Friday, May 17, 2019
When we talk about whether to impeach President Trump, we cite the near impeachment of Richard Nixon or the actual prosecution of Bill Clinton. Oddly, though, we don't talk much about the first-ever presidential impeachment, which very nearly succeeded in removing Andrew Johnson from office. In the spring of 1868, his impeachment trial was the hottest thing in town. Walt Whitman often sat in the Senate gallery, and Anthony Trollope finagled a seat when he visited Washington. Men and women lucky enough to receive a color-coded ticket -- a different color for each day's hearing -- handed it to uniformed Capitol police officers, who checked them for explosives before they were allowed to enter the building. Reporters pushed into the Senate gallery, furiously scribbling, and newsboys shouted the latest on Washington streets.
Of course, the impeachment of President Johnson took place in the aftermath of a brutal war, a presidential assassination, and the struggle not just to end slavery but also to create a fair, equal and just republic. Many of Lincoln's fellow Republicans had initially assumed that Johnson, although a Southern Democrat, would help heal the country and eradicate the pernicious, lingering effects of slavery. Otherwise, as Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania warned, white supremacy "will germinate and produce the same bloody strife which has just ended."
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