Brenda Wineapple on Andrew Johnson, with Eric Foner, June 3, 2019
Articles Blog

Brenda Wineapple on Andrew Johnson, with Eric Foner, June 3, 2019

October 20, 2019


– Good evening, my name
is Thad Ziolkowski. I’m the associate director
of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, which is
supported by a generous grant from Shelby White, and
the Leon Levy Foundation. The writing of biography
is a famously arduous and lengthy process, and each
year we award four fellowships of $72,000 each to working biographers to help them across the finish line. Over the past 11 years,
we have given out 44 of these grants and our
fellows have produced 21 biographies to date. Thanks to a grant from
the Sloan Foundation, we recently added a fifth fellowship, also for $72,000, which
will support biographies about figures in science and technology. The first winner is working on a biography of Oliver Sachs, Laura Snyder. Another new feature of the
center is a unique two year MA in biography and memoir,
which will train students in archival and historical research, interview technique and narrative form, as well as a history of
biography and memoir, and how these forms
have evolved over time. Housed jointly in the History
and English Departments, and directed by historian Sarah Covington, the program is currently
accepting its first class of students, who will begin
study in the fall of 2019. And one of the MA program’s
prestigious and award-winning faculty is tonight’s main speaker. Brenda Winapple, who is
also a former director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography. Winapple is the author
of remarkably original and stylishly-written
books, Ecstatic Nation, Confidence, Crisis, and
Compromise: 1848 to 1877, a New York Times Notable Book. White Heat, the Friendship
of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a finalist for the National Book
Critic’s Circle Award. Janet, a Biography of Janet Flanner. Sister, Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein. And: Hawthorne, A Life, which
received the Ambassador Award. Winapple is joined by Eric Foner, DeWitt-Clinton Professor and
Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, and
the author of numerous books on American History,
including Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished
Revolution, 1863 to 1877, which was a must-have when
I was in graduate school, and The Fiery Trial, Abraham
Lincoln and American Slavery, both winners of the
coveted Bancroft Prize. His latest book, The Second
Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction
Remade the Constitution, will appear in September. Tonight, in the final
event of our spring season, Eric Foner will engage Brenda Winapple in a conversation about her
widely acclaimed new book, The Impeachers, the
Trial of Andrew Johnson, and the Dream of a Just Nation, which may have one or two
parallels to the current political situation, but
I’ll let our two historians weigh in on that. Afterwards, I will pass around
a mic to audience members who would like to ask a question. I should also mention that
copies of The Impeachers are on sale, courtesy
of Books on Call NYC, and Brenda Winapple will
be happy to sign them. Please welcome Brenda
Winapple and Eric Foner. (applauding) – Well, thank you, thank
you all for coming out this evening, to talk about,
to hear and talk about Brenda Winapple’s excellent
new book, The Impeachers. It’s a, ah, an interesting phenomenon
that the presidential election of 2016 and what’s happened
since has kind of rekindled a lot of interest in Reconstruction, the period after the American Civil War. (murmuring) I couldn’t hear what he said,
but I’m sure it was not– (laughing) I’m sure it was not important, anyway. What is the problem? (muttering) Oh, what’s wrong, is my mic
not picking up by voice. All right, well, there we go, all right. Anyway, Reconstruction is kind
of on the agenda nowadays. Issues of that period, whether
it’s who should be a citizen, who should have the right to vote, things like that, are, you know, very much on the political agenda now. I will not mention
he-who-must-not-be-named, until maybe the very end,
where this is about history, and the first impeachment,
Andrew Johnson, in 1868. But to begin, I’d like
to ask Brenda, you know, how she got interested in this subject, anyone who’s written a
book knows that it takes quite a few years to do
so, so she didn’t just run into the archive when the
Mueller Report appeared, and then write this book, so I presume it originated
when President Obama was in office, and not too many people were talking about impeachment, so what was it that
interested you about this? – Well, first of all, I
suppose, thank you Thad, for the lovely introduction,
wherever you went. There you are; thank you. And it’s a pleasure to be here with Eric, of course, because as Thad suggested, and I will reinforce,
Eric really wrote the book on Reconstruction, and many of the views that are current today
really come out of Eric’s groundbreaking research,
so having said that, let me go back to Eric’s question. Yes, I didn’t start the book yesterday, or even last year, and in fact, when I started the book,
he-who-should-not-be-named, was Andrew Johnson, and
when people would ask me what I was working on, and I would say: the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. A couple things would happen. One is, they either left
immediately, they bolted, they headed for the door, or
they thought: Andrew Jackson? They said: Andrew Jackson
had been impeached? Because no one knew who Johnson
was, and couldn’t remember. Or, they assumed that,
and this was, I think, probably more troubling
than having people run away from me, was that the impeachment process and the impeachment of Johnson had been a preposterous mistake. And that intrigued me, and so
to go back to Eric’s question, I began the book six years
ago, deep into the Obama presidency, hence I was not prescient. If anyone was prescient, it
was my publisher, basically. And I was interested
because in the previous book that I’d written, as Thad
mentions, called Ecstatic Nation, and it covers a very large
period in American history, before, during, and after
the Civil War, you know, a rather ridiculously ambitious project, but in any event, when I was
working on that particular book it seemed to me strange that
the first ever impeachment of an American president,
which occurred in 1868, was an event that seemed to
make people’s eyes glaze over. And it seemed that most people who knew, and this is not Eric, of course, but generally, you know,
John Q. Public or whatever, assumed we went in presidential history from Lincoln to Grant
without sort of stopping for those three years, so that, and the fact that Ecstatic Nation, and sort of working in
that period for a while, which I’d been doing,
whether it was in Hawthorne or dealing with Thomas
Higginson, revealed to me that it was such a crucial
and important time, and I kept thinking: what would it be like to be alive in 1865,
the war is barely over, you have your first ever
presidential assassination, you know, the assassination of Lincoln, you have over 750,000 people
dead, and you’re confronted with putting the country back together. Enter Andrew Johnson, and
before you turn around, and see impeachment;
so that got me started, started thinking about what happened, why did it happen, who were
the people involved in it, and why did we not know more about it? Those were my questions
that I hoped to answer. – Okay, well, you’ve done a great job in answering these questions,
so that’s all to the good. Different countries, I
guess, have different ways of trying to get rid of
people who either presidents, prime ministers, whatever, I mean, we were just talking
Theresa May, in England, has been kind of booted out
in a coup d’etat or something, by the Conservative Party,
nobody, no voter has anything to say about that in England. Here, we have a different process. But the people who wrote
the original constitution did put in the process of impeachment for a rather ambiguous phrase, right? High crimes and misdemeanors. – Treason, and even treason,
there’s some discussion now about what treason is;
people seem not to know. Treason, bribery, or high
crimes and misdemeanors, and even if you assume
you know what treason is, and you know bribery when you see it, what are high crimes and misdemeanors? I mean, that really is fuzzy terminology, because theoretically, and I
think it was Thaddeus Stevens said, you know, a misdemeanor
could be stealing a chicken. (laughing) Would you be impeached for that? Probably not, you know, in that case, but as Eric says, the idea of impeachment and the process for it, the conditions, which he just named, and
then what happens afterwards, that there’s a trial, if the
officer, namely the president, in this case, is impeached,
then there’s a trial that goes to the Senate, and I find, too, and you probably all had this
experience more recently, that people didn’t really
entirely sort of understand that it’s a two-pronged process. That’s why you can have impeachment– – And impeachment is
the accusation, right? – It’s like an indictment. – Right, to be impeached does
not mean you’re convicted. – No, or removed from office. – Right. – No, so that’s, itself, interesting. But that’s what’s outlined
in the Constitution, and what’s interesting there, too, is that there isn’t really a procedural, there are no procedures, so it says, he shall be tried, the
person will be tried in the Senate, the Chief
Justice shall preside, and to be removed from office, you need two-thirds vote
of the senate; that’s it. That doesn’t tell you very
much about how to conduct that particular trial, so
it’s really up for grabs, and it was in 1868, as
it would be subsequently. – Do you think the people
who wrote the Constitution saw impeachment more as a kind of criminal kind of process, or a political process? You know, do you have to have
committed an indictable crime to be impeached, or is
impeachment just whatever a majority of the House of
Representatives says it is? If they wanna get rid of
the president that way, they have the right to
impeach him and then have a trial of some
kind before the Senate? – Well, that’s still
debated now, you know? And I read, you know, there
were a couple books that came out on impeachment by
constitutional lawyers in the ’70s, and you know, around the time of Nixon and then later, because of Clinton, and they were arguing that it actually had to be legal action. I’m not sure I entirely agree,
but it depends on the day you speak to me, really,
and I think that there was that ambiguity built
in to the Constitution, because in the Federalist Papers you see that Alexander Hamilton actually says that an impeachable offense
can be an abuse of power. So in that particular
sense, that’s not a narrow definition, that’s not
a legalistic definition. That really does have abuse
of power significance, it isn’t a technical difference, you know, and the interesting thing
about, when we wanna talk about the past, but just to make a point, Clinton was impeached on a narrow, legal– – For perjury or, right? – That’s perjury; he perjured himself. Nobody was gonna deny
that, but he was acquitted because of a broader
interpretation of impeachment, which is to say whatever
he did didn’t interfere with the way he conducted
affairs of state. And so it’s, you know– – We don’t want to talk about
affairs of state with Clinton. – No pun intended, thank you. Saved. (laughing) – So this is a biography center. The book is not a biography,
per se, although Andrew Johnson is very central to it; his
entire life and career. But it does have a very
broad cast of characters, with a very helpful little, you know, summaries of who they are. – Yeah, in the front and the
back. In case you get confused. – But what about Andrew Johnson? I mean, as you said, he’s
not exactly a household name. – But now he will be. (laughing) – His reputation, I
guess, like many figures of our history, has gone
up and down over the years. The original scholars on Reconstruction, the Dunning School, actually
didn’t like him very much. – No, they didn’t. – Dunning thought he was
inept, he didn’t understand what the country needed
after the Civil War, then in the 1920s, he
becomes like the heroic– – A hero, a hero. – As the Radical Republicans
decline in reputation, he becomes the heroic
defender of the Constitution. Today his, it’s like
a stock market ticker, it’s back down again,
partly thanks to your book, and other books; he’s
widely seen as the worst, or possibly next to the
worst president, there are, in American history; there
are other contenders now, but, but, ah– (laughing) – You think? – Yeah, but Johnson is way down there. – Yes, oh yeah. – What is your view, I mean, there are, even though there were all
sorts of Andrew Johnsons out there in the historical
literature, I mean, is he just an inept politician
or is he a shrewd schemer, or is he just a guy whose racism blinded him to anything else? You know, what’s your
take on Andrew Johnson, before he gets to be impeached? – Yeah, now, I mean,
it’s interesting the sort of three things that
you sort of enumerated, is he inept, is, you
know, is he strategic, and is he just sort of
blinded by his racism? And in a certain sense,
all three, I would say. But the interesting thing about Johnson, and one of the ways in
which he got on the ticket, Lincoln’s ticket in 1864,
had to do with the fact that many in the north, in
1864, and for four years before, admired Andrew Johnson enormously, as a man of courage, true courage. And I think that had we
been alive in 1860, ’61, we may have shared that view. He was the only United States
Senator from the South, he represented Tennessee, who stood up against the secessionists in
the so-called Secession Winter of 1860-61, after Lincoln
was elected, and he said: I’m against secession, I’m for the union. You know, I won’t have
anything to do with it. We must stay within the union. I will fight for the union. And whatever credibility he
had among southerners was shot, he was burned in effigy
from one end of Tennessee to the other, he was
constantly being threatened and his family was threatened
with assassination. So it was a very heroic,
lonely stand to take, and what his other views
were, say, for example, on race, were not paramount in 1860, 1861, because at that juncture, the
reigning idea in the north was: save the Union. There were abolitionists, certainly, and anti-slavery people who wanted the war to be about something else,
but not a lot of people necessarily wanted that;
it wasn’t a popular view. So Andrew Johnson looked great, and Lincoln then put
Johnson, appointed Johnson military governor of Tennessee. – When they captured, yeah, Nashville. – And so that was another
coup, in a sense, for Johnson, and Lincoln is, in a
sense, bringing him closer into the Republican
Party, but also Lincoln, being very savvy as he
was, is using Johnson, too, because Johnson is this upright
Unionist, southern senator, a War Democrat; he’s in a different party, but he’s very, very committed
to the prosecution of the war. So, when 1864 rolls around
and there’s some dispute, I don’t know what you
think about, you know, to what extent Lincoln
was behind the scenes. – It’s murky, very murky. – I happen to believe
that he had his finger on the scales, because I feel– – Although, you know,
being vice president– – He’s too smart not to. – Back then, being vice
president was pretty unimportant, actually– – It was unimportant except, except from what I’ve understood, Hannibal Hamlin, his vice president, great name, brought nothing
except that name to the ticket. – Well, he brought, he
was a former Democrat. The Republican Party was a new party, and it had these, you
know, it had ex-Whigs, ex-Democrats, Lincoln was an ex-Whig, they had to balance it,
but Hamlin, you’re right, and Lincoln was from the
west, Hamlin is from Maine, balanced the ticket. Johnson is on to balance
the ticket another way. He’s opening up, because you know, after the war’s over, the
Republicans have to find support in the south. – Exactly, and they want
to, before the war’s over, they wanna keep the border states happy, and Lincoln wants to
suggest that Tennessee is really in the Union, even
though it wasn’t entirely in the Union, so it was
very, I think very smart, political move, whoever was behind it. – Oh, he, Johnson
represents, on the ticket, as you said, a white
Unionism in the south, and Lincoln, who was very
savvy, but also like anyone, made errors, greatly
overestimated the number of white Unionists in the south. Johnson was supposed to be
an example of this legion of people who had been kind
of dragged into secession against their will. – Right, right, right, right. – Et cetera, et cetera, but anyway– – And another miscalculation. Lincoln didn’t know he was,
didn’t think he was gonna die. – No, although he did
have dreams about it. – Well, I know, but you know– – Lincoln was a young guy. He was in his 50s, there
was no reason to think that Lincoln would not
serve out his full term. – But sure. – Johnson, you know, when
I was in graduate school, one of my mentors was
Eric McKitrick, who wrote the great book, Andrew
Johnson and Reconstruction, back around 1959 or ’60,
which began that generation’s process of tearing
Johnson off his pedestal. Just to show you how
elevated Johnson’s reputation had become, as you well
know, in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, which
he didn’t actually write, but he got the Pulitzer
Prize for it anyway. – Ted Sorenson. – Well, Nevins, Sorenson,
he had a whole team. – Nevins, really? – Oh, Nevins, go to the
Nevins papers at Columbia if you have a lot of
spare time, and you’ll see Nevins’s contributions
to Profiles in Courage. – No kidding; very disappointing. – But anyway, one of the
profiles was Edmond Ross, one of the senators who voted to acquit, and that was one of the
great moments of courage, because it saved the presidency from congressional
domination and all this– – By maniacs and fanatics,
ideologues, partisans, who just wanted to tear
down the presidency, tear down Andrew Johnson, and Edmond Ross, wonderful Edmond Ross,
voted against his own party, because at the time, he was a Republican. – Now you, jumping ahead a
little in your book here, you point out Edmond Ross
was not necessarily motivated purely by altruistic purposes. – No, no he wasn’t. – What was he trying to get? – Well, lot’s of favors. There is, I really tried very hard to find actual evidence of bribery– – A smoking gun. – Right, a smoking gun, you know? And as I said in the book,
there’s a lot of fire, there’s a lot of smoke, but no fire. I could never find that
evidence of actual money, changing hands, but what I can tell you, and what I did find,
there’s plenty of evidence of Ross going to Johnson,
after he cast his vote, and importuning him, begging him, asking, constantly, in the
consequence of what I’ve done for you, for one favor, an
appointment for this person, an appointment for his brother, you know, an assignment here, and he
constantly is coming back. So it was clearly what
we’d call a quid pro quo kind of situation, and from
what I also can tell about Ross, he was a fairly weak person. He wanted to keep his seat,
he needed money, for sure. – He was the senator from Kansas. – From Kansas, junior senator from Kansas. That had not passed any legislation, hadn’t been in office very long, and was also, just as an aside, (laughing) although it’s probably important, he was more or less smitten
with this young sculptor named Lavinia “Vinny”
Ream, who’s family was very involved in contracts
with Native Americans and bilking them and sort of
Confederate-leaning people. So, it’s, as I said, it’s a lot of smoke. But clearly he was asking
for quite a lot of favors done afterwards, so. – Now–
– Not altruistic. – Johnson had made his
reputation in Tennessee as the spokesmen for the poorer,
white class, you know, yeoman farmers, eastern Tennessee. He was, he owned a couple of slaves, but he wasn’t a big slave owner. In fact, he denounced the
big slave owners for– – It’s so interesting
though, that class issue is so interesting, because
as Eric’s suggesting, Johnson came from nothing, and almost less than nothing, in a sense, because his father died when he was young. – He’s certainly the
person who started poorest who ever became president. – He was an indentured servant,
and when he and his brother ran away from the tailor shop
where they were indentured, there was a wanted ad put out for him. There was a price on his head. Which is, you know, it’s not the same as being a fugitive slave,
but it’s pretty horrific, when you think about the kind of poverty and the kind of youth that he had, but ironically, and
sadly really, in a sense, pathetically, as soon as he did well, and his tailor shop grew, and
he became very successful, both in the industry or
whatever you want to call it, mercantile, business, and
also then in politics, the first thing he did
is go out and buy slaves. – He did. And that’s what you did with your money, if you were in the south, you know? – But it shows how you change classes, in a certain sense. – But Johnson, when, one of
the mysteries about Johnson, after he becomes president,
Lincoln is assassinated, Johnson takes over, very soon after that, he inaugurates his Reconstruction policy, which, contrary to the old mythology, was not the same,
necessary, as Lincoln’s– – No. – But one, he sets up these
governments in the south, all white, black people have
no voice, no rights, whatever, and they’re free but that’s it, and they can’t vote, et cetera, et cetera, and anyway, but he also
says that southern, people who owned $20,000
worth of property, which is a lot, but the big slave owners, are not gonna be able
to vote or hold office. Everyone else gets a pardon, but not them. Johnson seems to assume that
therefore these smaller farmers will kind of take over,
which doesn’t happen, but then pretty quickly, he stops that, and he starts offering
pardons to all these people. How, what, he didn’t
explain why he just dropped that class-based effort;
do you have any thoughts, about why Johnson sort of now begins, suddenly, to align
himself with the planters, even though at the beginning he’s saying: we’re gonna keep them out
of this whole process? – Well yeah, I mean, I
think it’s part of the same psychology, if you will,
that got him to buy slaves, when he had some money, you know? There was the delegation
of Fredrick Douglass, there was a black delegation
that came to see him, you know, in early 1866, and
he was very put out by them, and one of the things that he
said that is really so hard to imagine what he’s thinking
when he says to them: well, I didn’t sell any of my slaves. You know, it’s like: what
are you talking about? So that he’s still, to
me, still identifying with the planter class, so I’m not so sure that when he says that this
so-called yeoman farmers, or people who didn’t have money
automatically got pardons, that he was really
thinking along the lines of restructuring the south
away from what had been called the aristocracy; I
think that that was okay to do, and that it cut muster with most people, but as soon as he got some power again, he begins using it in almost the same way, and now he’s making the
planters come to him. – Right, right.
– And ask for pardons. – They’re coming and begging for pardons. – Yeah, so he’s got
power over these people who called him, basically, and
this was a 19th century term, poor white trash, you know? And now he’s saying: look who’s
poor white trash now, right? – Of course, you know, Johnson, as my mentor, McKitrick,
his argument as you remember was Johnson was kind of an outsider, he was a kind of person,
his personality was really his problem his character– – Well, that’s one of
his problems. (laughing) – He was stubborn, he
didn’t listen to anyone. – Yeah, that’s true. – He could succumb to flattery. Another way of looking at it
is to say, well, wait a minute, he’s an outsider but this guy
had held every single office you can hold in this
country, from like alderman– – Alderman all the way up to president. – State legislature,
governor, senator, president. He knew the political system. – Absolutely. – Another way of looking at it is to say: hey, look, obviously a vice
president who takes over has to think about, how am I gonna get reelected in 1868, you know? And where’s my coalition gonna be? And you know, some people
are like, well, really, Johnson is the first of these
white identity politicians. – That’s true. – He says: we gotta unite the white man. You know, he’s deeply racist. I’m fighting for the white man, the Republicans are fighting for blacks. I’ll take that gamble. – Yeah– – If you go to the voters and you say: are you for the white man
or are you for black people, I wanna be on the side of the white man. – Exactly. – Now, it doesn’t work for Johnson, because of all sorts of circumstances, but you know, you might,
one might see him as a more calculating politician
than sometimes appears. But the other point, to ask
you a question again here, the other side of Johnson,
this see-saw of Johnson’s reputation is the Radical Republicans, who were the villains
of the piece for decades and decades, they were
fanatics, they were vengeful. – Diabolical. – Diabolical, Thaddeus Stevens, with his club foot, you know– – A sign of the devil, it was considered a sign of the devil. – You take a much more positive
view of Thaddeus Stevens and the Radical Republicans;
how do you see them? – I do see them, and you
know what’s interesting, I was just thinking about
Stevens, for example, who was himself an outsider. You know, a lot of these people, I mean, Johnson wasn’t the only outsider. Certainly Stevens came from
poverty, except his poverty was in Vermont, as opposed
to in North Carolina and Tennessee, but poverty nonetheless, and what that kind of poverty
did for him, in a sense, is make him, to my mind,
much more empathetic to other people. – Well, just like Lincoln, who lived in, in some people, poverty
makes you empathetic, and in others, it just
closes you up on yourself. – Exactly, but the, you
know, and it was in a sense, the way I was taught history, was, had nothing to do with
McKitrick or anything like that, it was as if, as if I
was getting my textbook out of Birth of a Nation, where– – Me too, when I was in
high school, absolutely. – You know, where Thaddeus Stevens, the character for Thaddeus Stevens, was this, depicted as this awful person, with a weird wig, he did wear a weird wig, but you know, and he was
sort of dark and scary, and he was going to ruin the south, and hence comes the Ku
Klux Klan to the rescue. I mean, and in a sense,
that was the history that, in some sense, actually
to a certain extent, you know, all Eric’s work notwithstanding, still is, you know, still exists, really. In a way, don’t get me started
on Spielberg and Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens in that one. – No, you’re right, and
there’s been an effort, I’ve somehow, I have a
little finger in this, to get a postage stamp of
Thaddeus Stevens, you know, there were postage stamps of
millions of different Americans but Thaddeus Stevens is still blocked by whoever determines these things. You know, so this mythology
of him as the vengeful, the evil genius, but what is your positive
view of Thaddeus Stevens? – No, but what’s interesting
about that is that, I was just reading something
today, as a matter of fact, that sort of the notion
that people like Stevens, for example, these Radical Republicans, they wanted, all they were
interested in was power. And you think: well yeah. And this will get to the
positive, to your question. Of course they were interested in power. You know, who’s not, but
they’re interested in power because to them, it was
the only way to ensure the victory that the north had fought for, which is to say equality
and justice under the law, and the eradication not just of slavery, because the 13th amendment did that, but the eradication of
the effects of slavery. Which, you know, is something
worth thinking about. Because you don’t just get rid
of the institution and say: oh, fine, everything’s okay now. South, come on back. You know, everything’s
forgotten, slavery’s gone. Let’s move on. No, there are effects of slavery. Four million people
enslaved who’d been deprived of everything, the clothes on their back, their wages, ability to move or marry, all of those things. So a person like Thaddeus Stevens, then, of course, were in, those
people were interested in power, but they were
particularly interested in power because they really did
believe, and this is what’s astonishing, sadly
astonishing to me, anyway, that this is 1865, say,
and I’m not even going to his earlier history,
that these are people, like Stevens or Sumner, of Massachusetts, and there are many
others who actually are, to my mind, visionary;
they see a United States, after the war, that finally
can make good on its promise, its promise in the
Declaration of Independence, and they’re committed to doing that, in trying to find the best way. So in that sense, that’s my take, and I think that’s very positive. They’re not perfect, I mean, you know, but they really do have this view, and just to give one little
example about Stevens, because it’s so telling when he found out the burial plot that he’d purchased was not in a cemetery
that allowed black people to be buried there, he sold the plot. And said: I’m going to
an integrated cemetery, because I want, in death, to be known for the same values I fought for in life. – Right, now 30 years
earlier, talking about power and principle, 30 years
earlier, Stevens had been a delegate to the Pennsylvania
Constitutional Convention, 1837, which took the right
to vote away from black men in Pennsylvania; they had
enjoyed it up to that point. Stevens refused to sign the
constitution and walked out. Now, what, there was no possible
political benefit to him, in 1837, for standing up for
the rights of black people in Pennsylvania; quite the opposite. So, and Sumner, the same thing. – Yeah, Sumner, absolutely. – The radicals had been fighting
for justice and equality long before the Civil War,
long before Reconstruction. Suddenly as you say, the
destruction of slavery opens up this question of:
what is going to replace it? What is this country gonna look like with four million people suddenly freed? Johnson, of course, has, well, you quote some of the things
he said to Fredrick Douglass, others, about black people. Deeply, deeply racist,
and without going through the chronology of events,
because I do want to get to impeachment here. (laughing) – It does happen. – Congress tries to work
with Johnson, he refuses, they pass civil rights
legislation, he vetoes it, they propose the 14th
amendment, he opposes it, tells the south to reject it. Finally, they get fed up and they get rid of the governments Johnson has created, and put into effect what they
call Radical Reconstruction, with black men now voting in
the south for the first time. And then Johnson opposes that
and tries to obstruct that. So you have two years, really,
from towards the end of 1865, toward the end of 1867, where
there’s just this accelerating battle between Congress
and the president over, which focuses on what rights
these African American people are gonna have; now how does
that lead to impeachment? Again, just like anything else, there’s a lot of literature, well, there’s not that much,
actually, on the impeachment, but everyone who writes
about Reconstruction touches on it, in a few sentences. – They didn’t sort of look at it. That’s what was so astonishing to me. – What is the motivation for impeachment? Is it just that people
got fed up with Johnson, or they just said: look,
he’s now violated a law, they passed a law, the
Tenure of Office Act, which he violated by kicking
out his Secretary of War. What do you see as the motive for the House of Representatives,
eventually, to impeach Johnson? – Well, the interesting
thing is that it seems to me the motive was, or the motives
were, growing over time. And what I mean by that,
and I think it’s important to understand that impeachment
didn’t come overnight. Oh, we’ve got to impeach
this guy, you know? Let’s go do it! Impeachment had been
kind of on a slow boil, and there were people among
the Radical Republicans who wanted to impeach Johnson early on, and actually, according, and you know, the Republicans, themselves, were divided. There were conservative,
moderate, radicals, and even the radicals have
different points of view, and there were those who wanted to get, that felt Johnson was unfit for office, that he was obstructing the idea of this, this new vision of things, and besides, he was degrading Congress, he was abusive, I mean, the list is very long. – Tweeting things out, denouncing people. – Yeah, you know, virtually, in a sense. But they didn’t want to do
anything fast or precipitous, and starting in 1865, when it became clear that Johnson wasn’t
gonna work with Congress, he didn’t even call
Congress back into session, they basically said: well,
let’s try to work with him. Let’s see what we can do,
we don’t wanna alienate, we don’t want to drive him
into the arms of, you know, whatever, what were called Copperheads, or Peace Democrats, so
let’s, and they kept trying, and more and more, as I
said, the motives grew, as he became more
vehement in his language, more clearly supremacist, more abusive, until, and at the same time, I should add, the impeachment was sort
of lurching forward, Congress was taking action,
these Reconstruction acts that Eric just mentioned,
but it’s lurching forward. In other words, it votes
to look at impeachment, but then it goes to the
judiciary committee, and then the judiciary
committee investigates and investigates and looks for that legal, you know, tripwire, and it can’t find it. So they vote not to impeach,
and then they change their mind because Johnson is trying to
stop the reconstruction acts from being executed, and
so then Congress is still kind of slowly marching;
it’s not eager to do this, as I said, it’s the
first ever impeachment. And then slowly, and then they’re
passing other legislation, something called the Tenure of Office Act that was later repealed, it
was sort of a dubious act, but it was there to protect Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War,
because he was protecting the military, and the
military was protecting the blacks and whites in the south, who wanted to vote after the– – Right, it’s odd that
one of the strange things about Congress’s Reconstruction
policy is it puts it in the hands of the
military, and Johnson had, the commander-in-chief of the military, and yet Johnson is totally
opposed to the policy that is now supposed to be implemented. – But it’s interesting, when
you ask how strategic he is, there are times when
he’s like, thick-headed. First of all, why did he keep
Stanton in office that long? Stanton, he knew, hated him, and he hated Stanton,
but he hadn’t fired him. Then, you’re right, the military, he can appoint these generals,
so he appoints generals, probably Grant told him who to appoint, and he hates the generals
that he appoints, because they’re against him. So he starts firing them, and you know, because of that, and then
the tenure of office thing, then he fires Stanton. And that is finally Congress, they can’t, that’s what does it. – That’s an exact violation of the law. – That’s a violation of a law just passed, and you want to talk about
thumbing your nose at Congress, you know, basically
Congress passes legislation, the chief executive officer of the country is supposed to enact the legislation. – But he violates it. But the articles of impeachment, this is now the spring of 1868, I think there’s 11 of them, right, but most of them are about
the Tenure of Office Act. They seem to accept the premise that you have to have a
specific violation of law. The 11th one is kind of a catch-all, that talks about him assaulting Congress and just being a generally
obnoxious person, and we really need to get rid of him. (laughing) – The 10th does that too, actually, because the 10th is, takes his speeches and puts it in the article and says: look at the kinds of things he’s saying. He’s actually calling for the execution of some of these Republicans, you know? I mean, think of that, in 1867, he’s calling for the, I mean,
it’s unheard of to do that, and so they’re actually using
his own language against him, and then as Eric says, the
11th article is this catchall, kitchen sink, omnibus
article that basically Thaddeus Stevens and this
other man named Ben Butler, great names, right, I mean
it’s right out of Dickens, in a sense, and they
basically put together an 11th impeachment article that is broader, so that they will have the
broader outline of abuse of power in this particular case, and
so they’ve got nine technical, having to do with the
Tenure of Office Act, and two that are not technical, and then the lawyers or the
House of Representatives, who prosecute the case against Johnson, and the lawyers that Johnson very, and this is strategic, very wisely hires, with the help of his pal, William Seward, the Secretary of State,
and he gets some really brilliant guys in there. One had been a Supreme Court justice. And you know, and they argued
this out in the Senate. Meantime, one other thing, because it’s important, before I forget, is that the chief justice– – Chase. – Who presides, is a
man named Salmon Chase, who wants to be president. And he’s got a lot of power. – He’s angling for the
Democratic nomination. – He’ll take either. – Well, the Republicans, by
this point, wouldn’t have him, but he was, even as he’s
presiding over the Senate trial, he’s trying to get the
Democratic nomination. – Right, right, right. – And then also, what about Ben Wade? He’s kind of in a funny position. – He’s in a funny position. Ben Wade is actually next
in line for the presidency, and Ben Wade is considered,
forget Thaddeus Stevens and his club foot and the
devil, Ben Wade is thought of as the most radical of the radical. – He’s the senator from Ohio? – From Ohio; has been in the
Senate for a very long time. For a while, they don’t
even want him to vote because of his conflict of interest. – He would have become president, had Johnson been convicted. – Yeah, and nobody wanted him, because– – But he votes anyway. Well, he votes anyway,
but it doesn’t help him. I mean, it doesn’t help
anybody, of course, because of Ross, of course,
but the thing about Ben Wade is among his radical positions is the, is voting rights for women. So imagine how terrible that would be to have Wade in the presidency? Somebody said: he’ll put Susan
B. Anthony in the Cabinet! – That would be good. – That means he’s not gonna be president. – Wade also had given a
speech in Kansas in 1867, saying now that the battle
between freedom and slavery is over, the next battle
is labor versus capital. – That’s right, that’s right. – And he is the only
American quoted in volume one of Das Kapital–
– Karl Marx. – By Karl Marx, he quotes
that speech to say: look, even in America,
people are coming to see the class struggle. So a lot of people didn’t want
Ben Wade to become president. So, in the end, as you’ve
said, by one vote, right? – By one vote.
– They fall one vote short. Seven Republicans vote to acquit. – Yes, yes, yes. – And that leads to
them failing by one vote to remove Johnson from office. Before we go to question and answer, let me just ask you, by the way, I should say there’s a
very vivid description in the book of the proceedings themselves, and the trial, because usually
when people write about this, they just say: all
right, he’s put on trial. But the actual, what actually
happened in the Senate is fascinating, and you
explained this very, very, ah– – It was wonderful
reading, just as an aside, you know, for those
people who think reading, you know, trial transcripts
or the congressional record is dull, which I don’t happen to think, it’s really like theater,
it’s like reading plays. It’s like, you might as well be reading, you know, Sing or O’Neill or something. And the trial was like that. It was thrilling, really, in a sense, this kind of law and
order, 19th century style. – Before we got to questions,
let me just ask you: what do you think the
consequences for, ah, Reconstruction, of the acquittal were? There was some, Treyfus, for example, who taught in this
building for a long time, he felt that the failure of impeachment really weakened the
radicals very dramatically, that it undercut their
influence in the party. Others say no, it forced Johnson to stop being so annoying, for
the, he had another maybe, almost year, eight months, 10 months, and they basically, his lawyer said look: if you acquit, we may, he’ll
behave himself from now on. – We’ll watch over him,
like William Everts. – So do you think it was
a mistake to impeach him? Do you think that it
weakened Reconstruction, or that it actually enabled
Reconstruction to go forward more effectively? – I actually think it helped
Reconstruction go forward. I think that the process,
and we didn’t even talk about the role that Ulysses
S. Grant played in it, and the process actually
radicalized, if we wanna use that word, in a sense,
but certainly I think, illuminated many issues
for Grant, and so Grant, who did become the next
president, as we all know, could take steps that he,
I don’t know if he wouldn’t have already, but certainly
changed him in that way, and I think that those who had promised, because many of the
people, even Democrats, I mean, nobody wanted to touch Johnson. Nobody was gonna nominate him in 1868. And so in that particular
sense, no one really had much respect for him, and so that he was, he was let’s say curtailed,
to a large extent, and some of the best
legislation of Reconstruction, and you know in your next book, yeah, but it’s percolating at this time. Certainly, the 14th
amendment and then it became, you know, the way in
which the southern states would be readmitted into the Union, and that grants citizenship to process, I mean, this is important,
and then the 15th amendment, and you know, that doesn’t
happen under Johnson. It could never have
happened under Johnson. So I think it greased
those wheels, in a sense. I don’t think it was a mistake, but what do you think, by the way? – Ah, I agree. (laughing and sighing) Johnson comes back, oddly. The strange ending of
this is that in 1875, Tennessee sends him back to the Senate as a, he ends his life– – Like a bad penny, you
know, he keeps coming back. – I don’t think– – There were flowers on his desk. People left– – What, there were flowers on his desk? I don’t think there’s
any other ex-president who served in the Senate. John Quincy Adams went to the House, and I guess William Howard Taft
served on the Supreme Court. – Supreme Court, yeah. – But serving in the Senate, after being impeached,
that’s the kind of story, it’d be like Bill Clinton
being elected to the Senate. Why not? Maybe he will. – Maybe he’ll go to the Supreme Court. – Right, that’s a thought. – Well thank you. – We’re gonna open the
floor here to questions. Thad will deal with the
question situation, yes. – [Attendee] My question
deals with this tenure act– – Tenure of Office Act. – [Attendee] Office act,
now, didn’t the president have to sign that, or was
it passed over his veto? – Oh, it was vetoed; everything
passed over his veto. He vetoed everything, and they
kept passing him over, yeah. – Good question, yeah. – [Attendee] Is it true Andrew Johnson was an alcoholic, and
there was something about, I thought that, perhaps
in his inaugural address, he was said to have been
inebriated, is that true? – In his inaugural
address as vice president, it was said that he took a shot or two, or more, of medicinal whiskey
that had a bad effect, or it was contraindicated by
his 19th century cold medicine, whatever that might have been. – More whiskey. – Oh yeah, from bourbon. And in which case, it led
him to kind of slobber over the Bible and be
an incoherent speaker. Many people, you know,
he had many detractors, as you might imagine, and
even Sumner, who wasn’t above, he was a wonderful man in many ways, but he wasn’t above being
catty, said that he saw, you know, big cases of bourbon
going into Johnson’s rooms at Kirkwood House when he lived there. Who knows? In other words, the word,
the epithet alcoholic is a bit strong, I mean, it’s
a very kind of 20th century term in the sense, if somebody
asked in the 19th century, you know, if Johnson
drank, and the answer was: everybody drank. A lot of the intemperate,
horrific, really, speeches he made, people would
have liked to have attributed to his being drunk, and the
sad truth was he wasn’t, in those cases. (laughing) – Right. – [Attendee] How did the
senators who voted to acquit, how did they fare in
their future elections after that trial? – I don’t remember specifics right now, but it was, you know, the perceived wisdom is that they were all
booted out of office, or they all, you know, suffered ignominy. Ross himself said that was
true, and it wasn’t true. Some of them just left, they, you know, oh, I’m thinking, what’s his name? Fessenden, Fessenden– – Fessenden, Trumble– – And you know, Fessenden died,
Trumble stayed in office– – Trumble stuck around. – He switched parties, he
went back to being a Democrat in his day, so, there was
no punishment meted out. – Several of these seven
men ended up, like Trumble and Ross, ended up in the
liberal Republican movement. This, their votes for
acquittal were the beginning of their retreat from
Reconstruction altogether, and in 1872, they would be
supporting Horace Greeley, against Grant, on a platform
of ending Reconstruction. So it was a symptom of their
becoming less enthusiastic about Reconstruction, even in 1868. – Yeah, and it’s also
where you can start seeing how the Republican Party of then becomes the Republican Party of now. – Yeah, that’ takes a while. – But it’s the seeds,
right, no, no, absolutely. – [Attendee] My question is:
what is the 1789 definition of high crimes and misdemeanor? Because when we’re talking
about future impeachments, we have to look at what the framers meant by high crimes and misdemeanors,
and I think they meant something in English common
law, or English statutory law, so what has your research shown? – My research has shown that
there’s an enormous array of opinion about, about that definition, even when they go back to 1789, and even when they look
at English statutory law. And there’s, you know,
there’s talk about the case of Warren Hastings in England,
and a lot of different opinions and it really, you
know, I hate to say it this way, but I will anyway, and that is: it really depends on the point of view, or the sort of partisan
point of view that one has, even up until this day, as I said, I read books that were written
in the ’70s and more recently that have a wide difference of opinion, and it really is, in a
sense, in the best sense of the word, I think it’s
a political determination, and I mean that in the best
sense of the word political. – I would be very cautious about thinking that you can find the
single, original intent, for this or any other
interesting or important subject. All these things have different inputs, different motivations,
different definitions, so I would forget about
what the framers said, and think about what we think a high crime and a misdemeanor might actually be. – And good luck with that. – [Attendee] I may have
misheard when you were speaking, did you say that Seward
was a supporter of Johnson? – Yes, I did say that. – Well, he stayed in the Cabinet. He was still Secretary of State, yeah. – And he didn’t wanna leave the Cabinet. He was a very strong supporter of Johnson, and those who felt,
wrongly in certain cases, that Johnson was an idiot,
blamed Seward for all the kinds of gestures
that Johnson was making. I, that’s an over-exaggeration,
but it shows that Seward was again influential, very influential. – Although he tried to
keep Johnson under control, you know, tell him not to be so crazy in his denunciations of people. – Yeah, or to go along
with the 14th amendment. – [Eric] Yeah, yeah, exactly. – A no-brainer, really. – [Attendee] Two quick ones:
to what degree is our view of that Reconstruction,
rather, that impeachment bad because it failed,
there’s a popular view. If he’d been removed, would
we think this was a triumph? And two, just about the
historiography of the case, there was a very good book
by, I guess a Scotsman or a Welshman American, An
American Crisis in 1963. – Brach, yeah. – [Attendee] Brach, and
he’s for the impeachment. And then there’s Michael
Wes Benedict, in 1973, and they don’t get that much attention. Your thoughts on why that is? – Well, you know– – I can address part
of that, but go ahead. – Brach is an Englishman,
he comes, he’s a very good historian, he came,
he’s passed away now, but he came from a country that doesn’t have a written constitution. They claim they have a
constitution, but if you meet an Englishman, just ask
him: well, show it to me. And they’ll run away. – Or get the Magna Carta. – But, ah, so they have
a whole different concept of what, you know, what
does it mean to violate the constitution, or what
does it mean to, you know, abuse power, et cetera? Benedict is a law professor. He’s a good friend of mine. Some of my best friends
are law professors, although they think in a weird way. So, you know, Benedict
had his own analysis. This was at the time
of Nixon, as you said. Treyfus, Benedict, they were
writing about impeachment from the point of view of the 1970s. – Also, I would say with
Benedict, and I think it’s a wonderful book, really, and I think it opened up some
discussion, not very much, but the, his analysis,
which I thought, as I said, is brilliant, is a very
political analysis. You know, what the voting
records of people were, what their affiliations
were, and really sort of did a very kind of taxonomic breakdown, which I think is extremely useful, but I was interested in
something else, a little bit, and that was, as I said
earlier, when we started, what was it like to be on the ground? What was it like to be one of those people in the south, against whom
Black Codes were being passed? Because it seemed to me
that the kind of analysis Benedict did is wonderful,
but I was interested in sort of the kind of felt experience, that got behind and motivated
the Johnson impeachment, which really had to do
with the lives of people and the vision of the
country coming forward, and not as strict, sort
of legalistic analysis. I think that would be fair. – [Attendee] I’m curious, to
what extent was impeachment then sort of an act of
congressional assertion? I mean, we’ve become used
to, ever since let’s say Teddy Roosevelt, to
very dynamic presidents, and yet at that time, you
just really had Jackson, and you had a war president, Lincoln. Was there a different vision
of the presidency at that point and if so, did it influence
the impeachment process? Well, that’s a really
interesting question. I mean, obviously you’re
coming out of a war where, as you say, Lincoln’s
such a strong president in many ways that a lot of people, particularly in the Democratic Party, but even some Republicans hated him. I mean, because they
thought he was usurping a certain amount of power, Stanton too, you know, suspending habeas corpus. I mean, you can argue
these were war measures, but they kind of shook
people up a little bit. But impeachment itself is a
congressional prerogative, so it does fall to the
legislature to stop, and this goes back to the sort of framers, who knows what they
intended, but one thing I think is clear is they’re
coming off a monarchy, and they certainly don’t
want the presidency to turn into that, so I
don’t think it’s a question of strong president
versus weaker president. It has to do with really
the fact that the country is at this crossroads
at this particular time, and you have the, the legislature, which is the Congress, which is supposed to
determine the qualifications of its own members, and
you’ve got 11 seceded states, and they’re being told,
the Congress is being told that they can’t determine
the qualifications for those 11 secessionist
states, the former Confederacy, to come back in and this
guy who’s a southerner is telling them, so you’ve
got trouble right there. See what I’m saying, in that sense? – Congress was cognizant
of its own powers, of it’s own prerogatives,
even under Lincoln. As you said, when the 13th
amendment was finally passed through the House of Representatives
at the end of January, 1865, all the members signed a copy of it. All the, and then Lincoln
got a hold and he signed it, whereupon the Senate passed
a resolution telling Lincoln: you have no right to sign this. A constitutional amendment,
the president has no role in a constitutional
amendment; it’s ratified by two thirds of congress and
three quarters of the states, and the president has
nothing to do with it, and they didn’t want him signing it, because that would be an
usurping of Congress’s authority. – Right, right, right,
so they’re aware, yeah. – [Attendee] Yeah, could you
give a flavor of the trial? What were the most prominent
arguments on each side? – What? – [Attendee] The trial, itself. – Oh. (laughing) You know, it’s very complicated. To make it very simple, or
simple-minded in a certain sense, I think that the best way
to make those arguments, ah, comprehensible just in a quick
question and answer period is to say that there was
the narrow view, as I said, the sort of crabbed view, the
legalistic view of impeachment versus the broader view, and it would seem that the prosecutors, the
people who wanted Johnson out of office, would take the broader view, because he’s, for all the
reasons I’ve enumerated, unfit for office. The irony was that the
Johnson defense team, William Everts and
Benjamin Curtis, you know, as I said, very estimable,
very brilliant people, took the broader view,
and they were basically talking about the dignity
of the presidency, and maintaining that
dignity against Congress, and the kind of, legalistic determination of the Tenure of Office
Act, which they said he hadn’t violated,
because the act was worded so ambiguously, so it really came down, so the managers, the House, is arguing in very sort of small, legalistic terms, and they lose in that particular sense, because they don’t really,
they don’t really paint, as I say, with a broad enough brush, in that particular way. – We will have to probably
call this to a halt soon. Maybe, what do you
think, one more question? Okay. – [Attendee] Yes, thank you very much. Can you summarize why,
which from the Democratic or the Republican side, would be happy to see him gone and why? – They’d both be happy to
see him gone. (laughing) – [Attendee] But what were
the politics behind it? Why would they be happy? – Because, well, you know, I
think that’s what we’ve been discussing in a certain
sense is that his vision for the country, whether
your vision was one of the, there was radical or progressive, whatever you want to call
them, Republicans who saw a free and just country based in equality, I mean, he was obstructing that, or if you were really sort of a Democrat who felt: let’s keep the states’ rights, and let’s keep presidential
power curtailed. I mean, the irony is this
president is usurping presidential powers and he’s
suppose to be a Democrat, who really wants to give
power back to the states, in that particular way. So he’s basically, and
he’d been so difficult in terms of political
strategies, as I said before, the Democrats were saying: just go along with the 14th amendment. Just placate these Republicans,
and we can move forward. You know, in that sense,
and so the Democrats, the Democratic press, which
was enormously partisan, they didn’t want to have
anything to do with him either. So, a plague on his house. – Right, well thank you very much, Brenda. – Thank you, thank you. – Congratulations on the book. – Thank you, Eric. (applauding)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *