Publisher's Corner:
The historical Janus face of Andrew Johnson

William A. Polf

So, which was it?

Was Andrew Johnson the principled purveyor of the martyred Lincoln's determination to heal the country's wounds through moderation and forgiveness, ruthlessly hounded by political ideologues? Or was he a Confederate sympathizer who deserved to be impeached and removed from office for cynically capitalizing upon the misfortune of Lincoln's death to thwart the laudable aims of the victorious Union? Both versions exist in the study of American history. Since 1868, when a president first faced impeachment, the historical interpretation has tilted various ways, depending largely on the prevailing view of what happened after the Civil War. It was an episode so rich in melodrama, political intrigue, ideological rhetoric, and institutional conflict that it has inevitably been diced, dissected, analyzed, and interpreted as a touchstone of American politics and government.

Similarly, The Federalist, a series of tracts written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison in 1787 and 1788 to persuade reluctant New Yorkers to ratify the newly drafted federal constitution, ranks at the top of American political texts. During the swirl of publicity on President Clinton's escapades, Hamilton's little-known Federalist #65 on impeachment was suddenly elevated to the stature of the famous Federalist #10 on political factions. Constitutional historians, as well as historians of all stripes, became experts on whether Hamilton would have thought Clinton's transgressions dictated removal from office. No mean philanderer himself, Hamilton would have found the discussion rich in irony.

The interesting parallels between impeachments #1 and #2 made the story even more fascinating. Both Johnson and Clinton had character flaws that challenged the loyalty of those who supported them. Both impeachments were driven by ideological fervor within a Republican majority in Congress. Public opinion divided to some extent along sectional lines not unlike those following the Civil War. Then, as now, there was an intense debate over what the impeachment clauses meant. It was no surprise that historians came out of the woodwork to join the ranks of the commentators on the Clinton impeachment. It was, in fact, a rare opportunity for testimonial one-upmanship by historians. Political scientists, economists, sociologists, and the like, who deal in the intractable present, always seem to get the best opportunities to serve as expert witnesses. But presidential impeachment was uniquely the province of historians, since it had happened only once, long ago. (The Nixon impeachment was short-circuited before it got under way.) Who but historians could better help the public--and the prospective impeachers--understand the lessons of the first presidential impeachment and the intentions of the Founding Fathers?

Over the months building up to the impeachment, we were treated to an ongoing historical litany by some of our most respected scholars. They testified in Congress about the meaning of the first impeachment, dissected the impeachment clause, reinterpreted The Federalist, and recounted stories of earlier impeachments, over and over. Historians appeared on television news reports and talk shows, in print and on the web, relating the richness of the impeachment story. All of a sudden, history--and some of the most fascinating history we have--was all over the news. For those of us who love history, it was a heady time.

But was the public well served? Sadly, no. To quote Professor Eric Foner in this issue of 21stC (who was himself a highly visible commenter), "I don't think anyone [historians] came out of this whole episode looking good from top to bottom." They crossed the boundary when 412 of America's leading historians from the most prestigious institutions (including Columbia) signed a public letter opposing impeachment on the apparent grounds that history dictated against it. Their letter began: "As historians as well as citizens" [emphasis added], they were opposed to impeachment, suggesting that history itself confirmed their point of view. Anyone who has studied the extensive historical discourse on the Johnson impeachment or the adoption of the federal Constitution should know that no consensus, or even majority point of view, exists among scholars to support such a conclusion. As citizens, they had a perfect right to their opinion. As historians, they had an obligation to separate their scholarship from their politics. At minimum, their job was to get the facts straight. Joan Hoff (also a prominent spokesperson during the impeachment process) gives her evaluation when the letter was being circulated for signature: "I read it...and it was inaccurate historically."

Could history teach us anything about impeachment? Of course, but it could not teach whether impeachment in this particular instance was right or wrong. It does show that the Constitution is remarkably resilient during political turmoil such as impeachment, but that, in the end, politics drives the process. Those 412 historians chose, as historians, to become part of the politics, compromising their credibility as historians to help Congress and the public understand the interplay between the constitutional and political processes at work in any constitutional crisis.

Let's hope we don't go through another impeachment anytime soon. If we do, however, the historical community should do a better job.

Related links...

  • Theodore W. Dwight (Columbia College Law School), "Trial by Impeachment," American Law Register (March, 1867)

  • Historians Committee for Open Debate

  • Impeachment links, Center for the Study of the Presidency, Washington, D.C.

  • Impeachment links, NewsHour Democracy Project, PBS Online

  • Impeachment process bibliography, C-SPAN

  • Ronald I. Mirvis, bibliography on presidential impeachment, Association of the Bar of the City of New York

  • The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson: Historical Perspectives on Impeachment in American History, Clio's Digital Forge, William J. Gilmore-Lehne, History Dept., Richard Stockton College of N.J.

  • Guide to Impeachment and Censure Materials Online, JURIST: The Law Professors' Network, U. of Pittsburgh

  • WILLIAM A. POLF, Ph.D., is a historian, co-publisher of 21stC, and deputy vice president for external relations and strategic programs for Columbia's Health Sciences Division.