Feb. 24, 2022

The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

February 24, 1868. The House of Representatives moves to impeach Andrew Johnson, making him the first president impeached in US history.

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Cold Open

It’s April 25th, 1865 and the American Civil War has been over for less than two weeks.

On a tobacco farm in Virginia, a swarm of union troops and detectives encircle a small barn that has a wanted man inside.

Detective Everton Conger, a former Union officer, creeps toward the barn and tosses a flaming torch onto a pile of kindling, his men placed around the exterior of the barn moments ago.

The pine needles, twigs, and hay quickly catch fire as soon flames engulf the wooden timbers of the barn. Illuminated by the fiery glow, Conger can see the silhouette of the fugitive inside. He has a clear shot, but Conger and his men are under strict orders to take this criminal alive.

So Conger and his officers creep to the door of the barn ready to make an arrest. They know it’s only a matter of time before the fugitive makes a run for it. The wind is wailing. The fire has been whipped into a roaring inferno. No one can withstand the heat and smoke for long. 

But then amidst the roar of the fire, a shot rings out. Conger looks through the wooden slats to see the fugitive fall to his knees. Conger is furious. One of his men disobeyed orders. But there’s no time to deal with that right now. Conger bursts into the burning barn and drags the wounded criminal away from the inferno. The soldiers and detectives place the fugitive beneath a nearby locust tree. And there, as the life drains from his eyes, the actor John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, utters his final words: “Useless. Useless.”

When John Wilkes Booth shot and ultimately killed President Lincoln, the Union was devastated. And while many mourn the death of their president, one man took control: Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Stanton immediately declared martial law and then presided over the largest manhunt in US history that eventually led to Booth’s dramatic death and the capture of his many co-conspirators.

But Booth’s actions also set the table for one of the greatest political showdowns in American history. On one side stands Lincoln’s successor: President Andrew Johnson, a notorious drunk who is sympathetic to the South. On the other side, Edwin Stanton, who wants to secure Lincoln’s legacy and protect the 4 million Freed Slaves in the south. The battle between these two titans of history will climax with the first impeachment of a US president on February 24, 1868.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 24th: The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

Act One: Reconstruction

It’s late March 1866, at the White House.

President Andrew Johnson sits at his desk surrounded by members of his cabinet.

Since the end of the Civil War, the southern states have largely denied basic civil rights to the former slaves. So recently, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to protect the freedmen, and bring the rebel states in line. 

Now, Johnson has a choice. He can either sign the bill, officially making the civil rights act the law of the land, or he can veto.

Lincoln, a Republican, selected Democrat Johnson as his running mate during the 1864 election because Johnson helped him secure the votes of people sympathetic to southern interests, especially in the border states where slavery was still legal. The decision helped Lincoln win re-election, but the political compromise has now installed a southern Democrat and a former slave owner as president.

Johnson has no intention of supporting the Civil Rights Bill, which he believes is unconstitutional. In his mind, the federal government has no right to interfere with the sovereignty of the individual states on any issue, especially the question of the freedmen.

But not everyone in Johnson’s cabinet agrees, especially his war secretary: a lifelong abolitionist named Edwin M. Stanton. In the cabinet meeting, Stanton makes an impassioned speech in favor of the Civil Rights Act, but he fails to change Johnson’s mind. Eventually, Congress will pass the bill over Johnson’s veto and the Civil Rights Act will become law; but Johnson will refuse to enforce it.


The South remains under martial law and military occupation even though the Civil War has been over for nearly a year. The question of when to end this occupation and how to readmit the Southern states back into government remains a hot issue.

Stanton and his so-called “Radical Republican” allies in Congress want to punish the Southern states for their treasonous secession from the Union. These states should be readmitted eventually, but only after a portion of their citizens sign a loyalty oath to uphold emancipation and support the Union. 

President Johnson favors a policy of universal amnesty, or pardon, toward the South. He wants to readmit the Southern States with almost no strings attached; to restore the people of the South all rights of citizenship, and restore land confiscated from plantation owners during the war. Hanging in the balance of this question is the future of 4 million freed slaves in the South who have been promised this land by the government as part of their newfound freedom. 

The issue of when to end reconstruction is made more urgent when in April of 1866, just a few weeks after vetoing the Civil Rights Bill, Johnson wields his executive pen again. He issues a proclamation declaring the rebellion over. He wants an end to Marshall Law and urges the Southern states and local governments to reassert control. 

But after Johnson’s proclamation, Stanton instructs his Generals to ignore the president’s order; to continue to enforce martial law as needed, and use the Army to protect the freedmen, arresting lawbreakers and civil rights offenders who perpetrate violence against these former slaves. Stanton sends a clear message to the south, and to President Johnson: if local authorities refuse to enforce the Civil Rights act, Stanton will.

Stanton is putting himself directly at odds with the president, but to him, it’s a risk worth taking. For Johnson, Stanton is a threat to winning four more years in the White House.

So Johnson moves to fire Stanton and replace him with someone else. But Stanton’s allies in Congress come to his defense by passing a controversial law called the Tenure of Office Act.

Throughout his presidency, Johnson aggressively dismantled his predecessor Abraham Lincoln’s administration, removing well over a thousand appointed officials. The Radical Republicans in Congress feared Johnson might try to dismantle Lincoln’s cabinet, as well. And in no uncertain terms, the Tenure of Office Act states that Johnson cannot fire any Senate-appointed government official without the Senate’s approval. This includes Edwin Stanton.

The Radical Republicans are explicit in their language in the bill. Section 6 states that violations of the law are “high misdemeanors”, a direct reference to language in the US constitution that “The President can be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” The Radical Republicans are laying a trap and Johnson will take the bait.

Act Two: The General

It’s August 1st, 1867, at the White House.

President Johnson summons to his office his General-in-Chief, a man known as the Hero of Appomattox.

General Ulysses S. Grant sits across from the president and listens as Johnson makes his intentions known: he wants to be rid of Edwin Stanton. He wants Grant to replace him as Secretary of War.

Grant and Johnson do not see eye to eye on the issue of reconstruction. While Johnson is sympathetic to the South, Grant has grown more aligned with the Radical Republicans. So when Johnson offers Grant the role of War Secretary to replace Edwin Stanton, Grant bridles.

Grant insists that firing Stanton is against the law. It violates the terms of the Tenure of Office Act. But Johnson assures his General-in-chief that that act is unconstitutional; he won't obey it and demands that Grant accept the post. Grant does his best to talk Johnson out of it, but the president is determined. Johnson is also wily.

After asking for Stanton's resignation, and being bruskly refused, on August 11th, Johnson summons Grant to the White House again, explaining that he is not violating the Tenure of Office act because he's not actually firing Stanton, merely suspending him and appointing Grant interim war secretary. In the end, Johnson explains, the Senate will get to decide if Grant is an acceptable replacement adhering to the letter of the law.

Later that day, General Grant goes to see Stanton. The two men decide that it's better to have Grant in the War office than any other Johnsons and loyalists.

So Stanton relinquishes. 

With Stanton out of his way, Johnson wastes no time pushing his agenda. He removes seven Generals he deems disloyal, and makes another proclamation, getting full pardon to all Southerners except for certain classes of confederate officers and government officials. For many in Congress, pardoning the South is a step too far.

Throughout the late fall in winter of 1867, Congress debates whether or not to impeach Johnson, but they lack evidence of the crime. Impeaching Johnson on purely moral grounds will be seen as a partisan political maneuver. So after months of investigations, the House drops the matter and clears Johnson of criminal wrongdoing.

But they return to the trap they set the previous year. In mid-January, the Senate votes in favor of reinstating Edwin Stanton as War Secretary. The very next morning, General Grant gathers his things, composes a letter to Johnson explaining his decision to step aside and give Stanton his office back. Less than an hour later, Edwin Stanton is again in possession of the War Department. 

Furious at the General’s betrayal, President Johnson attacks Grant in the press, calling him a duplicitous traitor. Grant responds by writing a letter that will set Johnson’s impeachment in motion.

In it, Grant recalls that the President did attempt to violate the Tenure of Office Act in their first meeting; that he wanted Grant to remove Stanton with or without the Senate’s approval. It was only Grant’s refusal that prevented Johnson from stepping over the line. And thanks to this letter, Congress has new evidence. 

On February 3rd, the clerk reads Grant’s letter to the members of the House of Representatives. Almost immediately, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, the figurehead of the Radical Republicans, gets to work on an impeachment resolution.

By suspending Stanton, Johnson walked right up to the precipice of his own removal. But in February of 1868, he will jump off the ledge and he will leave Congress with little choice but to act.

Act Three: Verdict

It’s February 1868 in Washington DC. 

Inside his office, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton converses with a handful of his Republican allies in Congress. But suddenly, the door flies open and a man named General Lorenzo Thomas storms in, an armed Colonel by his side.

Days ago, President Johnson suspended Edwin Stanton for a second time. He then named Lorenzo Thomas interim War Secretary ordering the General to take possession of Stanton’s office. Thomas tried, but Stanton had General Thomas arrested and thrown in jail. Now out on bail, Thomas is furious.

He barks at Stanton, “I am the Secretary of War ad interim, and [I] am ordered by the President… to take charge of this office.” Stanton stubbornly replies, “I order you to repair to your own room…”

Rebuffed, General Thomas has little recourse. So he leaves the war department and returns to the White House, a defeat, but Stanton knows he would be back. 

As soon as Thomas is gone, Stanton barricades himself inside the War Department. He is ill, wracked with an asthmatic condition that’s plagued him throughout his life. But he refuses to leave his office, even to see his doctor or his family.

Then on February 24th, 1868, days after Lorenzo Thomas tried to take the War Department, the House of Representatives votes to impeach Andrew Johnson. The next day, Thaddeus Stevens stands before members of Congress and declares: “We do impeach Andrew Johnson… of high crimes and misdemeanors.” The House will ultimately adopt 11 articles of impeachment, excusing Johnson of violations of the Tenure of Office Act and attempts to undermine the laws of Congress. 

On Wednesday, March 4th, the House presents these articles to the Senate where Johnson’s presidency will be put on trial. Throughout the proceedings, rumors in the press are rampant. Some papers fear Stanton will call up troops to defend his office. Others fear Johnson will call up southern militias to defend his presidency. And behind the scenes, friends of Johnson scheme to seduce Senators to their side, allegedly buying votes with a war chest of over 150,000 dollars, 2 million dollars today.

On May 16th, the controversial trial comes to an end. The Republicans needed 36 Senators to find Johnson guilty. The final tally is 35.

One vote short and with few options left, Edwin Stanton surrenders the War Department and resigns. His health failing him, Stanton’s final act of public service will be campaigning for the man who, for a moment, replaced him in the war department: Ulysses S Grant. Just a few days after Johnson’s acquittal, General Grant is nominated as the Republican Candidate for president. In his acceptance letter, Grant writes four words that sum up the spirit of his campaign: “Let Us Have Peace.”

Republicans lost the battle to remove President Johnson from office, but they succeeded in weakening him in the polls. At the Democratic National Convention in early July, Johnson fails to secure his party’s nomination, leaving the path clear for Republican Grant’s victory in 1868. In the end, Johnson escaped conviction, but he was left with the indelible mark of being the first president in US history to be impeached, an event that was set in motion on February 24th, 1868.


Next on History Daily.February 25th, 1964. A young Cassius Clay defeats Sonny Liston to become the Heavyweight champion of the world.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Steven Walters. Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.