On this day in 1868, the U.S. Senate continues to hear impeachment charges against President Andrew Johnson. The trial, convened by the Senate on March 5, focused on issues surrounding Johnson’s post-Civil War Reconstruction policy and, more specifically, his firing of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
Johnson became the first president to be impeached by the House of Representatives when, in February 1868, the Republican-controlled House charged the Democrat Johnson with 11 articles of impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” (By comparison, in 1998, President Bill Clinton was charged with two articles of impeachment for obstruction of justice during an investigation into a sex scandal. In 1974, Nixon faced three charges for his alleged involvement in the Watergate burglary cover-up.)
Johnson had earned the ire of Congress for his staunch resistance to implementing its Civil War reconstruction policies. At that time, the War Department was the federal agency responsible for carrying out reconstruction programs in the war-ravaged southern states and when Johnson fired Stanton, the agency’s head, the House retaliated with calls for his impeachment.
The 11 counts of impeachment included illegally removing the secretary of war from office and violating several Congressional reconstruction acts. The House also accused the president of engaging in libelous “inflammatory and scandalous harangues” against Congressional members whom he called “traitors.” On February 24, the House passed all 11 articles of impeachment, which moved the process to its next phase in the Senate.
The Senate trial lasted until May 26, 1868. Johnson did not attend any of the proceedings and was not required to do so. As aides reported to him on the progress of the trial, he learned that one swing vote was needed to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to impeach him. Kansas Senator Edmund Ross, a Republican, remained silent during the trial and refused to indicate how he would vote. Finally, on May 26, Ross cast the deciding vote to acquit Johnson. Johnson finished out his term, returning to politics to serve in the Senate briefly in 1875, before dying of a stroke later that year.
Presidents Johnson and Clinton are the only presidents for whom the impeachment process went as far as a Senate trial; Nixon resigned in 1974 before the House could vote on impeachment. Like Johnson, Clinton was acquitted in 1999.