“. . . or the highway.”
October 9, 2013
The standoff between President Obama and the Republican majority in the House calls to my mind the struggle between President Andrew Johnson and the Republican majority after the Civil War and the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Johnson was a fine man in many respects, but if ever there was a wrong man at the wrong time in the presidency it was he. Johnson, who was from Tennessee, was the only U.S. senator who remained in his seat when his state seceded from the Union. He was elected vice president in 1864 on a fusion ticket with Lincoln and was vaulted into the presidency by Lincoln’s death. The Republicans were the progressive party at the time and the Democrats were not only conservative but identified with the slave-holding South. Johnson himself owned a few household slaves, although one of his daughters remarked that it was difficult sometimes to tell who was slave and who was master. Millions of words have been written about this, but suffice it to say that Johnson and the Republicans disagreed about how the former Confederates states and the former slaves should be treated by the federal government. As that dispute was boiling over, Congress passed a routine bill to fund the Army but attached an unrelated rider — which came to be known as the Tenure of Office Act — which provided that once the president had appointed a federal official with the consent of the Senate, he could not remove the official from office without the consent of the Senate.
Johnson believed that the Tenure of Office Act was an unconstitutional incursion on the powers of the president, but he wasn’t prepared to squelch it by vetoing the army appropriations bill. So he signed it, but afterward he deliberately violated it by removing from office Edwin M. Stanton, the secretary of war, who had served in the Lincoln administration in that role and as attorney-general. Because of vague wording in the law, it’s an open question whether Johnson had violated it at all. However, Stanton refused to leave, which led to a chain of events, including Stanton barricading himself in his office, that descended to the level of comic opera. Johnson’s presumed violation of the Tenure of Office Act was the centerpiece of the impeachment proceedings the Republicans brought against him. Johnson was acquitted and completed his term, but the balance of power between the executive and Congress had been disrupted. Congress repealed the Tenure of Office Act in 1887, and the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling on a similar law in 1926, said in an opinion written by Chief Justice and former President William Howard Taft, that the Tenure of Office act had been invalid.