With the current state of affairs in our country and all the talk about investigations, allegations and scandals, the issue of Impeachment has been brought up more numerous times, these past two years.
We know that President Clinton was impeached in December of 1998, but was acquitted of the charges of Perjury and Obstruction of Justice in February of 1999. Prior to that, and coming around the time of this broadcast, President Nixon was in the process of going through Impeachment hearings when he resigned from office in August of 1974 (this broadcast is from July of 1974).
So who actually was the first sitting President to be impeached? That would be Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the United States, going back to 1868.
The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson occurred on February 24, 1868, when the United States House of Representatives resolved to impeach President Andrew Johnson, adopting eleven articles of impeachment detailing his “high crimes and misdemeanors”, in accordance with Article Two of the United States Constitution. The House’s primary charge against Johnson was violation of the Tenure of Office Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in March 1867, over the President’s veto. Specifically, he had removed from office Edwin McMasters Stanton, the Secretary of War—whom the Act was largely designed to protect—and attempted to replace him with Brevet Major General Lorenzo Thomas. (Earlier, while the Congress was not in session, Johnson had suspended Stanton and appointed General Ulysses S. Grant as Secretary of War ad interim.)
The House approved the articles of impeachment on March 2–3, 1868, and forwarded them to the Senate. The trial in the Senate began three days later, with Chief Justice of the United States Salmon P. Chase presiding. On May 16, the Senate failed to convict Johnson on one of the articles, with the 35–19 vote in favor of conviction falling short of the necessary two-thirds majority by a single vote. A ten-day recess was called before attempting to convict him on additional articles. The delay did not change the outcome, however, as on May 26, it failed to convict the President on two articles, both by the same margin; after which the trial was adjourned.
This was the first impeachment of a President since creation of the office in 1789. The culmination of a lengthy political battle between Johnson, a lifelong Democrat and the Republican majority in Congress over how best to deal with the defeated Southern states following the conclusion of the American Civil War, the impeachment, and the subsequent trial (and acquittal) of Johnson were among the most dramatic events in the political life of the nation during the Reconstruction Era. Together, they have gained a historical reputation as an act of political expedience, rather than necessity, which was based on Johnson’s defiance of an unconstitutional piece of legislation, and which was conducted with little regard for the will of a general public which, despite the unpopularity of Johnson, opposed the impeachment.
But like Clinton, Andrew Johnson was acquitted of the charges of violating the Tenure Of Office Act in May of 1868.
So in reality, no President has actually been impeached and removed from office. One resigned before the process began and two were acquitted shortly after receiving verdicts.
To give you a little background (by way of some dramatic re-creations because they had no recording devices in 1789, much to many people’s amazement), NBC Radio produced this episode of the Second Sunday Documentary/Current Affairs program in July of 1974. A little less than a month later, President Nixon would avoid the process by quitting.
For those of you who aren’t quite sure how this process works or even how it started, here is that episode of Second Sunday; Crimes And Misdemeanors from July 14, 1974.