he was. If you get him in office, then you are going to destroy Grant’s chance, Ulysses S. Grant is waiting in the wings too, running for president in the …

HEFFNER: But he’s the nominee already at the point that this transpires Wade is, is potentially president for months.

WINEAPPLE: Yes, that would be, that’s right.

HEFFNER: And not a full year.

WINEAPPLE: Well Wade would be president for months, but then they felt the Republicans, moderate Republicans felt that Grant would have to put Wade on the ticket as vice president because he’d been president. And they just didn’t, they just were afraid of what Wade; the damage Wade could do in that short period.

HEFFNER: Did Grant have to take a position on impeachment?

WINEAPPLE: Oh, he did take a position on impeachment, believe it or not. I mean,

HEFFNER: What was his position?

WINEAPPLE: Well he wanted Johnson impeached, he had no use for Johnson. I mean he had been,

HEFFNER: But he might’ve benefited from him not being impeached.

WINEAPPLE: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.

HEFFNER: This sounds like 2020?

WINEAPPLE: It’s a win-win situation for Grant in that sense. But no, but Grant really loves Johnson and Johnson had deeply and personally offended Grant. And I don’t think Grant was an easy man to offend.

HEFFNER: And the relationship between Sumner and Grant also was fractured, but Sumner had hoped to be Secretary of State.

WINEAPPLE: Yes.

HEFFNER: In the Grant Administration.

WINEAPPLE: I think that was a class issue by the way, between Grant and Sumner.

HEFFNER: So what happened basically with the aspirations of those Radical Republicans when Grant comes in with a Johnson having not been convicted but impeached, you know, of course, that is the Jim Crow era that is fully underway and sanctioned and in effect dominating southern society for the next hundred years.

WINEAPPLE: Well, yes and no, that, not really during the Grant administration because Grant was very powerful basically and so was his Attorney General in getting rid of the Ku Klux Klan, which started under Johnson and one of the people trying to impeach Johnson during the trial, a man named Benjamin Butler from Massachusetts stood up and basically said, you’re allowing, if you, if you vote to acquit Johnson, you’re giving authority to the Ku Klux Klan. When Grant comes in office in 1868, well, actually 1969 is voted in 1868, he has been, he’s not a radical Republican, but he has been radicalized by the Johnson Administration and, and the horror of it. So he goes out of his way to actually destroy, you know, break the back of the Ku Klux Klan. And because of the work of the righteous Republicans you have for a period black legislatures in various states in the south and going up to Washington, so the Jim Crow era really begins at the end of the Grant Administration when the military is pulled out of the south.

HEFFNER: Right. But the influence of those policies to abolish the KKK…

WINEAPPLE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Which was not what happened. I mean,

WINEAPPLE: No, no, no. It rose again.

HEFFNER: It was mitigated, but, but they were not, they didn’t have any endurance.

WINEAPPLE: No.

HEFFNER: Beyond his tenure, Grant’s tenure in office

WINEAPPLE: No, no, no, no. And, and, and the people who voted, the Republicans who voted to acquit Johnson, those people, the moderates, the Fessendens, although he died, but men like line Lyman Trumbull, they became what was known as the liberal Republicans, which is the beginning of the Republican Party today. And they were very eager to distance themselves from the so-called radicals, makes the radicals seem like fanatics for wanting, not just to get rid of Johnson but for their reconstruction policies, and they moved in a very different, more of a Jim Crow direction.

HEFFNER: Why didn’t the Radicals win the argument when it came to conviction?

WINEAPPLE: I think one of the reasons, apart from bribery and everything else, one of the reasons was that they argued too narrowly, nine of the 11 articles of impeachment had to do with the Tenure of Office Act and a conspiracy to violate it. You know, and sort of niggling lawyeristic notions when in fact a better strategy might have been to go to prosecute Johnson on abusive of power, obstruction, degradation of Congress, unfit to be president, not fulfilling the oath of office, those broader issues. But when you just start talking about, you know, the tenure of office and how it was worded, basically it was an eye roller. I mean, people were basically…

HEFFNER: But the constitutional argument at this point was for natural law in effect, it was a human argument about the sanctity of life. And I just wonder…

WINEAPPLE: Human argument would have been great.

HEFFNER: That’s not what happened.

WINEAPPLE: No, it was the legalistic argument

HEFFNER: Even though the Senate was responding to these decades of enslavement of a people,

WINEAPPLE: That’s right. But a lot of them in some sense didn’t care. They thought, and I don’t want to put thoughts in their head, but they acted as if they thought, okay, we’ve got the 13th Amendment. Okay, we’re

HEFFNER: Not the 14th or 15th yet.

WINEAPPLE: Well, we’re on our way for the 14th which is citizenship and due process for the formerly enslaved, you know, so we’ve got the 13th getting rid of slavery and all forms of servitude to the 14th is due process and citizenship. Okay. So we’ve got those, enough. We’ve got enough, you know, and they were very nervous about enfranchisement. But nonetheless the radicals did pass the 15th.

HEFFNER: But were the radicals conscious of the argument that they are righteous.

WINEAPPLE: Yes.

HEFFNER: Radicals.

WINEAPPLE: Yes.

HEFFNER: But they couldn’t expand their argument to enough of their fellow Republicans to make it mainstream. They were cast aside historically and contemporaneously as not fitting the mold of what you need to be.

WINEAPPLE: The mold was racist.

HEFFNER: Even among the republicans.

WINEAPPLE: The mold was white supremacist, these righteous…

HEFFNER: War hadn’t changed that?

WINEAPPLE: War can’t change that. You know, it didn’t change that.

HEFFNER: I love, let me give you a chance. In this second we have left. Do you know why I love Charles Sumner?

WINEAPPLE: Tell me, and I’ll tell you why I love Thaddeus Stevens.

HEFFNER: Because the condition of readmission to the union was that these formerly enslaved people would be given rights and that included ownership of land.

WINEAPPLE: Yes.

HEFFNER: And that if you were going to confiscate land from the

WINEAPPLE: Planters.

HEFFNER: Planters, you would at a minimum give ownership a stake in this union to these new people who had been dispossessed and not completely exclude any section of the populace, but give land to the formerly enslaved as well as giving the land back to the confederacy. You could have done both.

WINEAPPLE: Well yeah, and Thaddeus Stevens thought that too. He was more pragmatic than Sumner. Sumner held out for those ideals and it’s wonderful that he did. And it’s, and I think it’s a terrific barometer to have. Thaddeus Stevens said, men are not angels, they’re men. And so we have to sort of take what we can, slowly, the 14th Amendment, the 15th, he wanted land confiscation too, but we live in America.

HEFFNER: Repatriation.

WINEAPPLE: And for people to give up their property, and Johnson had been giving it back to people.

HEFFNER: It wasn’t technically American property anymore, but anyway, we alas, we’ve concluded we could go on and on. Brenda, this is a truly wonderful book.

WINEAPPLE: Thank you so much

WINEAPPLE: A pleasure.

HEFFNER: I hope viewers will pick it up and read about Stephen Sumner and Johnson, whom Sumner called the enemy of the people in his diatribe. Thank you for being here.

WINEAPPLE: Thank you Alexander. My pleasure,

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.