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?
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.