America’s Andrew Johnson, from Tennessee, never attended school all his life. His future wife, Eliza McCardle was said to have taught him to read and to write at the age of 17. And in fact all he had managed to achieve before joining politics, was to become a ‘tailor’. But after joining politics Johnson would be elected to represent his State of Tennessee in both the House of Representatives and the Senate; and he would also be Tennessee’s Governor thereafter, before becoming Vice President to the soon-to-be-assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1805, and thus becoming the 17th President of the United States thereafter.
And Johnson was a practically strong President too. A Democrat, he courageously fought what he believed was a deeply partisan, dictatorship-bound Republican Congress of his time that was bent on usurping the powers of the President. And it was a messy fight too, defined largely by two opposing and deeply entrenched positions on how to deal with a post Civil War ‘South’ on the issues of reconstruction, reintegration and especially ‘black citizenship’. Radical Republicans wanted leaders of the Southern confederates, who they tagged ‘traitors’, to be severely punished, but Johnson was obsessed with the task of Reconstruction and Reconciliation –projects which his Republican late Principal, Lincoln had favored.
A nasty period of executive ‘vetoes’ and congressional ‘overrides’ of vetoes would ensue, with the Congress arm twisting the President to enact the ‘Army Appropriations Act’ (which was a congressional attempt to usurp ‘command of the Army’ from the President), and the ‘Tenure of Office Act’ of 1867 -which arrogated to the Senate the power to approve any removal by the President, of Federal officers and cabinet members. These, in addition to the Congress duplicating the President’s Reconstruction Program with the ‘Reconstruction Act’ of 1867 reversing most of his key achievements, convinced the President he was dealing with a power-hungry parliament he needed to take the gloves off, for. He would soon defy the ‘Tenure of Office Act’ by firing his now parliament-loyal Secretary of War, Stanton, a statutory breach which would set off a string of executive-legislature feud leading to the very first impeachment proceedings in United States history involving a President. In the United States, judges and some categories of public officials are subjects also to the vagaries of impeachment provisions in the Constitution.
The Senate prepared 11 articles of impeachment against President Andrew Johnson, 10 of which were on violation of the ‘Tenure of Office Act’ and the ‘Army Appropriations Act’ (which had respectively attempted to usurp his power of control over the bureaucracy and the Army.) The 11th accused him of “attempting to undermine Congress”. But there was also a 12th charge accusing Johnson of involvement in the assassination of his late Principal, Lincoln, which was said to have been dropped from the charge list at the last minute. It was thought to have betrayed too much animus by Congress against the President. Nor was dropping that charge sufficient to erase the widely held view that the Senate that tried Johnson was dominated by Radical Republicans filled with vengeance against ‘treacherous’ Southern confederate politicians; and the allegation too that impeaching Johnson was more a partisan quest for extra-legislative powers to achieve that other motive, than it was an altruistic attempt to defend the Constitution.
Suffice it to say that although the impeachment was carried through, Johnson narrowly survived the conviction vote and could not therefore be removed from office. Interestingly though, 7 moderate Republicans had voted in his favor, not because they did not believe, like their fellow ‘Radical Republicans’ did, that the President had violated the law, but because they believed, conscientiously, his actions were ‘the result of a struggle to preserve the powers of the presidency in the face of attacks by a determined congress’. Many legislators in fact said they “feared the removal of a President (who had done nothing extraordinarily grievous) would permanently damage the Presidency and weaken the traditional separation of powers” doctrine. And so, Johnson’s case, even as it was America’s baptism of fire, it was also the earliest case to reveal the character of ‘impeachment’ as inextricably a ‘political’ and ‘legal’ issue.
An American statesman, Alexander Hamilton, as far back as 1788 had warned of the “danger that the decision (to impeach) will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstration of innocence (or guilt)”. Andrew Johnson’s case alone did not exemplify this prediction. Over a century later, Richard Nixon’s Watergate impeachment scandal in 1974 and Bill Clinton’s Monicagate in 1999, (respectively the 37th and 42nd presidents of the United States), were to be no less telling of Hamilton’s prognosis.
Of the 3 articles of impeachment prepared against Nixon, the charges of ‘obstruction of justice’ and ‘abuse of power’ (in a manner that violated the constitutional rights of citizens) were key. And whereas Nixon had to preemptively resign to avoid impeachment, 42 years later, (in 1999) Democratic President Bill Clinton, ironically, would survive impeachment proceedings even though in addition to the charges of ‘lying under oath (perjury)’, ‘concealing a sexual relationship with a White House intern’ and ‘witness tempering’, Clinton, like Nixon, was also accused of ‘obstruction of justice’ and ‘abuse of power’.
Said Robert Dallek “The impeachment proceedings against Clinton were highly politicized, with almost all Democrats supporting the President and almost all Republicans opposing him”. The former had argued that “lying about sex” was a private matter “and not an abuse of governmental authority” and the latter had insisted that Clinton “violated the law” and by “misleading the American public, he had undermined the integrity of his office”. But just like Andrew Johnson, to survive, secured the renegade votes of 7 Radical Republicans who believed their actions rose above ‘strict law’ and ‘partisan politics’, Clinton too secured 5 conscientious Republican votes from members who said although they deplored his actions, yet they believed that the charges against him “did not rise to the standard of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’”.
Now herein lies the heart of the impeachment debate. Why should a President be elected into office by ‘many people’ but be removed from it by a ‘few’? Why must not the next election, be allowed to determine what the people want, who elected the President into office in the first place? So that by their votes, they may willfully decide, to withdraw or to reconfirm their trust in him. And if a ‘few’ must be allowed to remove a President from office, what should be the raison d’etre for doing so? Is it to punish or to reprimand presidential ‘inaction’? Or is it to reproach or to remedy presidential ‘action’? By the way, what should constitute impeachable offences? Should impeachment be based on ‘politics’ or should it be based on ‘law’? Should it be based on offence of a political nature or should it be based on breach of a written law? Should it be predicated on a ‘legal wrong’ (malum prohibita) or should it be premised on a ‘moral misconduct’ (malum in se)? Or by the way, should impeachment be conducted against ‘crime’ or against ‘maladministration’? All maladministration, or just ‘some’?
To be concluded