The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
»Key Political Issues Affecting the Impeachment

back to the Andrew Johnson Home Page
back to the intro to this section

Harper's Weekly,
April 17, 1869, page 242

It is desirable that all laws should be as intelligible as words will permit, and it is therefore a serious defect in the bill reported by the Conference Committee upon the Tenure-of-Office law that each side claimed the victory, and Mr. Trumbull made one statement to the Senate, and General Butler precisely the reverse statement to the House. General Butler then appealed to that intolerable nuisance? the previous question, and the consequence is another confused and perplexing law. As we write, the President has neither signed nor vetoed it. But, although it is in the nature of an ostensible concession to his views, we can not help hoping that in the interest of clear and precise legislation he may veto it.

The point has been plain from the beginning of the long debate. The substantial question is, shall the President remove at pleasure? The discussion has been inevitably, but illogically, mingled with the question of personal confidence in General Grant; for it is simply a question of purity of administration. The Constitution does not decide it, and when the point was presented in the early Congress, it was decided against the Senate by a tie vote. Mr. Webster was of opinion that practice had interpreted the Constitution upon the subject; but that is a kind of interpretation which may be always challenged.

Mr. Grimes, who is a repealer, said that he wanted to give President Grant the same chance that every other President had enjoyed. But he did not stay to suggest why the law was passed. The reason of the passage of the law was, that experience had proved that it might be dangerous to the country that the President should enjoy that chance. It is no answer to say that President Grant could be trusted and therefore the law might be repealed. So Mr. Stewart could be trusted as Secretary of the Treasury; but was Mr. Grimes ready to repeal the law that barred his entrance into the Treasury Department? Laws are not made upon personal but upon general considerations. The weakness or the crimes of individuals, indeed, may furnish forcible arguments, but that is all. The justification of the Tenure bill was not the conduct of Andrew Johnson, but the peculiar and perilous power lodged with the Executive. If, as General Butler says, the Tenure bill was leveled at Andrew Johnson alone, and was passed upon no general considerations whatever, then it ought to be repealed. But if Johnson’s conduct was merely the revelation of a danger to which public attention had not been previously called, then the repeal should not be carried until the public danger is demonstrated not to exist. Now the debate which led to the passage of the law did not proceed upon Andrew Johnson’s delinquencies, but upon general and constitutional considerations.

Mr. David of New York, of whose remarks we have seen but a brief report, said that the Senate could not be held to any responsibility for the retention of improper persons. Without demanding whether it is practicable to hold the President to any similar responsibility, it may be asked whether the Senate can be held to any responsibility for improper appointments? An unfit officer is the fault of the Senate quite as much as of the Executive; and to suppose that the Senate would insist upon retaining a dishonest or incompetent officer is to assert that it would confirm him. But is the power of confirmation to be questioned? If we recur to the Constitution we must agree that it does not mean to authorize the Executive arbitrarily to make a clean sweep of the officers to whose appointment the Senate has just consented. Still there was no defense against such unconstitutional action. Johnson was engaged in precisely that performance. The attention of Congress and the country was called to it? and the Tenure bill was framed.

The President is by no means the unchecked Executive that he is sometimes alleged to be. He is not solely responsible for the execution of the laws, because he has not an uncontrolled authority of appointment. He must be satisfied with such officers as the Senate approves. The Senate can not, indeed, fill the offices without his nomination? but neither can he fill them without the approval of the Senate. Presumptively, therefore, the responsibility is divided. Then the extent of the division must be determined by experience and grave reflection. But the obscure bill which has been passed by Congress, so far as it can be interpreted, authorizes the President to suspend merely, and then subjects even his nominating power to the will of the Senate. The President, it says, may suspend until the end of the next session of Congress; but if during that session the Senate refuses to confirm a nomination to the place he may make another. But how if the Senate does not refuse, and does not confirm? The suspension lasts to the end of the session, and the Senate has not acted. Is the office then vacant, or is the suspended officer restored? We defy any body to determine from the bill. General Butler says loudly, that of course the office is vacant. But General Butler is not the bill.

It is simply unpardonable that a law so important should be so obscure. It was not a question of skillful overreaching between the Senate and the House, but of the highest public welfare. If the House had had the firmness to insist upon understanding what it was doing, and the resolution to teach General Butler that the interest of the country and not his will was to determine its action, this absurd result would have been avoided. It is a settlement that settles nothing, and that will return to plague those who connived at it.


Website design © 1998-2005 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2005 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to