In 1868 Congress impeached President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee,
the man who had succeeded the murdered Lincoln, bringing the nation
to the brink of a second civil war. Enraged to see the freed slaves
abandoned to brutal violence at the hands of their former owners,
distraught that former rebels threatened to regain control of
Southern state governments, and disgusted by Johnson's brawling
political style, congressional Republicans seized on a legal
technicality as the basis for impeachment -- whether Johnson had
the legal right to fire his own secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.
The fiery but mortally ill Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of
Pennsylvania led the impeachment drive, abetted behind the scenes
by the military hero and president-in-waiting, General Ulysses S.
Grant. The Senate trial featured the most brilliant lawyers of the
day, along with some of the least scrupulous, while leading
political fixers maneuvered in dark corners to save Johnson's
presidency with political deals, promises of patronage jobs, and
even cash bribes. Johnson escaped conviction by a single vote.
David Stewart, the author of the highly acclaimed The Summer of
1787, the bestselling account of the writing of the Constitution,
challenges the traditional version of this pivotal moment in
American history. Rather than seeing Johnson as Abraham Lincoln's
political heir, Stewart explains how the Tennessean squandered
Lincoln's political legacy of equality and fairness and helped
force the freed slaves into a brutal form of agricultural peonage
across the South. When the clash between Congress and president
threatened to tear the nation apart, the impeachment process
substituted legal combat for violent confrontation. Both sides
struggled to inject meaning into the baffling requirement that a
president be removed only for ""high crimes and misdemeanors,""
while employing devious courtroom gambits, backstairs spies, and
soaring rhetoric. When the dust finally settled, the impeachment
process had allowed passions to cool sufficiently for the nation to
survive the bitter crisis. With the dramatic expansion of the
powers of the presidency, and after two presidential impeachment
crises in the last forty years, the lessons of the first
presidential impeachment are more urgent than ever.
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