Andrew Johnson back in spotlight for 1868 impeachment brush

The president traveled the country, fanning racial animus. He viewed the Congress with disdain. He also tried to undo some of the most important achievements of his predecessor, using executive power.

That was not Donald Trump, but another president who faced the ignominy of impeachment: Andrew Johnson.

As the impeachment inquiry of Trump unfolds, Johnson, never among America’s most famous presidents, though widely considered one of the worst, is attracting renewed attention.

Johnson was the first president to be impeached, by the House of Representatives in 1868. He escaped removal from office by a single vote short of the required two-thirds after his trial in the Senate, but was so disgraced he was denied his party’s nomination that year.

Trump and Johnson came from opposite ends of America’s social spectrum — Johnson from deep poverty, Trump from great wealth. Yet they shared bellicose personalities, a disdain for political niceties, and a penchant for divisive, sometimes racist rhetoric.

Jon Meacham, a presidential historian who wrote a chapter on Johnson’s case in a recent book on impeachment, has drawn a harsh comparison after Trump suggested that four activist Democratic congresswomen of color “go back” to countries “from which they came.” Coupled with other statements by Trump, Meacham says Trump “now ranks with Andrew Johnson as perhaps the most racist of our presidents.”

Meacham sees other parallels as well.

“Like Trump, Johnson was a temperamentally tumultuous man who defied norms of the era,” Meacham said in an email. “In Johnson’s case, he actively sought to undo the verdict of the Civil War as the Republicans of the day saw it; in Trump’s case, he is actively seeking to nullify the constitutional order by using his powers to undo the sovereignty of our elections.”

Johnson, a Democrat, became vice president under Republican Abraham Lincoln on a unity ticket during Lincoln’s reelection campaign amid the Civil War in 1864. Johnson became president after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865.

Friction grew steadily between Johnson, who contended blacks were incapable of self-government, and many of the Republicans who controlled Congress and favored extending voting rights to blacks.

Tensions peaked in 1868 when the House voted to impeach Johnson after alleging he had illegally fired War Secretary Edwin Stanton. Johnson was narrowly acquitted in a trial in the Senate.

Mark Summers, a University of Kentucky history professor, noted that many historians in the past argued that Johnson’s impeachment was a mistake and that it was fortunate he was able to stay in office. Summers, like many contemporary historians, takes a different view, depicting Johnson as “a very dangerous man.”

“I would have convicted him with great enthusiasm,” Summers said.

Summers says it’s also dangerous to seek precise comparisons of the Johnson and Trump impeachment dramas.

“Definitions of what presidents are allowed to do have changed,” he said. “Donald Trump is suggesting the whole process is illegitimate — Johnson made clear he’d abide by the Senate decision.”

Keri Leigh Merritt, a historian and writer in Atlanta, learned about Johnson’s personal background while researching her 2017 book, “Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South.”

She said Johnson emerged from deeper poverty than any other U.S. president, even working as an indentured servant for a master who occasionally beat him.

Yet despite that sharp contrast with Trump’s wealth, Merritt sees a similarity between the two men that dismays her.

“You’re dealing with someone who puts themselves above their country — puts their reputation and legacy first,” she said.

In mid-September, Johnson was the subject of a “Worst President Ever?” presentation by University of Maryland history professor Michael Ross. It was part of a “Pints and Profs” series hosted by a tavern in Washington, D.C.

“I convinced a good portion of the room that Johnson was the worst president, though some were lobbying for Richard Nixon or Woodrow Wilson,” said Ross.

Ross said he made clear at the outset of the event that Trump would not be a formal part of the presentation on the ground that his legacy remains to be determined. Yet Ross said Trump shares some key traits with Johnson, notably that he’s “unpresidential in his conduct.”

Johnson “was by every measure an awful president. He set back American race relations probably by 100 years,” Ross said. Yet he said it was appropriate, on technical legal grounds, that the impeachment effort failed.

As for Trump, Ross doubts the Republican-controlled Senate will vote to remove him from office unless damning new evidence surfaces.

Among those intrigued by Trump-Johnson comparisons is author Brenda Wineapple. She has written several books about 19th century authors, but switched gears with her latest book, published in May — an account of Johnson’s impeachment trial called “The Impeachers.”

While Trump stands accused of improperly pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rival Joe Biden, Johnson angered many on the Union side of the Civil War with his solicitous approach to the defeated Confederacy, Wineapple said.

“You can say he was courting a so-called foreign power,” Wineapple said. “Johnson wanted to reintegrate that seceded group of states without any cognizance of the fact they were fighting for the perpetuation of slavery.”

She also sees similarities in the harsh rhetoric used or encouraged by the two presidents.

In public speeches in 1866, Johnson would suggest the hanging of some of his political rivals. Trump has grinned when supporters at his rallies chant of Hillary Clinton, “Lock Her Up” and he recently suggested that a whistleblower in the Ukraine case is “close to a spy” — possibly meriting the death penalty.

Though the bid to oust Johnson eventually failed, Wineapple believes the dramatic events of 1868 validated the concept of the impeachment process.

“It was a stain on Johnson’s reputation — he didn’t get renominated,” she said. “The country didn’t fall apart. It was a very orderly, serious process of trying to remove a president without a war.”

Professor Benjamin Railton, coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, has studied Johnson’s impeachment trial and he sees echoes in today’s House inquiry of Trump.

He said there was broad concern about the two presidents due to their conduct and rhetoric, yet the impeachment proceedings took shape in regard to specific allegations of illegality — for Trump the Ukraine case, for Johnson his contested removal of Stanton.

Railton is curious what might lie ahead if Trump is impeached by the Democratic-controlled House but remains in office due to the Senate’s refusal to convict him.

He says that Johnson, denied the presidential nomination by his Democratic Party in 1868, “became even more aggressive” as a lame duck, for example issuing a blanket amnesty to all former Confederates, including ex-President Jefferson Davis, in December 1868. In March 1869, Johnson refused to attend the inauguration of his successor, Ulysses S. Grant, after Grant refused to share a carriage with him en route to the ceremony.