The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple

Nine stars

With all the talk of impeachment coming out of Washington, I thought it a convenient time to read Brenda Wineapple’s comprehensive book about the trial Andrew Johnson faced in the US Senate in 1868. Full of great detail and a narrative that takes the reader through the process, Wineapple provides the reader with a great primer for what may be a prickly endeavour if used again in the near future. The American state was extremely divided in the mid-19th century, a period of civil and social unrest where the Southern states declared their desire to leave the Union. What followed is likely well-known to many with a basic understanding of the American Civil War, culminating in the South losing and Lincoln’s assassination. Thereafter, an odd collection of events befell the newly exhausted (loosely) United States, with the recently elevated Vice-President Andrew Johnson taking over as the Commander-in-Chief. Johnson, hailing from Tennessee, was thought to be a great choice by Lincoln for the 1864 election, but when he assumed the role of president, many saw him show some of his true colours. With little interest in binding the country back together, Johnson sought to push a renewed segregationist agenda while trying to stymie the attempts at Reconstruction Congress was pushing through in the form of legislation. While many disliked these antics, the push for impeachment had yet to reach the force needed to be effective. It took Johnson violating the Tenure of Office Act, a key piece of legislation, thumbing his nose at the Senate all the while. This proved to be the final straw for many in the House of Representatives. With the Articles of Impeachment secured and supported by a majority in the House, the machine of an impeachment trial began to rumble, with the pre-trial antics in the Senate. As Wineapple discusses, this was the first presidential impeachment, forcing interpretation of the US Constitution and the balance between legal and legislative roles for those involved. What follows is an intriguing trial held in the Senate chamber with a number of important actors, each playing their role. Wineapple takes the reader through each step and shows where the Managers (House of Representative members chosen to present the articles to the Senate as a whole) fell short and how general sentiment might have steered the votes away from impeaching Johnson, if only by a single vote. There are some wonderful subplots that emerge in the narrative and will likely help the reader better understand the nuances of this 19th century political stage-play. Captivating in its delivery and full of a great deal of information I had never heard previously, Brenda Wineapple takes the reader on an adventure through some of American’s most divisive legislative days. Highly recommended to those who have a passion for all things political, as well as the reader who enjoys learning a great deal about events relatable to today’s political situation.

I saw a friend read and review this book on Goodreads a while back, but held off reading it until I could make the loose parallel between Johnson and Trump. While I am not prepared to draw the political and social parallels between the two men at this point, this book that details the trial from back in 1868 with some similarities to events taking place now. Brenda Wineapple is able to convey much of the well-known lead-up to the impeachment talk, tackling these topics with ease, while providing sufficient details to ensure the reader is clear on how things progressed. As the political infighting continued, Wineapple depicted all the essential actors—from a hard-hearted member of the House whose sole goal was to see Johnson fall, through to the Chief Justice who presided over the trial and sought the White House for himself—and provide sufficient backstory to explain the intricate details of events and political moves that shaped the push for impeachment. Of particular interest, Wineapple addresses this being the first presidential impeachment, forcing those involved to guess at what the Founding Fathers might have wanted. Going through the trial, step-by-step, Wineapple provides a clear narrative of the political process and how Johnson was able to skirt sure removal from office. With chapters that focus on all aspects of this historical period, Wineapple delivers where others have only glossed over in past tomes. Of note, this was an impeachment held in a presidential election year, just so no one can toss out that it is “infeasible and unconstitutional to do this to a president with the public set to vote”. Not to be missed for lovers of American political history.

Kudos, Madam Wineapple, for this captivating piece. I cannot wait to see what else you have written, on this and other topics.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: