Reading History: “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation” (by Brenda Wineapple)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book for review.

Going in to this book, I didn’t know a great deal about the circumstances surrounding the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and I knew even less about the reasons that drove the era’s legislators to this great length. Having read Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers, I’m happy to say that I now know a great deal more.

Wineapple populates her story with the giants of the era, men such as Thaddeus Steves, one of those who lead the charge for impeachment, Salmon Portland Chase, the cunning, Supreme Court justice who had ambitions of his own that coloured his perception of the case, and of course, Andrew Johnson himself. These were men of imposing personalities, and Wineapple does a magnificent job painting them in big, bold colors; they fairly leap off the page.

Ultimately, of course, the measure failed, but Wineapple makes the case that this had less to do with the merits of the impeachment articles (and the evidence for them) than with these personalities and their varied motivations and concerns. Essentially, it was felt that impeaching Johnson would cause irreparable damage to the Republican waiting in the wings to ascend to the presidency: none other than the hero of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant (who was also a prominent character in this unfolding drama). Rather than do so, they felt it was a safer bet to acquit Johnson and start over.

Given that the book is about impeachment, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between that time and our own and, especially, between the temperament of Andrew Johnson and our current president. Like Trump, Johnson was a blusterer and a bit of a megalomaniac, convinced that he was the victim of conspiracies and unwilling to acknowledge his own weaknesses and his part in his situation. The portrait that Wineapple paints is a very unflattering one indeed, and there are very good reasons for that. For, as Wineapple points out, Johnson was a a racist who built his appeal on stymying almost all measures that would have contributed to the betterment of people of color in the former slave states. Indeed, there were often times when he went out of his way to ensure that people of color understood that not only were they second-class citizens, but that their president had no interest in changing that.

The Impeachers does a fine job of providing the context that allows us to understand just why it is that this signature event in American history transpired in the way that it did. Despite the end of the Civil, many (including Johnson) felt that the United States was still a white man’s country, and that less effort should be spent in punishing the former Confederacy and more in ensuring that white citizens regained their former amity. The great tragedy of the whole affair is that it would be almost another hundred years before the desire for a better country for all would experience another great leap forward with the Civil Rights Movement on the 1950s and 1960s.

Though subsequent generations of historians painted the impeachment as a partisan affair, Wineapple argues that these arguments were themselves focused on a discrediting of the policies and mindset of the Radical Republicans. Her work allows us to see these men as visionaries committed to the idea that the United States could, in fact, be a more perfect union if only its leaders would have the will to do so.

Stylistically, Wineapple has a masterful command of both her materials and her language. While some books on history can be slow going even for those who love reading about the past, this is certainly not the case with The Impeachers. While reading it, I almost had the feeling that I was there in the moment, swept up in this epochal event, so adeptly does Wineapple capture the tenor of the times and the voices of her subjects.

By this point in 2019, it seems pretty clear that our own Andrew Johnson is not going to be impeached even though, as Yoni Applebaum compellingly argues in a recent issue of The Atlantic, there is very good reason to do so, the case of Andrew Johnson, as Wineapple presents it, serves as a warning of becoming too confident.

Le sigh.

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