tv Impeachment of Andrew Johnson in Popular Culture CSPAN June 30, 2019 1:28pm-2:01pm EDT
content from congress and beyond. today, that big idea is more important than ever. c-span is your unfiltered view of government so you can make up your own mind. not to you as a public service by your cape -- brought to you as a public service by your satellite provider. next, university of california-irvine english professor brooke thomas delivers titled "the politics of popular portrayals of andrew johnson's impeachment." professor thomas discussed three examples: thomas dixon, jr.'s 1905 novel "the clansman," the 1942 hollywood film "tennessee johnson" and the impeachment >> brooke thomas is a professor in the english department at the university of california at irvine.
i think he just took emeritus status which means he has more , time to write and more time to talk and more time to educate all of us, and i am honored that he has come here again. he's come here a couple years ago and i'm honored he's back today. [applause] >> thank you. what i'm going to do here is give about 25 minutes. i hope without get more time for questions and answers, but we're moving towards the end. reconstruction stayed alive in the popular memory largely through its portrayal in popular media. and i want to look at the politics of the portrayal of andrew johnson's impeachment. and my primary works are going
to be the novel the klansmen, the film tennessee johnson, and john f. kennedy's profiles encourage. my thesis is that although political factors inevitably influenced impeachment, on the -- under the standard of high crimes and misdemeanors should -- conviction should occur only if there is a transgression threatening the welfare of the republic. most of you are familiar with this book, profiles in courage. this was sketches of senators who chose principle, patriotism, and rule by law over partisan politics. there is one chapter on johnson's impeachment, which most of you know failed by conviction of one by one vote. conviction failed by one vote.
these are the illustrations kennedy had for this chapter. here is a ticket to the impeachment trial. it lasted almost two months. then here is a cartoon of the senate chambers and here is ross kennedy's hero. , he was a kansas senator who sacrificed a career when he delivered the decisive vote to stave off conviction after johnson's impeachment on trumped up charges. fulfilling his duty to follow the law rather than bend to political pressure, he preserved constitutional balance of power by keeping the presidency from becoming, in his words, subservient to the legislative will. in doing so, he performed what one historian called the most heroic act in american history, incomparably more difficult than any deed or valor upon the field of battle. valorous, heas so wrote his own account of the impeachment, which you can still buy. this is a nice story of courage. but unquestionably accepting this self aggrandizing account, kennedy ignored compelling if
not certain evidence the senator remained undecided to the last minute because he was shopping his vote for the highest bidder. although there was no indication that kennedy intentionally distorted the facts, there was ample political motivation for him to highlight this alleged refusal to bow to political pressure. kennedy, of course, had presidential ambitions. writing soon for brown versus the board of education, he was well aware that they would need southern support to secure the democratic nomination. in 1957, it's really important to remember many americans considered johnson a hero. for kennedy, he was determined to carry out abraham lincoln's policies with the defeated so to -- policies of reconciliation with the defeated south to bind the wounds of the nation and treat the south with mercy and fairness. johnson faced extremists in congress who had already clashed
with lincoln. those radicals pass legislation to administer the downtrodden southern states as concord -- concord -- conquered provinces. bill after bill was vetoed on the grounds they were unconstitutional, too harsh, or unnecessary engagement of military rule. with the authority of the executive branch. those bills included the 1866 civil rights act, which gave african-americans citizenship and economic rights, and the reconstruction act of 1857. .- 1867 they were unconstitutional and unfair to the south. it's no accident the villain in kennedy's portrayal are massachusetts' own benjamin butler and charles sumner, described by kennedy as the butcher of new orleans and mr. sumner, the south's most implacable enemy, who helped make the reconstruction period a black nightmare the south would never forget. through his attacks on these
northerners, kennedy assured southerners this massachusetts politician could be trusted. just to add more, if you can moment, your eye away from the fact this only cost $.35, you might not be able to see this, but the forward was written by allan nevins. he was a pulitzer prize-winning historian and he was not only, wrote the forward for the inaugural edition, he was the chairman of presidents for kennedy, and read the proof to make sure it was historically accurate. this is what nevins had to say about reconstruction. it was a time of profligate debasement, and johnson was partly broken for his courage. sumner was an example of the false courage that grew out of abolitionist fanaticism. this is just a sideline, but
unfortunately nevins' account, of foreign policy, which he wrote on at this time, this view of reconstruction, is still influential with grant biographers today. enough on that. let's get to the klansmen, 1905, the racist novel that became the basis of the movie birth of a nation, which omits the impeachment trial. but the klansmen does have the trial and it has significant similarities with profiles in courage, including dramatic flair to tell the story of heroism. it's not surprising. dixon might be a source for kennedy. he does have a somewhat different dramatic focus from kennedy. dixon lionize as ross, but he also focuses on austin stone, whose embrace of african-american rights was threatening the foundation of the republic. here is thaddeus stevens with his famous wig. no wig, arguing with lincoln.
in fact, stevens was so sick he had to allow butler to take over as lead prosecutor and couldn't finish the one speech he tried to give. but dixon needed a villain who was rumored to have a mulatto mistress and was a prime architect of the black plague. for kennedy, it was a black nightmare. obviously, the focus is not on ross. it's on johnson. in fact, ross doesn't even appear. the film technologies that it's -- acknowledges that it's medium requires taking certain liberties. for instance, even though johnson didn't appear at his own trial, in the film he comes in and gives a stirring defense. the film produces drama by pitting johnson against stevens, who's played in a wheelchair by lionel barrymore, who is perfectly cast.
he just played the villain and it's a wonderful life. and the screenwriter was good at creating monsters. these are the three different works. they have lots of similarities, but there are different stakes in their betrayals. for kennedy, what was at stake was the checks and balances of government. the independence of the executive office is a -- as a coordinated branch of government was on trial. dixon agrees with that. he has a chapter called the supreme test. he says almost exactly the same as kennedy. ina partisan majority congress could remove the executive and define the supreme court, the authority of civic institutions was at an end. but the real question was, will the u.s. remain a white republic? in the film, they want to rally stressingr the war by
national unity. how does it do that? it portrays a taylor's tennessee who escapes . he becomes a spokesman for whites, needed for the war effort. his hero was tennessee democrat andrew jackson. and he opposed lincoln in 1860, but his love of the union made him loyal, even when tennessee seceded, causing lincoln to choose him as vice president and -- in 1864. in world war ii, you need to have unity in times of crisis and war. you need north and south reconciled, which johnson was trying to do. you need jacksonian democrats lincoln republicans getting together. african-americans were needed,
but their plight was appropriated to bolster whites. in the first scene, johnson's runaway apprentice has a shackle on his leg. he has to have that cutoff. he keeps the shackle all of his life. and then, when stevens comes in and offers to help him win the you election, it's if support radical reconstruction. and johnson says i've seen change before. -- i've been in chains before. he promises he's going to free lincolners just like freed the slaves. the naacp wasn't happy and they protested. a worker for mgm gave a copy of the script to the daily worker. and the daily worker passed it to the office of information and
the naacp, who pressured mgm to make changes. influenced by black reconstruction, the naacp saw a less demonic portrayal of stevens. mgm didn't go as far because they consulted a professor who advised this was confirmed to historical consensus, which unfortunately was true at the time. yet some scenes were cut, reshot making him more human, and many scenes with african-americans were deleted, meaning there were fewer in the film. historians in the civil rights movement pointed to this alliance between the office of war information and the naacp as strategy that would work in the civil rights movement. at the same time, conservatives today point to this as political correctness leading to censorship in hollywood. all three had these, and they
all agree on politics of reconstruction, and they all have a common source, the -- david dewitt's "impeachment of andrew johnson," 1903. i'm going to give you a sense of what the agreement of what reconstruction was from dewitt. people don't remember, but johnson came back to the senate in 1875. this is dewitt describing the return. great as was his personal triumph, the triumph of the policy was more significant. one by one, the africanized rotten boroughs, despite support of the federal administration, have fallen or are falling. soon, no relic will remain of the hybrid empire. just to give you a sense how long this lasted, in 1960, his book was praised by a phd advisor. it's something of a classic. the excellent narrative account is not likely to need redoing
for quite some time, if indeed ever. that was the view in the 1960's. now, not only was there agreement about the politics of reconstruction, but also about the politics of impeachment, which was portrayed the charges against johnson as politically motivated with no legal basis. what's legal basis of impeachment? it was the tenure office act. congress was trying to restrict johnson's power as much as they could. part of the tenure of office act said that senate approval was needed to remove a cabinet member that the president appointed with the advice and consent of the senate. nonetheless, johnson fired secretary of war stanton, who was a radical, to keep him from using the military to intervene in the south. now, johnson had really good attorneys. those attorneys responded to this claim by saying hold it. stanton didn't come under the
act. why? he was appointed by lincoln, not johnson. and further, even if he did, the only reason johnson was doing this to get to the supreme court's rule on the constitutionality of the act. that's an interesting question. can the president to file law in order to get a constitutional ruling? so, how is the legal issue represented in these three works? dixon more or less avoids it. conspiracyts the theory, and there was one, that johnson was helping john wilkes booth. the other two actually do deal with the legal issue. although the film mistakenly says the tenure office act for bids dismissal of the cabinet member appointed lincoln -- that's not right -- they per -- portray the tenure of office act dispute more or less accurately.
more or less. delighted in knowing that the act was said to be unconstitutional, which was true, but they failed to mention brandeis and homes in the senate. how did we get to the notion of the law versus politics of opposition? for dixon, it was all politics. for kennedy, a little more nuanced. i'll let kennedy speak for the two of them. johnson's accusers, he said, did not give him a fair trial on the formal issue upon which impeachment was drawn, but intended to depose him from the white house on any grounds, real or imagined, for refusing to accept these policies. what is left out is that many of those policy disagreements had become law. one of the charges against johnson was that, of the political, not legal, of not doing his constitutional duty to execute them. so, at the time, there was a strong argument for political grounds for impeachment.
we'll go back to charles sumner. he once tried to get rid of the electoral college, but it didn't work. charles sumner made some crucial points. he said the fact the house and peaches, not the senate, not the supreme court, indicates the founding fathers recognized these aspects. doesn't the chief justice preside over it? because he could benefit from impeachment. you have to have another figure. he then cites hamilton in federalist 65, who says you could have impeachment for violation of some public trust, which is political. he then cites his mentor, saying you can have impeachment for misconduct, gross neglect or disregard of your duties of office. he then cites the most famous
constitutional historian at the time, who, prior to the civil war, had written that someone can be unfit for office where there is no offense committed. for example, through imbecility, immorality, and maladministration. yet, if we want to see how politics played out, when curtis' brother, benjamin, a ,ormer supreme court justice who dissented in dred scott, then became a senator became one of johnson's attorneys. george changed his position and said no, it has to be illegal. indeed, you have a quotation that said he gave us the law and we followed it. i want to have us rethink this legal versus political opposition. to do so, you have to look at the different meetings of political. the opposition between legal and political grounds, political is
almost always a synonym for partisan. founding fathers also thought about it in other terms, as the art of the possible as a mode of governing. i use it in the third way, political consequence instead of an act or representation. for complicated partisan reasons, popular portrayals of johnson's impeachment helped to ingrain the long-held belief impeachment and conviction should occur only for legal transgression. it's certainly possible to claim founding fathers thought they could be impeached for reasons legal and political. for instance, high misdemeanors could include interviews of -- abuse of party power. the hope was that the senate could conclude if someone was unfit for office. remember, the opposition grew at by time and was supported
those who thought johnson was, as one biography says, a study in courage for battling radicals who threatened the welfare for -- the welfare of the country. what about the recent studies? there are a lot of them that acknowledgment possibilities for conviction without the legal transgression and denounce johnson is a terrible president. direct you to three studies, all good, you should read them. now, all of these were lessons from johnson's impeachment. but significantly, not one agrees that he should have been convicted. he said a failure to convict johnson offers unappreciated
lessons. although impeachment proceedings intensely -- are intensely political, they are also technical and legalistic. that's a good lesson. put forward a good case. the next says johnson was impeached for one reason, violating the tenure of office act, which was purely partisan. johnson was a terrible president, but his impeachment violated the constitutional plan. his impeachment was unconstitutional, even farcical, an example of what the united states should avoid. meacham says johnson's trial offers a lesson for today, which -- in which we are in a world in which how political passion and division found an attempt to remove a president. and then he concluded, without a clear violation of law, the senate rightly decided the voters acting through the
electoral process, not lawmakers, were to determine the occupancy of the presidency. let me respond. it's true. the case in the house was a mess. the republicans was divided over whether the violation of the law was needed. but some see it as wrong that the firing of stanton was the sole reason. they accuse johnson of bringing the presidency into contempt, ridicule, and disgrace. so it was against the office. the 11th article combined legal and political arguments, including the claim johnson was not properly executing the reconstruction act. what about meacham? sounds reasonable. leave it up to the voters. the reconstruction act reminds us that that was exactly the question at the time. who were the voters? johnson was pardoning next confederates and letting them vote.
ex-confederates and letting them vote. the reconstruction act tried to reverse that. i want to turn to a historian, much more than allan nevins and john kennedy pause profiling courage. that's david donald. profilesennedy's encourage. that's david donald. johnson was considered a good president. for the american heritage, he wrote an essay called hawaii they impeach andrew johnson. -- called why they impeached andrew johnson. donald details how his ineptitude destroyed any chance of bringing the nation together in a way that would have brought justice to the south and african-americans. his voice doesn't get hurt as much as it should. johnson was indifferent. he never learned the president cannot afford to be a quarreler. johnson continued to make
speeches from the white house. all too often, he spoke extemporaneously and provoke -- provoked critics. he never learned that the president must function as a party leader. while making up his mind, he seemed receptive to all ideas. when he made a decision, his mind was a movably closed and he defended his course with all the abstinence of a weasel. nce of ate' e -- weasel. as charles sumner put it, no longer sympathetic, he was harsh, petulant, and unreasonable. promise, publicity, and persuasion could create a following. after noting to dismiss charges as false, he concludes by insisting before the bar of history, he must be impeached with a graver charge. he threw away an opportunity. i'm going to start drawing towards my conclusion.
one of the points i've been trying to make is, while the dismissal didn't originate with reconstruction, it is not an accident that the law on impeachment arose during reconstruction, which was condemned as partisan by radicals -- partisan ms. rule by radicals. -- misrule by radicals. to be sure, in the post trump world, more are acknowledging the legitimacy of considering clinical factors. but what does their failure to make a case tell us about the national memory? meacham helps us answer that in which he makes a speculation. the fate of reconstruction hinged on whether sumners political argument would meet the definition of an impeachable defense. remember what he concludes. no, it didn't. we should leave it to the voters, implying he would allow reconstruction to go, according to the logic.
of course, he exaggerates. convicting johnson would not have made reconstruction a success. it might've helped. but johnson was threatening the welfare of the republic. was it a weak case that it was not weak case that executing the reconstruction act was impeachable? that charge was imposed by someone who tried to limit partisanship through civil service reform. it was he who sponsored the bill that created the justice department. to me, the charge was not vagueal, nor was it a allegation or mere political rhetoric. the reason it failed was that one too many senators look for, or could hide behind his standard of finding a clear violation of law. to be sure, an argument can be made that proceeding with impeachment was unwise because with johnson about to end his
term, it would've caused unnecessary division. but that is a political consideration. in the meantime, the narrative --profiles encourage cash in profiles in courage still lives, in which the radical republican were so partisan and could even role well enough -- couldn't even role well enough to handle impeachment. vague allegations also echo kennedy's charge. jeffrey engel resurrects the account with high praise. , who defeatedss trumped up charges by considering constituents. last friday on cnn, i watched a special on the history of impeachment and all the experts agree that partisanship rained and there were no grounds for impeachment. for me, the treatment of johnson's impeachment suggests
reconstruction remains an unfinished revolution because when it's not absent from public memory, it is too often misremembered. thank you. [applause] >> i'm happy to take questions. we have some time. >> actually, i'm going to ask you to sit down. we have questions for both panelists. ok. can you live with that? >> sure. >> ok, anyhow, are there people who would like to come up and ask questions? there's a microphone over there. i'm shocked. i'm going to ask one of brooke, which is, as most political
historians who have argued that the real reason for the defeat of the impeachment was the fact that the person who would succeed johnson was ben wade of ohio, who was despised by an enormous number of people in the senate, including fellow radical republicans, and that radical republicans pushing for grant to be the nominee in 1868 did not want to deal with the incumbent, ben wade, and it was much easier to stomach johnson for less than another year until another president came into office. >> [inaudible] >> again, if i had a longer talk, i would have tried to include that. that's right.
it's more complicated. ben wade, because there is no vice president, he would have taken over as president for a short time. i can say not all, that maybe two or three votes, and you only need one. in the film, they have a figure for wade. when johnson says, between him and me, and he starts laughing, they'll never impeach. -- succeed. the film is accurate about that, by the way. >> no questions? no comments? does anyone have further comment for randy kennedy? i can bring him up here, as well. if not, we get to leave a few minutes early. i want to thank everybody. i want to think chuck and -- thanks check and -- thank
chuck and lauren, who are in the back. i'd like them to stand one more time for applause. [applause] and the rest of the u.s. capitol historical society staff, because they're the ones that made this happen. i thank all of you for coming and next year, probably pretty much the same time, possibly even the same place, there will be another conference as the u.s. capital historical society does its best to educate the american people on the history that has helped take us to where we are today. thank you very much. [applause] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] announcer: american history tv is on social media. follow us on c-span history.
next, ran export themes that shaped policy. the exporting of concepts like progress and civilization in the 20th century and the lack of diversity and thought among u.s. policymakers during the cold war. this discussion was hosted by a conference -- was part of a organence hosted at the -- at oregon state university. , i first realized how brilliant he was when i was at the university of pennsylvania. a dissertation entitled -- which was awarded the 2016 allen evans prize. be --ook manuscript will a book will be based on it