The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation
“The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation is not only an important book that reminds us of a historical moment we might have been in danger of forgetting, it also serves as a reminder that what was is never all that far from what is.”
On March 4, 1865, at around noon in the Senate Chamber in Washington D.C., Andrew Johnson rose to take the oath of office as vice president of the United States and to give a few short remarks as was customary. Those short remarks turned into a 20-minute harangue—slurring, rambling, and nearly incoherent—during which Johnson stressed his plebian origins, insisted he was neither vain nor arrogant, touched upon his common upbringing (again), bragged about how humble he was (again), and took pains to thank every member of Lincoln’s cabinet—but couldn’t quite recall Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles’s name. As Carl Sandburg noted in Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, “Andy was in a mood.”
That Andrew Johnson had that morning enjoyed up to three tumblers of whiskey seems almost certain; that he was still suffering from a recent attack of typhoid fever, less so. At any rate, the cadres of serious, war-worn lawmakers and their guests and families assembled to hear him on that gray, rainy morning were, by turns, horrified and mortified. Finally, outgoing Vice President Hannibal Hamlin tugged at Johnson’s coattails a few times, and Johnson went on a bit longer before finally repeating his oath of office. Then he faced his audience, took up the Bible he’d sworn upon, and gave it a loud, sloppy kiss. All the while, Abraham Lincoln sat in the audience studying his shoes.
Forty-two days later, the American Civil War was all but over, Lincoln was killed by an assassin’s bullet, and Andrew Johnson became the 17th president of the United States.
Brenda Wineapple’s wonderful The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation is not a biography of Andrew Johnson, nor of his presidency. Rather, it is a book about the political turbulence of the fractious post-war reconstruction era as America tried to find better footing for a more just nation going forward.
Wineapple’s clear, precise prose turns what could have been dry reading into a nearly edge-of-your seat narrative as we follow a flawed and outrageous demagogue trying his level best, it seems, to return the United States to its antebellum status quo through means both bombastic and underhanded.
Indeed, at nearly every turn, instead of taking the painful final steps toward Lincoln’s ideal of a just nation in the wake of so long and bloody a war, Wineapple’s narrative has Johnson scornfully repudiating nearly all the forward progress gained, with the final provocation that led to his impeachment proceedings hinging on his refusal to sign certain civil rights legislation.
Of course, to fully understand and appreciate such fraught times, one must treat with a veritable horde of ancillary characters, and here The Impeachers shines. From the indomitable Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, holed-up in his office as Johnson attempts to replace him, to the fierce-but-frail Thaddeus Stevens being carried into the House of Representative to speak his piece, to Senator Charles Sumner, still unbowed even after his near-fatal caning on the floor of the Senate after speaking out against slavery, to Senator Edmund G. Ross, his deciding vote, and his infatuation with sugar-haired sculptor Vinnie Ream, Wineapple introduces us to the lofty and the low, the noble and the corrupt, and it is to her credit that the book never sinks beneath the weight of its necessary detail.
Though Brenda Wineapple at no time uses her subject as a pulpit to preach on current events, it is hard to approach a book like The Impeachers without looking at it through the lens of today. One of the smallest and, perhaps, least surprising revelations of The Impeachers is that those lofty and low characters are, at root, little different than those we see and read about every day. In the antebellum and war periods, the United States received beatings that nearly broke it, but the country kept stumbling forward. Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation is not only an important book that reminds us of a historical moment we might have been in danger of forgetting, it also serves as a reminder that what was is never all that far from what is.