Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy-David O. Stewart
The American Civil War remains a key turning point in United States history. The nation nearly tore itself apart as the Union and Confederacy engaged in deadly conflict over several issues including States’ rights, secession, and the system of slavery. Prior to its conclusion, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) met his tragic end on April 15, 1965, falling victim to assassin John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Andrew Johnson, then Vice-President and Democrat, succeeded Lincoln as the 17th President of the Unite States of America. He would only serve in office through 1869 when Lincoln’s term would have ended, but in that short period, his administration would be the center of one of the most critical trials in United States history.
David O. Stewart takes a look back in this well-researched and well-presented investigative account of the trial of Andrew Johnson, who faced impeachment by the Radical Republicans led by U.S. House of Representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868). From start to finish the book is spellbinding and Stewart writes in a style that never bores the reader while presenting the material in an easy to read and streamlined format. And as a result of his work, we now have one of the finest books on the attempted impeachment of a President who nearly pushed the nation into a second Civil War.
The book begins after Lincoln has passed and Johnson has become the next Commander-In-Chief. And nearly instantly, the dark side of Johnson is put on full display as he commits the first of several acts that will turn the Radical Republicans against him and dictate the course of history for the deep south for decades to come. It is not enough to say that Johnson was unfit for office. Stewart realizes this and details the nefarious policies which Johnson advocated. In time they would come to be viewed as the end of the legacy of Lincoln and an insult to those who truly believe that all men are created equal. Further, we come to learn about the personal side of Johnson or lack of it. Generally viewed as cold and rarely in good spirits, Johnson comes off as vindictive and in some cases delusional and out of his mind. Actions such as circumventing Congress to deal directly with southern states, vetoing the Reconstruction Acts and Civil rights bill of Lyman Trumbull (1813-1896), are just several of many that earned Johnson the wrath of many Americans. But his attempted removal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814-1869) was the straw that broke the camel’s back and resulted in the Radical Republicans commencing impeachment proceedings against the despised President.
The impeachment trial is one of the best parts of the book. Johnson came extremely close to impeachment from office, saved only by one vote. Stewart revisits the trial and the events leading up to the trial as each Senator mulls over which way he will vote in deciding Johnson’s fate. For some of them, we see why they voted in the way that they did and for others, the question remains, did they really feel that way or were the allegations of bribery true? It may seem shocking to some to even think that bribery occurred. And while Stewart does not convict anyone with his words, he examines the evidence available reaching a quite startling conclusion.
Today it would be fair to say that the Civil War still haunts America. In the south, it is sometimes referred to as the war of “Northern aggression”. The tearing down of Confederate monuments and the tragedy in Charlottesville remind us of the struggle we continue to deal with in confronting the war that divided our nation. Reconstruction can been seen as a missed opportunity in American history. Millions of freed slaves and White Americans had their lives changed permanently by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Confederacy’s defeat. Congress realizing the opportunity before it, attempted to seize the opportunity but was confronted by a President deeply prejudiced and intent on maintaining the social structure of the south. His efforts would eventually come to pass in the system of Jim Crow that took decades and a Civil Rights Movement to finally defeat. We can only guess what would have happened if Johnson had not only complied but encouraged Congress to pass more legislation to move the nation forward after a brutal conflict and protected the lives of newly freed and disenfranchised Americans.
America now finds itself at a crossroad as we grapple with a political climate that borders on surreal at times. But regardless of what happens, America will survive as it always has. But while we continue to maintain the nation that we have, it is imperative that we do not forget the dark legacy of Andrew Johnson and remember why it is imperative to have a President that is able to unify us all and serve each and every citizen of the United States of America. Stewart’s book is an excellent place to start in understanding the rise and fall of Andrew Johnson.
On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth changed the course of United History. The murder of Abraham Lincoln marked the first time a sitting U.S. President had been slain by an assassin. Tragically, Lincoln would not be the last to be assassinated. John F. Kennedy would meet his tragic fate on the streets of Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Lincoln’s murder has become fodder for conspiracy theorist intent on proving that a web of deceit surrounded Lincoln paving the way for the tyrannical Booth to execute his plan. But just how much of a conspiracy was there? And did it involve members of the Confederacy? Was Edward Stanton complicit in pulling back Lincoln’s security detail? And was Mary Surratt rightfully convicted? Edward Steers, through painstaking research answers those questions and more in what is the definitive examination of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
By all accounts, the general consensus is that John Wilkes Booth committed the murder and then jumped to the stage breaking a bone in his left leg in the process. His declaration of “Sic semper tyrannis” remains some of the most remembered and chilling words ever recorded in American history. Nearly two weeks later he was shot and killed by Sgt. Boston Corbett in a barn at the Garrett farmhouse. Nearly four years would pass before Booth’s body was returned to his family for internment at Green Mount Cemetery Baltimore, MD, where it continues to rest today. But with any famous murder, rumors, suspicion and misinformation arise leading to false conclusions and even more unanswered questions. Drawing on statements by those with first hand knowledge of the crime as a witness or subsequent participant and government documents, Steers has masterfully reconstructed the events leading up to the murder, the night itself and the aftermath that followed. And what is revealed, may change the way you look at an event that had a profound impact on a nation and helped shape the modern-day United States.
The facts of the murder and grisly details are scenery for those seeking gory bits of information. But the key to viewing Lincoln’s murder lies in the reasons behind the venom that consumed Booth and his conspirators. The Civil War in all of its ugliness, serves a predicate for the murder and in this book we are shown the treasonous acts carried out by members of the Confederacy as the Union neared closer to forcing it into submission. Lincoln, the Republican star,is seen by many in the south as a deadly threat to the system of slave labor. He forever changed the course of America with the emancipation of slaves, striking a severe blow to the southern way of life. However, sympathetic supporters could be found throughout the country even in the north and it is among these groups of individuals that Booth is able to form his nexus of assassins. And had the full plan been carried out, perhaps Steers would have been forced to write even more about the events of that night.
Many years have passed since Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth took their last breaths. Their secrets went with them to the grave with each having never written a full autobiography. The two had never met before that night yet they are joined in death from a critical moment in time which remains with us today. While the possibility of more unknown accomplices does exist, Steers has put to rest many unfounded rumors that serve to detract from the true story. And doing so, he has given us a gift in the form of a book that does the most efficient job of telling us what happened on that tragic night. It is often said that hindsight is always 20/20. In this case, it’s not only 20/20 but beyond crystal clear.