The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
»Military Reconstruction

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Harper's Weekly, February 16, 1867, page 98

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Until the report of the Judiciary Committee is presented to the House the air will be thick with rumors of every kind from Washington. We are very glad, therefore, that Mr. Wilson, the chairman of the Committee, has stated that nobody but the members of the Committee know any thing about the progress of the investigation, and that all the reports in regard to it are wholly groundless.

The Judiciary Committee is usually considered a very radical body, and it is probably the general impression that it will report in favor of impeachment. But it will be remembered that this much-abused Congress has not been swift to take extreme action of any kind. Notwithstanding great national excitement, and the natural exasperation of the Legislature with an Executive who first betrayed and then denounced it; notwithstanding also its enormous majority, which enables it to dispense with the Presidential approval, the action of the Thirty-ninth Congress has been singularly temperate.

During the last session there was much hot and foolish declamation, but the decisions were deliberately and wisely made. Mr. Thaddeus Stevens was called the leader of the House. He unbridled his tongue and urged summary measures; but of all his serious plans, during a session of seven months, Congress adopted but one– the appointment of a Reconstruction Committee. Rivaling the wise patience of Mr. Lincoln, it endured the sneers of all its enemies and the adjurations of some of its friends. It knew that, at an epoch like this, time is the truest friend, for time only can reveal the circumstances upon which wise legislation can be based. Upon the one hand, Mr. Wendell Phillips charged it with hypocrisy and swindling; upon the other, Mr. Raymond prayed it to leave its damnable faces and begin. But Congress waited and investigated and deliberated, and time, which it trusted, has vindicated its wisdom. Had it decreed confiscation and territorial governments and universal suffrage at its last session it would have outrun public sympathy. But by proposing only the mild Amendment it gave the country full opportunity to learn the controlling facts of the situation, and won public opinion to its present advanced position.

We confide, therefore, in the wise report of the Judiciary Committee and the subsequent action of Congress. Should the Committee decide not only that the evidence authorizes impeachment but that circumstances render it desirable, we have no doubt that the testimony and arguments will be so fully and fairly stated as to command public approval; and we presume that upon the presentation of such a report the House will defer action until it can ascertain the feeling of the country.

There is probably little difference of opinion among loyal men as to the usurpation by the Executive of the functions of the Legislature. But as it is not generally believed to have had originally a bad intention, and as it has been wholly defeated in its perilous tendency, it is questionable whether upon that ground alone impeachment would be expedient. There is equally little doubt of the illegal dispensation of the prerogative of the Senate by the Executive action in official appointments. But that is with ample precedent, and is a disputed point upon which impeachment is plainly inexpedient. More ominous was the Presidential conduct at the time of the New Orleans massacre. If it shall clearly appear that under any pretense whatever the President of the United States connived at the slaughter of citizens peaceably assembled for discussion, the public indignation will be profound, but it will not necessarily regard impeachment as the wisest policy. And if the Committee shall show by ample evidence that the pacification of the country is impeded or paralyzed by the unconstitutional passivity of the President in executing laws of the most vital necessity, and that the attitude of the Judiciary leaves no reasonable doubt that for the whole term of the next Congress the present situation must continue, the question for the country will be simply whether it is more expedient to worry through than to set the precedent of impeachment.

The peril of the precedent is probably the strongest popular argument against impeachment for any cause less than that of an open and palpable attempt to subvert the Government by force. The argument is, that all other attempts are mainly inferential, and therefore doubtful; and that if an impeachment be carried for any such cause, an extreme Constitutional remedy becomes at once an ordinary party measure. Such an argument is very powerful. It demands very careful reflection. But on the other hand, it must not be forgotten that every grave political measure creates a precedent; and that although a precedent is always in danger of being abused, yet that in this country there is less peril than elsewhere, because we may always count upon the increasing intelligence and good sense of the people not to abuse it.

The session is so nearly at an end that it may be doubted whether the present Congress is likely to take final action upon the subject. But as the next Congress is composed of many, if not most, of the sitting members, it may be assumed that no very serious change of opinion is likely to occur. General Butler, of course, will dispute Mr. Stevens’s laurels; but the General will learn the lesson which has been very forcibly taught Mr. Stevens, that Congress follows no other leader than the conviction and intelligence of the country. In view of every contingency, however, if the impeachment should finally be carried, and it were thought best to suspend the President from his functions during the trial, there is no man whose temporary occupation of the Executive office would inspire great confidence in the country than Senator Fessenden.

Articles Related to Military Reconstruction:
News Items
January 19, 1867, page 35

January 26, 1867, page 50

Congress and Impeachment
February 16, 1867, page 98

The Probability of Impeachment
February 23, 1867, page 114

The Louisiana Bill
March 2, 1867, page 130

March 9, 1867, page 146

The Thirty-Ninth Congress
March 9, 1867, page 146

The Veto of the Reconstruction Bill

March 16, 1867, page 162

The Fortieth Congress

March 30, 1867, page 195

The Fortieth Congress

April 6, 1867, page 211

Sprats and Vetoes

April 6, 1867, page 210

Adjournment of Congress

April 13, 1867, page 226

Prometheus Bound

March 2, 1867, page 137

The Result

March 30, 1867, page 194

The Southern Commanders

April 6, 1867, page 218

The Debate upon Impeachment

March 23, 1867, page 178

We Accept the Situation (cartoon)

April 13, 1867, page 240

The Big Thing (cartoon)

April 20, 1867, page 256

The End of Impeachment
June 22, 1867, page 386


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