By Chris Fry
Part 1 of this article discussed the parallel crises of 1868 and 2019, when in both cases a white supremacist president created an emergency, particularly for the oppressed. Part 2 analyzes the struggle to impeach Andrew Johnson, and the lessons that it teaches activists today in the struggle against the Donald Trump regime.
In the 1950s, the future president of the U.S., John Kennedy, published a popular book called “Profiles in Courage.” One of the main chapters described the seven Republican senators who voted to acquit President Andrew Johnson of his impeachment charges. “Not a single one of them escaped the terrible torture of vicious criticism engendered by their vote to acquit.” Kennedy gave his most praise to Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas, who had just the day before pledged to convict Johnson, but on May 16, 1868, he voted to acquit the president.
Kennedy’s description is a complete distortion, a racist myth.
It turned out that Ross spent the night before the vote collecting cash and patronage bribes. In his book, “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy,” author David Stewart described at least two different but interlinked bribery schemes to win Johnson’s acquittal.
One of these schemes was run by Ross’ fellow Kansan, Perry Fuller, who is described by Stewart this way: “Fuller stole most of his wealth from Indian tribes and from government programs to help them. He sold bad liquor; cut timber pilfered from Indian land, and supplied beef rustled from reservations. He also ‘helped’ tribes sell their land to railroads at bargain basement prices while his trading company grew fat on Indian supply contracts that federal officials denounced as ‘outrageous swindle[s].’”
Fuller purchased enough votes to get Ross into his Senate seat. In return for his impeachment acquittal vote, Ross arranged for President Johnson to appoint Fuller to the lucrative post of commissioner of internal revenue. Later, Fuller would be indicted for bribery and embezzlement, but never faced trial.
The second pro-Johnson bribery scheme was run by New York City Republican Party boss Thurlow Weed and sponsored by Secretary of State Seward. This was the “Astor House Group,” which, allied both to major banks as well as the infamous “Whiskey Ring”, made its fortune evading the tax on liquor used to finance the Civil War effort and managed to raise at least $100,000 to bribe senators to acquit Johnson.
In fact, the real “profiles in courage” label belongs to the abolitionist Congressmen and Senators who became known as the “Radical Republicans.” They were led by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens from Pennsylvania.
President Johnson was doing all he could to dismantle the Freedmen’s Bureau, designed to protect and assist the nearly four million newly-freed slaves. He also undermined the Union soldiers occupying the southern states by making them subject to the all-white local officials in the southern states they were occupying. He pardoned (often in exchange for bribes) many high-ranking Confederate officers and politicians and restored all the all-white southern state governments, who immediately enacted the infamous “Black Codes,” which placed the Black population into a new form of bondage, subject to harassment, arrest and murder.
Although only a minority faction of the Republican Party in Congress, the Radicals in early 1866 planned a “fight back” program against Johnson. First, they used their legal authority to refuse to seat the Johnson-backed senators and congressmen from the southern states. They then formed a 15-member “Joint Committee on Reconstruction.” This became the main tool for the Radicals to seize control of shaping Reconstruction from the president. Johnson’s navy secretary called this move “revolutionary.” It was exactly that.
This committee held public hearings and called 145 witnesses, including six freedmen, who dramatically described the violent persecution of ex-slaves and poor whites who supported the Union. To prevent southern states from increasing their Congressional representation because of the elimination of the U.S. Constitution’s infamous Three-Fifths Clause, while the same southern states were preventing Black people from voting (see part one), the committee wrote a draft of the 14th Amendment to the constitution. This amendment stated that all native-born people are U.S. citizens, and if a state refused any of them the right to vote, then that state could not count those people as part of their population.
When a vacancy appeared on the Supreme Court in the Spring of 1866, Johnson nominated a fellow racist to the seat. In response, the Radicals in Congress reduced the seats to eight, and passed a law that said that if Johnson tried to fill another seat, that the court would be reduced to seven seats.
That same year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Law of 1866 that outlawed the infamous Black Codes. They then passed three Reconstruction laws that drove out the Johnson-backed racist state governments in the South, to be replaced by governments elected by freedmen and Union supporters. Black people could now vote and be elected to office, even before this was confirmed by the passage of the 15th Amendment.
Johnson wanted to end martial law so that he could withdraw Union troops from southern states. They were protecting ex-slaves and pro-Union communities that were under attack by pro-Confederate mobs and cops. According to the Constitution, President Johnson clearly had the authority to do that, but the Radical Republicans knew that this would erase all the gains from the Civil War and would place the former slave owners back in the saddle with the newly-formed Ku Klux Klan as their armed force. Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton and General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant opposed Johnson on this, but how could they stop him?
Radical Congressman Thad Stevens laid a trap. He authored the Tenure Act, which passed both Houses; it declared that for all officials approved by the Senate, that the Senate must also approve the dismissal of that official. That included cabinet officials like Stanton. He wrote in the bill that violating this act amounted to a “high misdemeanor,” which meant that it was an impeachable offense.
Johnson demanded first Grant and then General William Sherman to replace Secretary of War William Stanton. Both refused, so Johnson fired Stanton and sent Lorenzo Thomas over to Stanton’s office to replace him. Stanton barricaded himself in his office for several months. This prompted Congress to overwhelmingly pass 11 articles of impeachment, with the last one written by Congressman Stevens himself. It noted that not only did Johnson violate the Tenure Act, but also that he had challenged the authority of Congress itself, particularly in regards to Reconstruction.
The impeachment trial took place in the Senate in February 1868. Johnson had the backing of not only former Confederate officials and slave owners, but also powerful financial interests on Wall Street who were frightened by the revolutionary steps and ideology of the Radical Republicans. As stated above, their bribery campaign succeeded in defeating Johnson’s conviction by one Senate vote.
But Johnson was destroyed politically. His own Democratic Party refused to nominate him in 1868. Grant was elected, and Reconstruction proceeded. Many Black officials were elected, including Congressmen and Senators. Thousands of schools were established that serviced ex-slaves and poor whites. The Union Army and the Attorney General destroyed the first Klan organization.
In the end, the same powerful capitalist forces that backed Andrew Johnson’s acquittal destroyed Reconstruction, when the Union troops were removed in 1877 and Jim Crow was imposed. Nevertheless, the struggle over the Johnson impeachment and Reconstruction left a revolutionary legacy that lasts to current day.
The struggle to oust Trump
Today, the workers and oppressed are confronting another bigoted white supremacist, who actively cultivates his racist base by arrogantly and crudely attacking migrants, women, Muslims, disabled, African-Americans—every oppressed member of our class—while at the same time threatening imperialist invasions and war against Venezuela, Iran, China and elsewhere. Just like Andrew Johnson, Donald Trump broadcasts his support for the “very fine” Nazi and Klan scum who paraded through Charlottesville, and who have been behind many of the mass murders that we face today. Millions of workers’ jobs are threatened by Trump’s tariffs against China and Mexico.
Yet in the face of this, despite widespread public disgust with Trump and demand for his immediate removal, the Democratic Party officials are doing all they can to tamp down calls for Trump’s impeachment. They have narrowed the investigation to so-called “Russian collusion” while completely ignoring the many racist crimes that Trump commits every day. Is not the murder of migrant children at the hands of the U.S. Border Patrol a “high crime” worthy of impeachment?
Obviously, we are living in a far different era than the post Civil War period. Developmental capitalism has devolved into imperialism, whose billionaire ruling class is obviously entranced with Trump’s tax cuts and deregulation, his promises of savage austerity measures, and the restoration of U.S. imperialist hegemony.
At the same, popular opposition to Trump, particularly by the oppressed and youth, has grown by leaps and bounds, with a historic interest in socialism. This has frightened the Democratic Party establishment, which is just as beholden to the banks and corporate parasites that inhabit Wall Street as the most Trumpist Republicans.
Of course Trump should be impeached! But as the imperialist system itself sinks deeper and deeper into its inevitable crisis, something that Trump is actively accelerating, it is clear that the Democratic Party is incapable in leading the struggle to oust Trump and fight Trumpism. Instead, they seek to reduce the exploding outrage into their empty election campaign, devoid of any struggle, nearly two years away. It is up to every activist to organize and prepare a unified struggle in every workplace, in every community, in every street to overturn the capitalist system that has burdened us with this fascist pig.
Overthrow capitalism and imperialism!
Struggle for socialism!