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Andrew Johnson was the successor to Abraham Lincoln and was the first president of the United States to be impeached.
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It quickly became apparent that Johnson would not force Southern states to grant full equality to blacks, thus setting up a confrontation with congressional Republicans who sought black suffrage as essential to furthering their political influence in the South.
Congress was in recess the first eight months of Andrew Johnson’s term,
and he took full advantage of the legislators’ absence by pushing through his own Reconstruction policies. He quickly issued pardons and amnesty to any rebels who would take an oath of allegiance. This resulted in many former Confederates being elected to office in Southern states and instituting “black codes,” which essentially maintained slavery. Later, he expanded his pardons to include Confederate officials of the highest rank, including Alexander Stephens, who had served as vice president under Jefferson Davis.
When Congress reconvened, members expressed outrage at the president’s clemency orders and his lack of protecting black civil rights. In 1866, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, providing essentials for former slaves and protection of their rights in court. They then passed the Civil Rights Act, defining all persons born in the United States as citizens. Johnson vetoed these two measures because he felt Southern states were not represented in Congress and he believed that setting suffrage policy was the responsibility of the states, not the federal government. Both vetoes were overridden by Congress. In June, Congress approved the 14th Amendment and issued it to the states for ratification, and it was accepted less than one month later. In a novel interpretation of the “advise and consent” clause of the Constitution, Congress also passed the Tenure of Office Act, which denied the president the power to remove federal officials without the Senate’s approval. In 1867, Congress established military Reconstruction in the former Confederate states to enforce political and social rights for Southern blacks.
President Johnson retaliated by appealing directly to the people in a series of speeches during the 1866 congressional elections. On more than one occasion, it appeared that Johnson had had too much to drink, and antagonized more than convinced his audiences. The campaign was a complete disaster, and Johnson faced a further loss of support from the public. The Radical Republicans won an overwhelming victory in the midterm elections.
Johnson felt his position as president crumbling beneath him. He had lost the support of Congress and the public, and felt that his only alternative was to challenge the Tenure of Office Act as a direct violation of his constitutional authority. In August 1867, he fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, with whom he’d had several confrontations. In February 1868, the House voted to impeach President Johnson for violation of the Tenure of Office Act and for bringing disgrace and ridicule on Congress. He was tried in the Senate and acquitted by one vote. He remained president, but his credibility and effectiveness were destroyed.
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