Thaddeus Stevens tried for two impeachments in 1868
March 1, 2021
By Ross Hetrick
If Thaddeus Stevens had his way, President Andrew Johnson, the first president to be impeached, would have also been the first to have been impeached twice.
After Johnson narrowly escaped being removed from office by one vote in May 1868, congressman Stevens, one of the impeachment managers, introduced another measure for impeachment, claiming the first effort was marred by bribery and corruption. But with only several months left in Johnson's term, Stevens's second try got nowhere.
The Johnson impeachment seemed to have had a lead pipe cinch of succeeding. Johnson, a southern Democrat, faced overwhelming Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate, which routinely overrode vetoes with two-third votes. And Johnson had managed to antagonize much of the country by siding with southern leaders, who had just finished leading a rebellion that killed hundreds of thousands of northern soldiers.
This peculiar situation resulted from the Republicans selecting Johnson as the party's vice president nominee in 1864. A Tennessee senator, Johnson had become a northern hero because he was a fierce foe of secession and refused to join other southerners who left the Senate. The Republicans hoped his inclusion would broaden the appeal of the ticket.
But after the war, Johnson had no problem with handing control of the south back to its aristocratic leaders who were intent on re-imposing slavery in another form and meting out bloody punishment to anyone who resisted them. Congress reacted by passing bill after bill -- overriding Johnson's vetoes -- that placed the south under martial law, sought to protect the newly freed slaves and gave the vote to black men.
But Johnson, who was supposed to implement these laws, did everything he could to sabotage Congress's efforts. He would appoint southern sympathizing generals to oversee the military occupation and he would relentlessly attack Congress, calling for the hanging of its leaders like Thaddeus Stevens.
Congress tried to circumvent this situation by working through members of Johnson's cabinet, who were holdovers from the Lincoln administration. To aid in this effort, Congress passed the Tenure of Office act that prohibited Johnson from removing these cabinet members without Senate approval.
But Johnson would not be bound by the law and tried to fire Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, who had been trying to implement Congress's program. Stevens, who was the most powerful House member at the time, sprang into action and pushed through an impeachment resolution and became one of the impeachment managers.
But Stevens was gravely ill during the Senate trial and the case was handled by Rep. Benjamin Butler. Some historians believe that Johnson would have been removed if the effort had been led by Stevens, who was legendary for his abilities as a lawyer and politician. Johnson was also saved by questions about the legality of the Tenure of Office Act and qualms about Sen. Ben Wade, the person who would have become President.
And even as he tried a second time, with only a few months to live, Stevens doubted that he would be successful and his words were prophetic considering the outcomes of impeachments since then.
"I have come to the fixed conclusion that neither in Europe nor America will the Chief Executive of a nation be again removed by peaceful means," he said in a July 7, 1868, speech in Congress. "If he retains the money and patronage of the Government it will be found, as it has been found, stronger than the law and impenetrable to the spear of justice. If tyranny becomes intolerable, the only resource will be found in the dagger of Brutus," Stevens said referring to the assassination of Julius Caesar.
Ross Hetrick is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. More information about the Great Commoner can be found at the society's web page: thaddeusstevenssociety.com