As I look back now over the vista of the years that have come and gone, it seems to me that I entered the Lower House of Congress just at the beginning of the most important period in all our history. The great President had been assassinated; the war was over; Andrew Johnson, a Union Democrat, was President of the United States. Reconstruction was the problem which confronted us, how to heal up the nation's wounds and remake a Union which would endure for all time to come. These were the difficult conditions that had to be dealt with by the Thirty-ninth Congress.
Andrew Johnson was the queerest character that ever occupied the White House, and, with the exception of Lincoln only, he entered it under the most trying and difficult circumstances in all our history; but Lincoln had, what Johnson lacked, the support and confidence of the great Republican party. Johnson was never a Republican, and never pretended to be one. He was a lifelong Democrat, and a slaveholder as well; but he was loyal to the Union, no man living more so. As a Senator from Tennessee, alone of all the Southern Senators he faced his colleagues from the South in denouncing secession as treason. His subsequent phenomenal course in armed opposition to the Rebellion brought about his nomination for the Vice-Presidency as a shrewd stroke to secure the support of the War Democrats of the North and the Union men of his State and section. . . .
The scene which took place in the Senate chamber when Johnson was inducted into office as Vice-President; the exhibition he made of himself at the time of taking the oath of office, in the presence of the President of the United States, and the representatives of the governments of the world2all this, advertised at the time in the opposition press, added to the prejudice against Johnson in the North and made his position more trying and difficult.
There were two striking points in Johnson's character, and I knew him well: first, his loyalty to the Union; and, second, his utter fearlessness of character. He could not be cowed; old Ben Wade, Sumner, Stevens, all the great leaders of that day could not, through fear, influence him one particle.
In 1861, when he was being made the target of all sorts of threats on account of his solitary stand against secession in the Senate, he let fall this characteristic utterance: "I want to say, not boastingly, with no anger in my bosom, that these two ey es of mine have never looked upon anything in the shape of mortal man that this heart has feared." This utterance probably illustrates Johnson's character more clearly than anything that I could say. He sought rather than avoided a fight. Headstrong, domineering, having fought his way in a State filled with aristocratic Southerners, from the class of so-called "low whites" to the highest position in the United States, he did not readily yield to the dictates of the dominating forces in Congress.
Lincoln had a well-defined policy of reconstruction. Indeed, so liberal was he disposed to be in his treatment of the Southern States, that immediately after the surrender of Richmond he would have recognized the old State Government of Virginia had it not been for the peremptory veto of Stanton. Congress was not in session when Johnson came to the Presidency in April, 1865. To do him no more than simple justice, I firmly believe that he wanted to follow out, in reconstruction, what he thought was the policy of Mr. Lincoln, and in this he was guided largely by the advice of Mr. Seward.
But there was this difference. Johnson was, probably in good faith, pursuing the Lincoln policy of reconstruction; but when the legislatures and executives of the Southern States began openly passing laws and executing them so that the negro was substantially placed back into slavery, practically nullifying the results of the awful struggle, the untold loss of life and treasure, Mr. Lincoln certainly would have receded and would have dealt with the South with an iron hand, as Congress had determined to do, and as General Grant was compelled to do when he assumed the Presidency.
From April to the reassembling of Congress in December, Johnson had a free hand in dealing with the seceding States, and he was not slow to take advantage of it. He seemed disposed to recognize the old State governments; to restrict the suffrage to the whites; to exercise freely the pardoning power in the way of extending executive clemency not only to almost all classes, but to every individual who would apply for it. The result was, it seemed to be certain that if the Johnson policy were carried out to the fullest extent, the supremacy of the Republican party in the councils of the nation would be at stake.
To express it in a word, the motive of the opposition to the Johnson plan of reconstruction was the firm conviction that its success would wreck the Republican party, and by restoring the Democrats to power bring back Southern supremacy and Northern vassalage. The impeachment, in a word, was a culmination of the struggle between the legislative and the executive departments of the Government over the problem of reconstruction. The legislative department claimed exclusive jurisdiction over reconstruction; the executive claimed that it alone was competent to deal with the subject.
This is a very brief summary of the conditions which confronted us when I entered the Thirty-ninth Congress. Representatives of the eleven seceding States were there to claim their seats in Congress. The Republican members met in caucus the Saturday evening preceding the meeting of Congress on Monday. I, as a member-elect, was present, and I remember how old Thaddeus Stevens at once assumed the dominating control in opposition to the President's plan. Stevens was a most remarkable characterone of the most remarkable in the legislative history of the United States. He believed firmly in negro equality and negro suffrage. As one writer eloquently expresses it:
"According to his creed, the insurgent States were conquered provinces to be shaped into a paradise for the freedman and a hell for the rebel. His eye shot over the blackened southern land; he saw the carnage, the desolation, the starvation, and the shame; and like a battered old warhorse, he flung up his frontlet, sniffed the tainted breeze, and snorted 'Ha, Ha!'"
It was at once determined by the Republican majority in Congress that the representatives of the eleven seceding States should not be admitted. The Constitution expressly gives to the House and Senate the exclusive power to judge of the admission and qualification of its own members.
We were surprized at the moderation of the President's message, which came in on Tuesday after Congress assembled. In tone and general character the message was wholly unlike Johnson. It was an admirable state document, one of the finest from a literary and probably from every other standpoint that ever came from an executive to Congress. It was thought at the time that Mr. Seward wrote it, but it has since been asserted that it was the product of that foremost of American historians, J. C. Bancroft,3 one of Mr. Johnson's close personal friends.
There existed three theories of dealing with the Southern States; one was the President's theory of recognizing the State governments, allowing the States to deal with the suffrage question as they might see fit; the Stevens policy of wiping out all State lines and dealing with the regions as conquered military provinces; and the Sumner theory of treating them as organized territories, recognizing the State lines. . . .
Aside from the worst radicals, the message pleased every one, the country at large and the majority in Congress; and there was a general disposition to give the President a reasonably free hand in working out his plan of reconstruction. But as I stated, the legislatures of the Southern States and their executives assumed so domineering an attitude, practically wiping out the results of the war, that the Republican majority in Congress assumed it to be its duty to take control from the Executive.
What determined Johnson in his course, I do not know. It was thought that he would be a radical of radicals. Being of the "poor white" class, he may have been flattered by the attentions showered on him by the old Southern aristocrats. Writers of this period have frequently given that as a reason. My own belief has been that he was far too strong a man to be governed in so vital a matter by so trivial a cause. My conviction is that the radical Republican leaders in the House were right; that he believed in the old Democratic party, aside from his loyalty to the Union; and was a Democrat determined to turn the Government over to the Democratic party, reconstructed on a Union basis.
I can not undertake to go into all the long details of that memorable struggle. As I look back over the history of it now, it seems to me to bear a close resemblance to the beginning of the French Revolution, to the struggle between the States General of France and Louis XVI. Might we not, if things had turned differently, drifted into chaos and revolution? If Johnson had been impeached and refused to submit, adopting the same tactics as did Stanton in retaining the War Department; had Ben Wade taken the oath of office and demanded possession, Heaven only knows what might have been the result.
But reminiscing in this way, as I can not avoid doing when I think back over those terrible times, I lose the continuity of my subject. An extension to the Freedman's Bureau bill was passed, was promptly vetoed by the executive, the veto was as promptly overruled by the House, where there was no substantial opposition, but the Senate failed to pass the bill, the veto of the President to the contrary notwithstanding.
I had not the remotest idea that Johnson would dare to veto the Freedman's Bureau bill,4 and I made a speech on the subject, declaring a firm conviction to that effect. A veto at that time was almost unheard of. Except during the administration of Tyler, no important bill had ever been vetoed by an executive. It came as a shock to Congress and the country. Excitement reigned supreme. The question was: "Should the bill pass the veto of the President regardless thereof?"
Not the slightest difficulty existed in the House; Thaddeus Stevens had too complete control of that body to allow any question concerning it there. The bill, therefore, was promptly passed over the veto of the President. But the situation in the Senate was different. At that time the Sumner-Wade radical element did not have the necessary two-thirds majority, and the bill failed to pass over the veto of the President. The war between the executive and legislative departments of the Government had fairly commenced, and the first victory had been won by the President.
The Civil Rights bill, drawn and introduced by Judge Trumbull, than whom there was no greater lawyer in the United States Senate, in January, 1866, on the reassembling of Congress, was passed. Then began the real struggle on the part of the radicals in the Senate, headed by Sumner and Wade, to muster the necessary two-thirds majority to pass a bill over the veto of the President.
Let me digress here to say a word in reference to Charles Sumner. For ten years he was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate, and no man, by education, experience, knowledge of world politics, and travel, was ever more fitted to occupy that high position. He was one of the most cultivated men of his day, a radical, and filled one of the most important places in the history of his time. When he entered the Senate, the South dominated this Government; the great triumvirate, Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, had just passed. The day he entered, Clay for the last time, feeble, emaciated, appeared on the Senate floor. Compromise was the word, and the Southerners so dominated that it was considered treason to mention the slavery question. Charles Sumner was an Abolitionist; he was not afraid, and at the very first oportunity he took the floor and denounced the institution in no unmeasured terms. Chase and Seward were present that day, and quickly followed Sumner's lead. Seward, however, was far more conservative than either Sumner or Chase.
It was the mission of Charles Sumner to awake the public conscience to the horrors of slavery. He performed his duty unfalteringly, and it almost cost him his life. Mr. Lincoln was the only man living who ever managed Charles Sumner, or could use him for his purpose. Sumner's end has always seemed to me most pitiful. Removed from his high position as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, followed relentlessly by the enmity of President Grant, then at the very acme of his fame; drifting from the Republican party, his own State repudiating him, Charles Sumner died of a broken heart.
But to return to the struggle between the President and Congress. Trumbull, Sumner, Wade, and the leaders were bound in one way or another to get the necessary two-thirds. The vote was taken in the Senate: "Shall the Civil Rights bill pass the veto of the President to the contrary notwithstanding?" It was understood the vote would be very close, and the result uncertain.
The excitement was intense. The galleries were crowded; members of the House were on the Senate floor. The result seemed to depend entirely on the vote of Senator Morgan, of New York, and he seemed to be irresolute, uncertain in his own mind which way he would vote. The call of the roll proceeded. When his name was reached there was profound silence. He first voted nay, and then immediately changed to yea. A wonderful demonstration burst forth, as it was then known that the bill would pass over the veto of the President, and that the Republican party in Congress at last had complete control. Senator Trumbull made a remarkable speech on that occasion, and I was never prouder of any living man.
So the struggle went on from day to day and year to year, growing all the time more intense. I have always been disposed to be conservative; I was then; and it was with profound regret that I saw the feeling between the President and Congress becoming more and more strained.
I disliked to follow the extreme radical element, and when the row was at its height, Judge Orth, a colleague in the House from Indiana, and I concluded to go and see the President and advise with him, in an attempt to smooth over the differences. I will never forget that interview. It was at night. He recived us politely enough, and without mincing any words he gave us to understand that we were on a fool's errand and that he would not yield. We went away, and naturally joined the extreme radicals in the House, always voting with them afterward.
The row continued in the Fortieth Congress. Bills were passed, promptly vetoed, and the bills immediately passed over the President's veto. Many of the bills were not only unwise legislation, but were unconstitutional as well. We passed the Tenure of Office bill; we attempted to restrict the President's pardoning power; and as I look back over the history of the period, it seems to me that we did not have the slightest regard for the Constitution. Some of President Johnson's veto messages were admirable. He had the advice and assistance of one of the ablest lawyers of his day, Jeremiah Black.5
To make the feeling more intense, just about this time Johnson made his famous "swing around the circle," as it was termed. His speeches published in the opposition press were intemperate and extreme. He denounced Congress. He threatened to "kick people out of office," in violation of the Tenure of Office act. He was undignified in his actions and language, and many people thought he was intoxicated most of the time, altho I do not believe this.
The radicals in both the House and Senate determined that he should be impeached and removed from office. They had the votes in the House easily, and they thought they could muster the necessary number in the Senate, as we had been passing all sorts of legislation over the President's veto. When the subject was up, I was doubtful, and I really believe, strong Republican that I was, that had it not been for Judge Trumbull I would have voted against the impeachment articles. I advised with the judge, for whom I had profound respect. I visited him at his house. I explained to him my doubts, and I recall very clearly the expression he used in reply. He said: "Johnson is an obstruction to the Government, and should be removed." Judge Trumbull himself changed afterward much to the astonishment of every one, and denounced the impeachment proceding as unworthy of a justice of the peace court.
It seems to me difficult to realize that it was as far back as March 2, 1868, that I addrest the House in favor of the impeachment articles. I think I made a pretty good speech on that occasion and supported my position very well. I took rather an extreme view in favor of the predominance of the legislative department of the Government, contending that the executive and judiciary departments of the Government, while they are finally responsible to the people, are directly accountable to the legislative department.
The first and principal article in the impeachment proposed by the House was the President's issuance of an order removing Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War, he having been duly appointed and commissioned by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, and the Senate having been in session at the time of his removal. I contended then, on the floor of the House, that such a removal was a violation of the Constitution, and could not be excused on any pretext whatever, in addition to being a direct violation of the Tenure of Office act.
I do not intend to go into the details of the various articles proposed by the House; suffice it to say that they were mainly based on the attempted removal of Mr. Stanton, and the appointment of Mr. Thomas6 as Secretary of War. . . .
Needless for me to say, that as the subject continued feeling remained at a high pitch in the House. It was debated from day to day. Stevens was urging the impeachment with all the force at his command; some were doubtful and holding back, as I was; some changedfor instance, James G. Blaine, who was taunted by Stevens and sneered at for his change of front.
Under the law then existing the President of the Senate succeeded a Vice-President who became, by the death or removal of the President, President of the United States. The radicals in complete controland I have no doubt that Stevens had a hand in itelected the most radical of their number as President of the SenateBen Wade, of Ohio. Johnson removed, Wade would have been President, and the extreme radicals would have been in supreme control of the legislative and executive departments of the Government.
This condition is what made Mr. Blaine hesitate. He told me on one occasion: "Johnson in the White House is bad enough, but we know what we have; Lord knows what we would get with old Ben Wade there. I do not know but I would rather trust Johnson than Wade." But in the end Blaine supported the impeachment articles, just as I did, and as Senator Allison and other somewhat conservative members did, all feeling at the same time not a little doubtful of our course.
Stevens, Logan, Boutwell, Williams, and Wilson were appointed managers on the part of the House, and solemnly and officially notified the Senate of the action of the House in impeaching the President of the United States. The Senate proceeded without long delay to resolve itself as a High Court of Impeachment, for the purpose of trying the President of the United States for high crimes and misdemeanors. The most eminent counsel of the nation were engaged. Mr. Evarts was President Johnson's principal counsel. He was ably assisted by lawyers of scarcely less renown.
The trial dragged along from day to day. Part of the time the Senate considered the matter in executive session. The corridors were crowded; and I remember with what astonishment we heard that Judge Trumbull had taken the floor denouncing the proceding as unworthy of a justice of the peace court. The Illinois delegation held a meeting, and Logan, Farnsworth, and Washburne urged that we unite in a letter to Judge Trumbull, with a view to influencing his vote for conviction, or of inducing him to withhold his vote if he could not vote for conviction. A number of our delegation opposed it, and the letter was not sent.
I do not think that it would have made the slightest effect on Judge Trumbull had we sent it. All sorts of coercing methods were used to influence wavering Senators. Old Bob Schenck7 was the chairman of this movement, and he sent telegrams broadcast all over the United States to the effect that there was great danger to the peace of the country and the Republican cause if impeachment failed, and asking the recipients to send to their Senators public opinion by resolutions and delegations. And responses came from all over the North, urging and demanding the impeachment of the President.
It is difficult now to realize the intense excitement of that period. General Grant was there, tacitly acknowledged as the next nominee of the Republican party for the Presidency. He took no active part, but it was pretty well understood, from the position of his friends such as Logan and Washburne, that the impeachment had his sympathy; and in the Senate Conkling was especially vindictive. Grimes, Fessenden, and Trumbull led the fight for acquittal. Many were non-committal; but in the end the struggle turned on the one doubtful Senator, Edmund G. Ross of Kansas.
It was determined to vote on the tenth article first, as that article was the strongest one and more votes could be mustered for it than any other. It was well understood that the vote on that article would settle the matter.
More than forty-three years have passed into history since that memorable day when the Senate of the United States was sitting as a Court of Impeachment for the purpose of trying the President of the United States for high crimes and misdemeanors. The occasion is unforgettable. As I look back now, I see arising before me the forms and features of the great men who were sitting in that high court: I see presiding Chief Justice Chase; I see Sumner, cold and dignified; Wade, Trumbull, Hendricks, Conkling, Yates; I see Logan as one of the managers on the part of the House; I see old Thad Stevens, weak and wasted from illness, being carried inall long since have passed to the beyond, the accused President, the members of the high court, the counsel. Of all the eminent men who were present on that day, aside from the Hon. J. B. Henderson, I do not know of a single one now living.
As the roll was called, there was such a solemn hush as only comes when man stands in the presence of Deity. Finally, when the name of Ross was reached and he voted "No"; when it was understood that his vote meant acquittal, the friends of the President in the galleries thundered forth in applause. And thus ended for the first, and I hope the last, time the trial of a President of the United States before the Senate, sitting as a Court of Impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors.
1 From Senator Cullom's "Fifty Years of Public Service." By permission of the publishers, A. C. McClurg & Co. Copyright, 1910.
2 Senator Cullom says he has a "particularly vivid recollection of the scene"; that it was plain to every one that Johnson was intoxicated; that he delivered "a rambling, senseless speech," and had to be interrupted with a request to take his oath of office, and that thus the painful scene was terminated.
3 Senator Cullom refers here to George Bancroft. His error as to the initials seems to have risen from a confusion of George Bancroft with the eminent American diplomat of the same and later periodJ. C. Bancroft Davis.
4 The Freedman's Bureau, established in 1865, was a bureau of the War Department having supervision of lands that had been abandoned during the war, and, of refugee freedmen, etc. Within its operations came the affairs of some 2,500,000 persons who had been driven from their homes during the war.
5 Jeremiah S. Black had been Attorney-General of the United States from 1857 to 1860, and Secretary of State from 1860 to 1861.
6 General Lorenzo Thomas is here referred to. He had been Scott's chief of staff in the Mexican War, and Adjutant-General in the Civil War.
7 General Robert C. Schenck, who had served in the war, becoming a Major-General, and was Minister to Great Britain from 1871 to 1876.