One of the most conspicuous attempts in the United States to circumvent the intent of the Constitution’s framers took place in 1868, when the Radical Republicans in control of the House of Representatives impeached Pres. Andrew Johnson in an obvious attack on the federal system of checks and balances. Johnson and Congress became adversaries soon after he took office in April 1865. The president, a Southerner, was more sympathetic toward the defeated Confederacy than was the Radical Republican majority in Congress. The obstinate Johnson affronted congressmen already displeased by the growth of presidential power that had taken place during the Civil War. The Radicals passed the Tenure of Office Act, forbidding a president from removing, without Senate approval, any official whose nomination had been subject to Senate approval. Johnson believed the act to be unconstitutional. Knowing that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was in effect a Radical “spy,” Johnson dismissed him without seeking Senate approval. Stanton refused to give up his office. The Radicals won adoption, 126 to 47, of an impeachment resolution in the House even before attempting to frame formal charges.
Eleven articles of impeachment were submitted to the Senate. Eight related to Johnson’s attempt to remove Stanton. Another charged in part that Johnson had criticized Congress “in a loud voice.” The charges had no substancethe Radicals sought Johnson’s removal for political reasons (as acknowledged by Republican senator Charles Sumner: “This proceeding is political in character with a political object”). The trial lasted from March to May 1868. Chief Justice Chase presided. The president did not attend, but he was represented by able counsel. The defense stressed that presidents had long asserted the right to remove appointees and that Johnson, in removing Stanton, had sought to test the Tenure of Office Act in the courts. In its first vote the Senate divided, 35 to 19, in favor of conviction, 1 vote short of the required two-thirds. Ten days later, after votes on two more articles fell short by the same margin, the Radicals abandoned their efforts.