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Impeachment is somber moment for American public

A last resort of punishment

Merdies Hayes | 11/7/2019, midnight

Impeachment has been generally reserved as a last resort of punishment for a sitting U.S. president who has demonstrated behavior rising to “high crimes and misdemeanors” while in office. There have been two presidents who have been formally impeached, another where impeachment was clearly imminent, and other cases where official complaints of malfeasance have been lodged, but no official congressional action taken.

John Tyler in 1842 was the first president to face a call for impeachment. In assuming the presidency after William Henry Harrison who died of pneumonia after serving just one month in office, Tyler was unpopular even among his own Whig Party (forerunner to the Republican Party). A Virginia congressman, John Botts, submitted a petition for Tyler’s impeachment in requesting an investigation of charges of misconduct based on the fact that it was believed Tyler was vetoing too many bills passed by Congress.

Things came to a head when Tyler vetoed a major tariff bill with Botts claiming that Tyler was abusing his power of the veto to “gratify personal and political resentment.” Botts’ call for impeachment was sent to the House Judiciary Committee who refused to hold hearings on the accusations.

In February 1868, something extraordinary happened in Congress. For the first time in history, the House of Representatives impeached a sitting president in Andrew Johnson. Johnson assumed the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. While Johnson, from Tennessee, was a staunch supporter of the Union Army during the Civil War, he was, to his heart, a Southerner. His roots were in the South.

“This is a country for White men,” he had frequently declared, “and as long as I live, it shall be a government for White men.”

Even as Lincoln’s running mate, Johnson never really won favor with the Radical Republicans, whose membership included men like Thaddeus Stevens and Benjamin Butler who wanted to guarantee the rights of the freedmen. One way to accomplish this was to pass the Reconstruction Laws that provided suffrage and civil rights standards to freed slaves, and also to prevent former Southern rebels from regaining control of their state governments.

In believing the Reconstruction Acts to be wrong and unconstitutional, Johnson repeatedly blocked their enforcement. He often gave pardons to ex-rebels. He hampered military commanders’ efforts to block the rise of Southern leaders to power. In frequent speeches and interviews, Johnson publicly expressed his defiance of the Radical Republicans.

The final blow came after the passage of the Tenure of Office Act in 1867. This law made it impossible for the president to dismiss important government officials without the permission of the Senate. In a move that infuriated the House, Johnson defied the act.

Johnson had long wanted to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who was the only member of Johnson’s cabinet who supported the Radical Republican agenda for Reconstruction.

Angered by Johnson’s open defiance, the House of Representatives formally impeached him in February 1868 by a vote of 126-47. They charged him with violation of the Tenure of Office Act, and bringing into “disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt, and reproach of Congress.”