The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

Image of The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
Release Date: 
August 24, 2021
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“To Douglass, Johnson was hardly a ‘Moses,’ not this man who boasted that, while he had owned slaves, at least he had never sold them. This was like a racist proclaiming that ‘some of my best friends are [fill in the blank].’ And Douglass saw this for what it was.”

The idea of presidential impeachment hit our national consciousness like a sledgehammer with Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. Since then, starting with Bill Clinton in 1998 and moving on into the 21st century, impeachment, or the threat thereof, has been turned into a highly-partisan game in today’s polarized political world.

Poorly understood by most, this Constitutional process was intended to give Congress a vehicle by which to remove only elected officials who had committed “high crimes and misdemeanors”—with all the controversy that phrase engenders—not simply political enemies. But our nation’s institutional memory and Constitutional knowledge is not what it should be. 

Many people incorrectly cite Nixon as having been impeached, while others confuse impeachment by the House of Representatives with conviction by the Senate. Very few realize that you have to travel back more than 150 years to find the first case of presidential impeachment, and even that event is often perceived as simply an oddity of American history, few details of which are widely known.

In his new book, The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, Robert S. Levine deftly lays the groundwork for a better understanding of what impeachment is and isn’t, and how it does or doesn’t have practical application today, by delving into that first impeachment.

But The Failed Promise is more than just a study of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Levine offers fascinating insights into that little-known historical chapter not only from the point of view of the impeached, Johnson, who often proclaimed himself the “Moses” of African Americans, but also of one of the champions for citizenship and suffrage for freed slaves, Frederick Douglass.

To Douglass, Johnson was hardly a “Moses,” not this man who boasted that, while he had owned slaves, at least he had never sold them. This was like a racist proclaiming that “some of my best friends are [fill in the blank].” And Douglas saw this for what it was.

Douglass was wary of Johnson from the time Johnson was first sworn in as Lincoln’s vice president in 1864, succeeding Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, who lost his slot on the ticket to a rare “Southern Unionist.” Lincoln had appointed Johnson as military governor of Tennessee during the Civil War, due to his opposition to secession and his “lack of hostility toward Lincoln”—hardly a full-throated endorsement—and had now selected him to be his vice president.

Of course, what Lincoln really wanted was someone who would have influence in the South during efforts at reconstruction following what, in 1864, was seen as an eventual victory in the war. Johnson seemed, on the surface, to fit that bill. But it was at Lincoln’s second inauguration that Douglass, who would later be a driving force behind impeachment, decided that Johnson could not be trusted with the fate of all African Americans, much less of freed slaves.

Douglass wrote in his 1881 autobiography that, when Lincoln pointed out Douglass to Johnson at that inauguration, the expression on Johnson’s face betrayed a darker heart. Douglass said that he told a companion, “Whatever Andrew Johnson may be, he certainly is no friend of our race.”

Levine notes, though, that a great deal of Douglass’s autobiography must be “viewed with some skepticism.” According to the author, “As an autobiographer, Douglass sometimes told stories long after the fact that sidestepped ambiguities or conflicts,” and that sometimes contained “fabulation,” or untrue or invented stories.       

The Failed Promise is at its best when it fills in the gaps in our collective knowledge of what the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was really all about. As Levine explains, Douglass and most of the Republicans in Congress wanted “reconstruction” of the South, a term sometimes coupled with the term “radical.” That adjective doesn’t suggest extremism, though, but rather a complete, thorough, or fundamental overhaul of the South’s political framework.

After all, the Southern states had rebelled, engaged in insurrection, and attempted to set up a new and different nation. They had lost, and there should be consequences. Consequences that, Douglass believed, should include citizenship and the right to vote for all African Americans, including for freed slaves, to give them a chance to control their own destinies in a new South. He, and like-minded others, wanted ratification of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing those rights as a condition to re-entry into the Union.

But Johnson was more interested in “restoration” of the Southern states, a path of least resistance. He believed that secession was unconstitutional. Therefore, according to his logic, those states had never actually left the Union, so they should simply be restored to their pre-war status, not “reconstructed,” with the only change being the absence of slavery.

Unfortunately, this approach would leave the same people in charge who had upheld the institution of slavery and rebelled against the Union in the first place, and this was not acceptable to either Republicans in Congress or the African American community. Since it was clear no one could change Johnson’s mind, the only other option seemingly available was impeachment. But there had to be a Constitutional basis for impeachment—a high crime or misdemeanor.

According to the author, rationales for such an action included Johnson’s unfitness for office, his “refusal to honor the coequal roles of the legislative and presidential branches,” and the fact that his policies contributed to violence against, and deaths of, freed slaves in places such as New Orleans and Memphis. Under that last theory, “he [Johnson] was indirectly guilty of murder.”

In reality, Johnson was ultimately impeached simply because Republicans were upset at his active opposition to their Reconstruction agenda. In order to hang impeachment on the vague “high crimes and misdemeanors” criterion, they found an actual violation of law to support it: the Tenure of Office Act of 1867, passed over Johnson’s veto, that made it illegal for a president to fire anyone whose appointment to office had been approved by the Senate.

Johnson believed the law was unconstitutional, and the specific conduct that precipitated impeachment involved his firing of Secretary of War Edward Stanton. Stanton’s views on Reconstruction reflected those of the radical Republicans in Congress, not of Johnson, which is why Johnson wanted him out. But, because Stanton’s appointment in the first place required Senate approval, the firing constituted a violation of the Act, and Republicans in Congress pounced.

In an amusing sidelight of history, Stanton refused to leave his office after he was fired. Instead, he ate and slept there throughout the impeachment trial. And in a bit of irony, although Congress later repealed the Act, in the case of Myers v. United States in 1926, the US Supreme Court expressly held that the Tenure of Office Act of 1867, under which Johnson was impeached, violated the Constitution and was invalid, just as Johnson had contended.    

While most of the articles of impeachment leaned heavily on violations of the Tenure of Office Act, one article took issue with inflammatory speeches Johnson had delivered attacking Congress. It accused Johnson of attempting “to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States.” This reviewer would be remiss if it did not point out that very few Congresses in this nation’s history have ever needed presidential assistance to achieve such notoriety.

Levine says that “the legalistic focus on the Tenure of Office Act seemed strangely calculated to have as little impact on public opinion as possible.” Douglass, himself, couldn’t have cared less about the Act. To him, Johnson was “deserving of conviction for being a failed Reconstruction president who brought death and suffering to the freedpeople.” As one clergyman put it, Johnson was the “demented Moses of Tennessee” who turned out to be the oppressor, not the savior, of African Americans. 

Johnson was acquitted in the Senate when the vote fell one short of the two-thirds necessary to convict and remove him from office. Levine provides much interesting background on motivations for the failure to convict, including references to alleged bribery and dealmaking for votes. One of the supposed motivations was a reluctance to remove Johnson from office because the next in line of presidential succession at the time was the pro tempore leader of the Senate, Ohioan Benjamin Wade.

The Republican party, in addition to pushing for Reconstruction, was also the party of economic conservativism. Wade supported trade unions and, if Johnson was convicted and removed, Wade would not only assume the presidency, but he would also be in a position to control the upcoming Republican presidential convention. To the radical Republicans, that was an unacceptable outcome, so they punished Johnson by impeaching him while just enough Senators voted to acquit in order to stymie a President Wade.

Douglass had such disdain for Johnson that he sometimes refused to even use his name. In one speech, he noted that it was only because of the death of Abraham Lincoln that the “vilest embodiment of ingratitude and baselessness, who shall be nameless now, occupied the Presidential chair.”

Similarly, Levine says, as his biases emerge, that he has written this book during the tenure and “under the shadow of he who shall be nameless.” He then says that he recognizes similarities between the two nameless presidents “in terms of their shared commitments to policies that advance white nationalism and their similarly polarizing, paranoiac, and nonnegotiable styles of political leadership.” The difference, he says, is that at the start of his presidency, “[t]here was promise in Johnson . . .”

For those interested in issues relating to impeachment of any past president, or potential impeachment of any future president, and particularly for those who insist on expressing opinions about the topic on social media, The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson is highly recommended. While no law requires people to actually know what they’re talking about, there’s no law that prohibits it, either.