From the Darkside

Big Stories in Small Pieces of History: President Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment Trial (March 13-May 26, 1868)

national_inauguration_ball_2_ref

This detail is taken from an invitation to the National Inauguration Ball on March 4, 1865. Political Ephemera – Series R, MdHS.

On Monday, May 13, the FBI and NARA returned twenty-one of the documents stolen from the Maryland Historical Society Library on June 15, 2011.* Among the invitations and announcements were several pieces of political ephemera, including tickets to President Andrew Johnson’s congressional impeachment trial in the spring of 1868.

Johnson (1808–1875), seventeenth president of the United States, rose to the nation’s highest office following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865. In the uncertain aftermath of the Civil War, when the complicated issue of what to do with the former Confederacy loomed, three questions demanded resolution. On what terms should the defeated states be readmitted to the Union? Who should set the terms, the president or Congress? What should be the role of blacks in the political and social life of the South?

The national debate over reconstruction had begun during the war with Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan that offered pardons to all southerners, except Confederate leaders, who took an Oath of Allegiance to the Union and supported emancipation. When ten percent of a state’s voters had taken the oath, they could draft a new state government. Designed to weaken the Confederacy, the plan also spoke to Lincoln’s commitment to ultimately restoring the Union, “a fledgling republic in a world of monarchs, tyrants, and kings.” The radical Republican faction deemed the plan too lenient and called for harsher terms. Maryland’s Henry Winter Davis and Ohio’s Benjamin Wade introduced the Wade-Davis bill, by which readmission would be delayed until a majority of southern voters had taken the oath. Some believed that equal rights for former slaves must be part of the plan.

Would Johnson follow Lincoln’s restoration plan or, declaring his contempt for traitors, support the more radical proposal? During his first month as president, with Congress out of session, Johnson issued a series of proclamations, including pardons for all southern whites (except Confederate leaders and wealthy planters). Beyond abolishing slavery, he established no rights or protections for the newly freed black population who quickly fell under the control of local authorities—nor did former slaves have any voice in politics.

Tensions escalated between the president and Congress, culminating in 1867 with the Tenure of Office Act, a congressional attempt to curtail Johnson’s power. Congress had drafted the Reconstruction Acts, dividing the South into five military districts, actions that Johnson bitterly opposed. He could have blocked that power by removing radically inclined appointees, specifically Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and replacing them with more moderate advisors. The president did attempt to remove Stanton and replace him with a “secretary ad interim,” a clear violation of the act, and the House of Representatives immediately passed a resolution of impeachment. Johnson’s opponents failed to gather the two-thirds votes for conviction and the Senate acquitted him by one vote. Why? How did Andrew Johnson remain in office?

impeachment_ticket_front_reverse

The hatch marks for yay and nay are visible on the back of this impeachment ticket. The W-2 penciled on the bottom right was written by Jason Savedoff, the second of the two thieves. It stood for “Weasel 2.” Barry Landau referred to himself as “Weasel 1.” Political Ephemera – Series R, MdHS.

The answer rests on the fact that Johnson had no vice president. So who would be the next president of the United States? Per the constitution, next in the line of succession was the President pro-Tempore of the Senate, and Ohio’s Benjamin Wade, Radical Republican and co-architect of the Wade Davis bill held that position. In that all-so-close vote, after hearings and a trial that lasted two-and-a-half months, the nation’s leaders acquitted Johnson, the majority believing it better to endure a few more months with the president than hand Wade the White House. Also an election year, Johnson’s enemies knew the politically battered president would not seek another term.**

Admission to Johnson’s impeachment was by ticket only, different colors for each day of the proceedings. The ticket pictured here shows the hatch marks an unknown spectator recorded on the final day of the proceedings, the yays and the nays carefully drawn—145 years ago this week.

And although we do not know who carried the ticket to Washington we are grateful that its owner saved this little eyewitness souvenir. Its return has prompted an interest in the turbulent post-war years and also raised the question of exactly how many impeachment tickets are in the MdHS collection.*** (Patricia Dockman Anderson)

Dr. Patricia Dockman Anderson specializes in U.S and Maryland History, Nineteenth Century; Social and Cultural History; Catholic History; and Civil War Civilians. She has served as a member of the History Advisory Council for the Women’s Industrial Exchange, the Baltimore History Writers Group, and the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission. Dr. Anderson is the Director of Publications and Library Services for the Maryland Historical Society, editor of the Maryland Historical Magazine, and a professor at Towson University.

 

impeachment_tickets

Each distinctively colored ticket to the impeachment proceedings represented a different day of the spectacle. Political Ephemera – Series R, MdHS.

* The remaining 138 documents will be returned later this year. Special Collections archivists caught Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff when they returned for a second hit less than a month later. The thieves are currently serving time in federal prison. We thank the Baltimore City Police, the FBI, NARA Investigators, and the U.S. Attorney’s office for their commitment to this case.

** The definitive work on Reconstruction remains Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (2003, New York: Harper Collins, 1988)

*** Check back later this summer for a follow-up post answering this question.