May 16, 1868
The Senate Votes on a Presidential Impeachment
On May 16, 1868, the Senate voted 35 to 19 to remove President Andrew Johnson from office—one vote short of the necessary two-thirds. For many of these 54 senators, this was unquestionably the single most difficult vote of their congressional careers. Seven Republican senators—William Pitt Fessenden, James Grimes, Edmund Ross, Peter Van Winkle, John B. Henderson, Joseph Fowler, and Lyman Trumbull—courageously defied their party's leadership and voted with the 12 Democratic senators to acquit the president—thereby saving him and, possibly, the institution of the presidency.
Johnson's impeachment is a complex story, but one important issue related to a vital Senate prerogative—the confirmation of presidential nominations. In the eight decades since the 1787 framing of the Constitution, the question had repeatedly arisen, "If the Senate is responsible for confirming appointees, does it also have a role in removing them?"
In 1867, as President Johnson's relations with Congress rapidly deteriorated, the Senate and House passed the Tenure of Office Act over his veto. That act required officeholders confirmed by the Senate to remain in place until the Senate approved their successors. When Johnson subsequently defied Congress by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the House of Representatives impeached the president for violating the Tenure of Office Act.
The issue of the Senate's role in dismissing executive officers remained cloudy through the half-century after Johnson's term ended. Finally, in 1926, the Supreme Court resolved the matter. Chief Justice—and former president—William Howard Taft seized on the case of Myers v. United States to settle permanently the president's constitutional right to fire federal officials. It was the ultimate vindication for Andrew Johnson and it confirmed the wisdom of that small minority of senators (one vote more than one-third) who had prevented the Senate from removing Andrew Johnson from the presidency.
Benedict, Michael Les. The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson. New York: W.W. Norton, 1973.
Corwin, Edward S. "Tenure of Office and Removal Power under the Constitution." Columbia Law Review 27 (1927).
Trefousse, Hans L. Impeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975.