Now that Democrats have advanced their impeachment inquiry through a sharply divided House of Representatives, Donald Trump could be on track to become the third US president to face such ignominy.
The first was Andrew Johnson (followed by Bill Clinton). Much like Trump, Johnson fanned racial discord, heaped scorn on opponents, and sought to scuttle key achievements of his predecessor.
Here is a primer on Johnson, the nation’s 17th president.
■ Early life: Johnson was born in 1808 in Raleigh, N.C., and grew up in poverty after the death of his father. Lacking a formal education, he was apprenticed to a tailor at age 14 but ran away. He opened a tailor shop in Greeneville, Tenn. Johnson hired a man to read to him while he worked with needle and thread. Two subjects he took to heart: some of the world’s great speeches and the US Constitution.
At 18, he married 16-year-old Eliza McCardle, who taught him to read and write more fluently and do arithmetic.
■Rise in politics: Johnson, a Democrat, served in local and state offices in Tennessee before rising to serve in the US House of Representatives. When he was elected to the US Senate in 1856, he spoke up for states’ rights and opposed anti-slavery agitation. (He ultimately owned 10 slaves.) But after Lincoln’s became president in 1860, Johnson broke with his party to vehemently opposed Southern secession.
When Tennessee seceded in June 1861, Johnson remained loyal to the Union. Reflecting poor whites’ resentment toward the landed gentry of the South, he explained: “Damn the negroes, I am fighting those traitorous aristocrats, their masters.”
Abraham Lincoln named him military governor of secessionist Tennessee in 1862, and in the spirit of national reconciliation, chose Johnson as his running mate in 1864. He had served as vice president just 42 days when Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865.
■ Impeactment: Friction grew steadily between Johnson, who contended blacks were incapable of self-government, and many of the Republicans who controlled Congress and favored extending voting rights to blacks. He repeatedly pardoned former Rebels. Tensions peaked in 1868 after Johnson fired War Secretary Edwin Stanton.
On Feb. 24, 1868, the House voted along party lines, 126 to 47, to impeach Johnson for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Most of the articles of impeachment accused him of violating the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited the president from removing, without Senate approval, any official who had been appointed to office “with the advice and consent of the Senate.”
But many opponents believed Johnson’s true crime was that he sought to maintain white supremacy in the South and the institutions that went with it.
The ensuing trial in the US Senate riveted the nation. On May 16, the Senate failed to convict Johnson on one of the articles, with the 35–19 vote in favor of conviction falling short of the necessary two-thirds majority by a single vote. And on May 26, the Senate failed to convict the president on two articles, both by the same margin. The trial was adjourned.
■ Aftermath and legacy: In 1875, Johnson was elected to another term in the US Senate and declared he had been vindicated. But he died of a stroke that July. A copy of the Constitution was buried with him, according to his wishes.
Many historians believe Johnson’s obstruction of political and civil rights for blacks is principally responsible for the failure of Reconstruction to solve the race problem in the South and perhaps, by extension, in America.Sources: News reports, the Washington Post, Encyclopedia Britannica, Smithsonian Magazine, and the UVA Miller Center of Public Affairs.