Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 7. Segment 4
Impeaching a President

Those Republicans who had pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress against President Johnson's wishes were led by an intense, determined lawyer from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who didn't waste words; he just got things done. His name was Thaddeus Stevens See It Now - Thaddeus Stevens, and he had been born poor in Vermont with a clubfoot and an alcoholic father. What he had going for him was a brilliant mind and a fierce honesty. He never seemed to care what others thought. He just did what he believed to be right. He couldn't be bribed or tempted—though some tried to do both. During the Civil War Stevens worked in Congress to write laws that would provide for a fair government for all people. His Yankee mind told him that "all men are created equal" meant all men—not just all white men. He said: Hear It Now - Thaddeus Stevens "No government can be free that does not allow all its citizens to participate in the formation and execution of her laws. Every other government is a despotism."

Stevens believed that the southern states should not be admitted back into the Union until blacks were given the vote, land, and guarantees of equality under the law Check The Source - A Speech by Thaddeus Stevens. Andrew Johnson, on the other hand, believed it was not the responsibility of the nation to help the newly freed men and women get fair and equal treatment before the law. He thought that was the states' job. Stevens knew that the states had not done that and would not. President Johnson called Stevens a traitor and said he should be hanged. Stevens detested the President and said he should be impeached.

Impeachment is a process, set up in the Constitution, that can lead to a trial and the removal from office of public officials who are guilty of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. The Radical Republicans wanted Andrew Johnson out of office. They thought he was unfit to be president. They began impeachment hearings Check The Source - The Articles of Impeachment Against President Andrew Johnson.

It is 1868. No president has ever been impeached. For two months the House of Representatives debates. Finally House members vote to impeach Andrew Johnson. Now the matter goes to the Senate See It Now - House of Representatives Impeachment Committee Check The Source - The Closing Argument of Thaddeus Stevens. Only they can try a president See It Now - Impeachment Ticket. If he is convicted of "high crimes and misdemeanors," he will be thrown out of office. Two-thirds of the senators must vote to convict, and the Republicans have more than enough votes to accomplish this Check The Source - The Closing Argument of Hon. Henry Stanbery.

On Saturday, May 16, the vote begins See It Now - Senate Voting on Impeachment. As expected, all the Democrats vote "not guilty." And Republican after Republican votes "guilty." Thaddeus Stevens, now an old man, and ailing, is carried in on a chair. He votes guilty.

But a few of the Republicans have had second thoughts. Some have been given assurances by President Johnson that if they help to acquit him he will no longer interfere with Reconstruction. Seven Republicans decided to vote for the President. The final result is thirty-five to nineteen See It Now - Impeachment Vote, exactly one vote short of the required two-thirds needed for conviction. The president is saved Check The Source - William H. Crook: On President Andrew Johnson's Acquittal.

Many scholars now think the Senate acted properly. Convicting a president is a big step. The Constitution says it is to be done for "high crimes and misdemeanors." Andrew Johnson was not guilty of that. It was his ideas that were on trial. Those ideas were awful—but ideas aren't meant to be impeached or tried. The Founders meant for voters to vote bad ideas out. But Thaddeus Stevens is bitterly disappointed. He says, "The country is going to the devil."

Stevens cares desperately about freedom and fairness for all Americans. He knows that President Johnson's ideas and policies are destroying the promise of Reconstruction. Stevens is ill and has only a few weeks to live. He uses his final days to write legislation and work on plans for free schools in the District of Columbia See It Now - The Capitol Building. When he dies, his body lies in state in the Capitol. Only Abraham Lincoln has ever received more tribute. He is buried in a cemetery where blacks and whites rest side by side. The words chiseled on his tombstone are his own: "I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, Not from any natural preference for solitude, But, finding other Cemeteries limited as to Race by Charter Rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the Principles which I advocated Through a long life."

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