For months, the president had been pondering how to do it. One of the most powerful government officials in Washington, a holdover appointed by his predecessor, was driving him crazy, impeding his agenda at every turn with his recalcitrant independence. And so, finally, the president, without consulting anyone beyond a close circle of aides, decided to pull the trigger. With a stroke of a pen — one that struck the nation “like a thunderbolt,” according to The New York Times — he notified the prominent federal official by letter that his services were no longer needed, instantly transforming one of the most disliked men in Washington into a sympathetic figure, even a martyr.
The president in question wasn’t Donald Trump, whose precipitous firing of FBI Director James Comey has shaken Washington once again, or even Richard Nixon. It was the first American president to be impeached: Andrew Johnson. When he summarily dismissed his secretary of war, the abrasive Edwin Stanton, in February 1868, Johnson sparked a constitutional storm that would engulf his turbulent presidency. Three days later, he was impeached by the House of Representatives; three weeks later he was on trial for his presidency before the Senate.
The impeachment trap had been set, and Johnson just couldn’t stop himself from stepping in it.
Seeking to balance the ticket in his bid for re-election, president Abraham Lincoln and his Republican Party chose Johnson, a senator from Tennessee and a pro-war Southern Democrat, as his running mate in 1864. When Lincoln was assassinated just weeks into his second term, Johnson, who had kicked off his vice presidency by getting publicly intoxicated on Inauguration Day, assumed office. Like Donald Trump, Johnson was a brash businessman-turned-politician, a Democratic turncoat and admirer of former president Andrew Jackson, and Johnson’s stubborn, erratic nature continually confounded Republicans in Congress, who had hoped he would help them politically. And while he didn’t lambast any “so-called judges,” Johnson was not above insulting his political opponents, including other branches of government, once rebuking the House and Senate as “a body called or which assumes to be the Congress of the United States.”
Given Johnson’s many political missteps and his torpedoing of the Republican agenda on critical post-war efforts, including the integration of former slaves and the reconstruction of the South, talk of impeaching the president began early. But, as David O. Stewart chronicles in Impeached, the attempts by his Republican opponents in Congress, including firebrand Thaddeus Stevens, gained little traction. “No matter how many ill-advised quarrels the president picked, no matter how many apparent blunders he committed,” Stewart writes, “Stevens could not find the formula for a successful impeachment.”
So in 1867, Stevens and his colleagues enacted a law (over Johnson’s veto) known as the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited the president from firing Senate-confirmed officials without the Senate’s approval. A violation of the act would constitute a “high crime and misdemeanor.” The impeachment trap had been set, and Johnson just couldn’t stop himself from stepping in it. Believing the act to be unconstitutional (and indeed the Supreme Court later declared it was), Johnson chose to fight. On February 21, 1868, he dismissed Stanton, who had repeatedly locked horns with the president, replacing him with an underwhelming, but obedient, adjutant-general.
Johnson’s bold act had immediate repercussions. Stanton refused to leave his office (literally locking the door) and for a period, a confused nation had two war secretaries. Stevens knew the time for impeachment had come, and a few days later, House Republicans approved 11 articles of impeachment. Johnson’s subsequent trial in the Senate lasted for almost three months, but he would ultimately escape conviction by a single vote after some Republicans, impressed by the president’s penitence, including his appointment of the more qualified Gen. John Schofield as war secretary, voted against removal.
Johnson’s impeachment in 1868 is the closest the U.S. has ever come to forcing out a president, and given the circumstances and forces aligned against Johnson, it should give us pause as to whether any U.S. president will ever be forced to go. Not only did the mercurial Johnson lack the legitimacy of an elected president, but as Michael Les Benedict, author of The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson, points out, the opposing party held two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress, pro-Johnson Southern whites were not even represented in that body, and public opinion in the North supported his removal. “One lesson to learn from the Johnson impeachment is how hard it actually is to impeach and convict,” Benedict tells OZY. “If any impeachment should have succeeded, that one should have.”
Unlike Johnson, the duly elected Trump still has support from a large minority of the country and his party controls both houses of Congress. And like Johnson, Trump still has time to convince his critics that he will respect constitutional boundaries, including by appointing a well-respected FBI director. Still, even if he was not removed from office, Johnson’s fate should remain a cautionary tale for all American presidents. Even if Congress is kind, history may not be.