The Impeachment Of A President: Washington, 1868 - The precedents of misdemeanour

Johnson: The man who stood and fought to stay in office
THE REPUBLICAN Congressman was talking about the American President born into poverty from the border South whom he detested with unforgiving fury: that "ungrateful, despicable, besotted, traitorous man - an incubus".

Bill Clinton, you might imagine. In fact not. The giveaway is the Latin- derived word, incubus, relating to a "nightmare" or "demon". In the 19th century, a knowledge of the classics still meant something. The object of the Congressman's loathing was the 17th President, Andrew Johnson, the last, and at least until today, the only occupant of the White House to be impeached - in 1868.

The two cases are different, not least because Johnson was a clumsy and tactless politician, nowhere near the league of that eloquent and consummate political operator, William Jefferson Clinton. He was also untested, a Vice-President who had been promoted by accident three years earlier when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. But despite the space of 130 years and the 24 Presidents which separate them, they are remarkably similar.

Johnson came from Tennessee, a Confederate state, and though he had opposed secession, he sought a less punitive reconstruction for the vanquished South. He had begun life as a Democrat, and only became a Republican with the approach of the Civil War. Almost immediately upon entering the White House he fell foul of Congress, where the Radical faction of the Republican Party, bent on maximum vengeance on the South, promoted financial aid for freed blacks, and a Civil Rights Act which in some instances would give them greater voting rights than whites. For Johnson, the measures were unfair and infringed states' rights. To the fury of the Radical Republicans, he vetoed them both.

The Congressional elections of 1866, in which Johnson sought to outflank his nominal allies by enlisting the support of northern Democrats brought him only defeat and crushing repudiation. The Republicans' hatred of Johnson only grew: in the words of one Cabinet member, they would have impeached him "had he been accused of stepping on a dog's tail". Their chance came on 21 February 1868, when Johnson dismissed his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, in defiance of a recent law stipulating that such steps required Congressional approval. No matter that the law was unconstitutional. The Radical Republicans went ahead, throwing in some other counts of conspiracy and bringing Congress into disrepute.

Here too parallels abound. Johnson's private life, like Clinton's, was less than pristine. Today's 42nd President has been smeared by sexual scandal and lying to a Grand Jury to cover it up - but nothing to match the insinuations against Johnson, who, it was suggested, had arranged Lincoln's murder to seize supreme power. Then as now, partisanship swept away all semblance of political civility. On 24 February, Johnson was quickly impeached by a 126-47 vote along party lines, and sent for trial to the Senate on 11 counts in all.

The decisive moment came on 21 May 1868. The Republicans could afford six defections. In fact seven voted to save Johnson's skin. The seventh and last of them was Edmund Ross from Kansas, who was thereafter shunned by his colleagues; evicted from office at the next election; and subjected to vilification by former supporters. History, however, has judged Ross more kindly, as an unsung saviour of the republic's constitution. Johnson for his part managed to serve out the rest of his term. Right now, Bill Clinton would ask no more.