The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation by Brenda Wineapple Random House, New York, December, 2019
Books that examine a big historical incident are frequently about current events as much as they are about the past. The title of this book couldn’t be more contemporary. As the news is daily filled with the impeachment of Donald Trump, a look back at the first impeachment is certainly topical for our times. Does the impeachment of Andrew Johnson hold clues for the current actions of the House and Senate?
Brenda Wineapple doesn’t waste any time getting into the either the meat of the issue or the concerns Congress needed to address. Starting out with the actions of President Johnson after the assassination of President Lincoln, Wineapple really shines as she lays out the actions of Johnson to redirect Reconstruction away from Congress and into the Executive branch. The reader is left with no doubt why Congress felt they had to exercise their impeachment rights. It wasn’t only his actions that had to be contended with, however.
As Congress waded into the first impeachment and trial to remove a sitting president they struggled with the meaning of high crimes and misdemeanors and how the House would face the investigation, presentation, and referral of the articles of impeachment to the Senate. No actions taken by previous presidents had risen to the level Congress chose to examine as high crimes and misdemeanors. Wineapple is in her element in this portion of the book. She handles the specific actions of President Johnson and the counteractions of Congress to check his power with the clarity of a lawyer in court. Readers will emerge from this first section of the book with a clear understanding of both the actions of each party and how Congress attempted to use their coequal power to direct the readmission of rebellious states back into full participation in the government. She is also very clear that without a concrete and specific plan for readmission, the battles and lives of soldiers were in vain after the surrender at Appomattox. Congress’ insisted that adherence to the 13th Amendment and acceptance of the 14th Amendment were among the top conditions for readmission. The President’s contrary views and actions on the subject are also clearly laid out.
Actions in Memphis and New Orleans that resulted from the Presidents executive orders while Congress was on recess take center stage as part of this book. Wineapple’s skills as a writer are on display as the tension build and the two sides careen toward a showdown. Who will control reconstruction and the readmission of the states back into the Union?
The next section of the book involves the way the House managed the trial and the reception in the Senate. Focusing on brief biographies of the main players in the House and Senate, she attempts to drive the narrative by explaining what may have happened and the reveal the outcome. Of course, we already know the results of the Senate trial. Perhaps this is why the second section is a little flat.
The last section of the book addresses the aftermath of the impeachment and trial. I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say Andrew Johnson briefly returns to the government as a Senator. Wineapple also uses this section to wrap everything up. This is where I expected to read her insights about impeachment: the nature of the proceedings and the lessons learned about this extreme step allowed by the Constitution but fraught with peril. I had also expected her to act as judge and make a decision or at least give some insight about the incident. Did the President overstep his authority or was this just politics? What do we know as a result of these proceedings that we didn’t know before hand?
It seemed to me the deeper into the book I waded I was less engaged in the text. While I was very curious about the first impeachment of a sitting president, I was also hopeful I would emerge with a better understanding. But alas, it was not to be.
Anyone who would like additional background about impeachment and the actions that might cause Congress to challenge a sitting president in this manner will gain some insight from The Impeachers. However, if you’re looking for insight into the line between politics and high crimes and misdemeanors, you may be disappointed. Almost like it was three different books, the first section is well written, well laid out, and very engaging. The second section loses steam but many readers will enjoy the mini biographies and layout of the trial. I found the conclusion disappointing.