Congress used this controversial law as the legal basis for its impeachment case against President Andrew Johnson in 1868. Seeking to limit his power to interfere with Radical (or even moderate) Reconstruction in the South, Congress passed it on March 2, 1867. The bill prohibited the president from removing officials appointed by and with the advice of the Senate without senatorial approval.
In theory, the Tenure Act was to protect low-level patronage appointees. In practice, it was to shield members of Johnson’s cabinet who disagreed with him over Reconstruction-especially Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who was closely tied to the Radical Republicans. When Johnson tried to oust Stanton in favor of General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant, the Senate disapproved of the president’s actions, and when Johnson sought to replace Stanton with Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, the House impeached him. Nine of the eleven impeachment articles cited Johnson’s removal of Stanton and appointment of Thomas. For the impeachers, the problem was the Tenure Act’s murkiness: whether Stanton was protected was unclear. He had been a Lincoln appointee who simply remained in office, without being formally appointed, after Johnson became president. In any event, the effort to remove Johnson from office failed by one vote.
In 1878 the act initially prevented President Rutherford B. Hayes, as part of his effort at civil service reform, from removing Chester A. Arthur and Alonzo B. Cornell from their political patronage jobs at the New York customhouse. Eventually, with Democratic help in Congress, he circumvented the act and secured confirmation of his own appointments.
The Tenure of Office Act was repealed in 1887 after President Grover Cleveland challenged its constitutionality: the president, he said, had the sole power to remove appointees from office. The independence of the executive branch was thereby strengthened.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.