A friend called me a witch: that’s the only way I could’ve known six years ago, when I began writing The Impeachers, that “impeachment” would be a daily headline in 2019, just as my book appeared. Certainly the timing comes as a surprise, especially because I started with a very simple question: why didn’t I know more about the first-ever presidential impeachment, which surely had to have been a big deal? The impeachment of Andrew Johnson occurred barely three years after the Civil War. More than three-quarters of a million people had been killed in that war, a war that ended with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. When Johnson took the oath of office, the country was desperate for stability and peace. So what happened, and why was I taught, like many Americans were taught, that Johnson’s impeachment was a blip on the historical screen?

Southern Comfort

Something seemed strange, particularly given the histrionic and distorted terms that have typically characterized that impeachment over the decades: a group of fanatic political hacks intent on maniacally holding on to what power they possessed, and poor Andrew Johnson, even if he wasn’t the greatest of presidents but a hapless Southern Democrat, trying to do his best during a bad situation. Chief among these supposed maniacs was a fiend named Representative Thaddeus Stevens, who sprang full-blown from D. W. Griffith’s creepily racist gem, The Birth of a Nation. Hell-bent on punishing them, Stevens and his squad were torturing the 11 Southern states that had seceded from the Union. These states simply wanted to return to Congress, all transgressions forgiven, where Johnson said they belonged and certainly deserved to be. I guess secession had been just a mistake; slavery, too, evidently.

The situation was actually far different: Congress was in recess when Johnson entered the White House, and though Congress is to define the qualifications of its own members, Johnson single-handedly restored several of the governments of the former Confederacy. In fact, Johnson claimed that a Congress operating without the states that had seceded from the Union was illegitimate. With that reasoning, the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was invalid because it had been passed during the war without them. Johnson didn’t go that far, but he did say that “this is a country for white men and, by God, as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men.”

I guess secession
had been just a mistake; slavery, too, evidently.

Chilling words, especially since four million formerly enslaved people were now at the beck and call of Southern white legislatures, which were passing so-called black codes to deprive them of civil rights. At the same time, Johnson was pardoning as many as 100 former Confederates a day, many of whom joined the government or the police, and he returned to them all their property (excepting people). He dismissed as propaganda reports of violence in the South perpetrated against blacks and their white allies. He vetoed civil-rights legislation, and when Congress overrode his veto and hammered together the 14th Amendment guaranteeing citizenship and due process to all people born in the United States (except Native Americans, another story), he campaigned against the amendment’s ratification, taking his talking points to the people in a series of rallies. These talking points included a rant against his enemies, real and perceived, and a call for their execution.

Shaky Ground

All this sounds eerily familiar. (Perhaps a demagogue is a demagogue is a demagogue.) Also familiar is the fact that Congress did not vote to impeach Johnson right away. For no one knew exactly what qualified as the “high crimes and misdemeanors” warranting impeachment. And, like today, impeachment was a solemn affair, somewhat confusing and not a little scary. If the chief executive was a miscreant, it suggested that the people had made a horrible mistake, or that leaders had failed to lead. And presidential impeachment was failure at the very top.

Johnson’s talking points included a rant against his enemies and a call for their execution.

What’s more, I was discovering the real reason, the terrible reason, the unmistakable reason that Johnson’s impeachment had been considered a blot on the historical record, and why it was better to brush it aside as a curious anomaly. The reason was race—that was why Congress finally impeached Johnson, although it had hemmed and hawed or scrupulously waited, depending on your point of view, until he actually broke a law. But in 1868 everyone knew what we had long since forgotten—or what had been buried: that the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was finally about race and the direction our country would take after the Civil War, when the nation stood at a crossroads. Even though Johnson was acquitted by a whisker, Senator Charles Sumner’s declaration of impeachment represented one of the last great battles with the slave power. “Driven from these legislative chambers,” he said, “driven from the field of war, this monstrous power has found refuge in the Executive Mansion, where, in utter disregard of the Constitution and laws, it seeks to exercise its ancient far-reaching sway.”

A century and a half after President Johnson’s impeachment trial (top), the House of Representatives resolves to formalize an impeachment inquiry into President Trump (above).

Many things find refuge in the Executive Mansion, many crimes and misdemeanors, some of which we know about, some of which we don’t. But witchcraft aside, we now know that the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was a heroic attempt to reconceive the nation, to bring forward the values of the Declaration, to get it right at last. Seems to me there’s a lesson there.

Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation is out now from Random House