In 1868, President Andrew Johnson was convicted by the U.S. Senate in his impeachment trial, becoming the first president of the United States to be removed from office.
Andrew Johnson Removed from OfficeThe outcome hinged on a single vote, that of Sen. Edmund Ross of Kansas, who had said nothing through the entire trial up to that point. Ross had been subjected to intense pressure by both sides as the importance of his swing vote became clear; it would be claimed, in fact, that pro-Johnson forces had actually tried to buy his vote along with those of other wavering senators.
Forced to step down, Johnson was publicly gracious. "The Senate has spoken, in accordance with the Constitution," he said in his farewell address the following day. "Although I continue to maintain myself to have been in the right and to have acted within the bounds of my lawful powers throughout, I must honor its decision in the name of that principle, that ours is a nation of laws and not of men, upon which the legitimacy of that government depends". Privately, he was far less temperate, raging to family and friends that he had been "overthrown" by a "bloody cabal of radical Republicans seeking to stamp upon the throats of our vanquished Southern brethren in the name of their foolish dreams of Negro equality with the white race".
"[I have been] overthrown by a bloody cabal of radical Republicans seeking to stamp upon the throats of our vanquished Southern brethren in the name of their foolish dreams of Negro equality with the white race". ~ Andrew JohnsonAs Johnson had never named a vice-president to fill the slot from which President Abraham Lincoln's assassination had elevated him in April 1865, Sen. Ross's fellow Kansan, Sen. Benjamin Wade, then serving as president pro tem of the Senate, was next in line to assume the presidency-much to the distress of Southerners, for Wade was a hard-line Reconstructionist who favored much tougher policies toward the defeated South than had President Johnson. The Wade-Davis bill he had cosponsored with Maryland Sen. Henry W. Davis had called for a Southern state to be readmitted to the Union only when a majority of that state's citizens took a so-called "ironclad oath" that they had never supported the Confederacy-a far more stringent requirement than that favored by Lincoln, who had vetoed the bill and had preferred a ten-percent threshold, or Johnson, who had followed his slain predecessor's lead. With Johnson out of office in disgrace, Wade, as president, convinced Davis to reintroduce the bill, which passed both houses of Congress just as it had the first time.
As a practical matter, the new law excluded the former Confederate states from the Union and legitimized their continued military occupation for a full generation, for it would take at least that long for enough of those states' old populations to die off and be replaced to make it possible to meet the majority standard without winking at mass perjury. This was not lost on either Democrats or Southerners.
The Democrats quickly began calling for Wade to follow in Johnson's footsteps, and demanding sanctions against Senator Davis as well. The Southern response was a fresh wave of terrorism under the leadership of former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, to which President Wade responded with thousands of additional federal troops and a presidential order demanding the arrest and execution (nothing was said of trial) of Forrest and "any and all persons found to be aiding this individual in his attempt at a new insurrection".
Rather than suppressing the violence, Wade's actions made matters worse-and as the bloodshed escalated, the President's popularity plunged. The extraordinary manner in which he had assumed the office had made Wade vulnerable form the start, in ways he seemed not to recognize, and there were plenty of opportunistic figures eager to exploit that fact-among them Gen. George McClellan, the defeated 1864 Democratic presidential nominee, who saw in Wade's travails an opportunity to promote himself. McClellan, who during the war had come to favor a negotiated settlement even while serving as commander of the Army of the Potomac, now began calling loudly for "true peace," by which he appeared to mean what amounted to the readmission of the ex-Confederate states into the Union on terms which effectively recreated an independent CSA within the USA.
And watching from the sidelines was England, which had covertly aided the Confederate cause during the war and saw an opportunity to use the renewed bloodshed and political turmoil to take back territory in Maine, the upper Midwest and the Northwest which it had bargained away in prior treaties. British-backed subversion would play a significant role in subsequent developments of the long, bloody struggle for Reconstruction.