“Effect of the Vote on … Impeachment”

May 30, 1868

artist unknown

“Effect of the Vote on … Impeachment”

Analogies, Royalty; Impeachment; Journalists/Journalism; Presidential Administration, Andrew Johnson;

Greeley, Horace; Johnson, Andrew;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

ELEVATION--At the White House

DEPRESSION--At the Tribune Office

On May 16, 1868, the United States Senate sat as a court for the removal trial of President Andrew Johnson and voted first on the last article of impeachment.  That eleventh article incorporated many of the charges contained in the preceding articles and was considered the best chance to gain conviction against Johnson.  The Republican-controlled Senate voted 35-19 in favor of the impeachment charge, one vote short of the two-thirds majority constitutionally required for removal.  After reconvening on May 26 (after this post-dated issue of Harper’s Weekly appeared), the Senate again voted 35-16 on two other articles.  With it obvious that the president would not be convicted, the Senate adjourned.

This unsigned Harper's Weekly cartoon envisions the contrasting reactions in the White House (left) and the editorial office of the New York Tribune (right) to the vote on the eleventh article of impeachment.  President Johnson celebrates the decision, while a shocked Horace Greeley, the Tribune's editor-in-chief, faints upon hearing what he considers to be horrific news.  

The characterization of Johnson is typical of those cartoonists who opposed his administration:  the royal attire represents his inclination for kingly power; the scroll of "My Policy" is sarcastic shorthand for Johnson's Reconstruction agenda; the bourbon bottle is a dual reference to the president's heavy drinking and his support of Southern Democrats (nicknamed "Bourbons"); and the scissors stand for his vetoes of major Reconstruction legislation.

In a broad sense, the fictional reaction of Greeley in the cartoon accurately expresses the strongly anti-Johnson and pro-impeachment stance of the New York Tribune by the spring of 1868.  The specifics of the paper's evolution on the issue, however, are more complex.

Greeley had been an ardent abolitionist whose policy on the Civil War vacillated between urging aggressive Union military action and seeking a negotiated settlement.  After the war, the editor campaigned for suffrage and other civil rights for black Americans, while controversially bailing Jefferson Davis, the former Confederate president, out of jail and endorsing amnesty for erstwhile Confederates.  

Greeley initially gave Johnson's Reconstruction program the benefit of the doubt and praised the president's message to Congress on the question in December 1865.  The next year, Greeley criticized Johnson's vetoes of the Civil Rights and Freedman's Bureau Acts, as well as the president's disgraceful tour of the Midwest in August 1866, during which Johnson was allegedly drunk and agreed with the suggested execution of leading Radical Republicans.  The notion of impeaching the president was first raised at that time, but Greeley rejected the strategy, fearing that it would make Johnson a martyr and provoke sectional violence again.  

Johnson did not hold Greeley in high regard, either, considering him to be like an imbecilic child.  Yet in February 1867, Johnson confided to his private secretary that the conflict with Congress over Reconstruction could be ended if he were to place General U.S. Grant, Admiral David Farragut, diplomat Charles Francis Adams, and Greeley (as postmaster general) in the cabinet.  The president, however, concluded that the harsh reaction of the current cabinet to such a plan would make it impossible to implement.

During 1867 and early 1868, Greeley continued to oppose the impeachment and removal of President Johnson, but increased his criticism of the president and his policies.  Greeley supported the Tenure of Office Act, which prevented the president from removing high-ranking officials without Senate approval.  The editor publicly warned the president not to violate the law by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was cooperating with the Congressional Republicans on Reconstruction policy, or Johnson would "be swept away."  

In February 1868, Greeley went on a lecture tour in the Midwest and lost contact with his office in New York.  During his absence, managing editor John Russell Young inaugurated a blistering editorial attack on Johnson and explicitly endorsed the president's impeachment and removal from office.  Upon his return, Greeley reportedly asked Young, "Why hang a man who is bent on hanging himself?"  The editor-in-chief, however, did not back away from the paper's approval of Johnson's impeachment, and there is no firm evidence that he personally opposed it.  In fact, Greeley publicly sustained the rhetorical assault on the president and privately offered his assistance to Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in the effort to remove Johnson from office.

When the verdict of the Senate trial acquitted Johnson, the pages of the Tribune radiated angry heat.  The newspaper denounced Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who presided at the trial, and the seven Republican senators who broke ranks to vote against removal.  The paper made the unfounded accusation that the president's narrow victory had been purchased.  When the president became a lame duck upon the election of Grant in November 1868, Greeley fittingly observed of the Tribune's position on Johnson:  "We did our best to get him out of office last spring."

For more information, visit HarpWeek's Website on the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the cartoon of " The Political Death of the Bogus Caesar."

Robert C. Kennedy

“Effect of the Vote on … Impeachment”
June 17, 2024

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