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Prelude to Presidential Impeachment
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Edwin Stanton’s woeful letter to Lincoln’s former chief of staff, General Halleck, alludes to the difficulties of Reconstruction and the contention between Stanton and President Andrew Johnson. The conflict between Stanton and Johnson would soon give rise to America’s first presidential impeachment trial, following what nearly amounted to a coup d’ètat.

EDWIN M. STANTON. Autograph Letter Signed as secretary of war, to Major General Henry W. Halleck on War Department letterhead. Washington, D.C.. April 26, 1866. 2 pp. 7¾ x 9¾ in.

Inventory #21929       Price: $2,500

Partial Transcript

How often you are in my thoughts it would be bootless if possible to tell. The events that have happened since we parted & are daily transpiring are as strange as what we passed through together. You are fortunately afar off and at peace, while I am still tugging at the oar as hopelessly & almost as painfully as a galley slave. The newspapers tell you all, & more of public events are happening, the upshot you can guess at as well as any body else. No one can do more than guess. In regard to military affairs there seems a pretty strong probability that Congress will pass no Army bill this session…St. Louis Board appointed by Grant to regulate Brevets has dissatisfied more than are pleased, but that result would follow any effort at promotion. I hoped to have the adjutancy for Scott, and succeeded at first, but it was countermanded by the President on the next day & given to Taylor.

Historical Background

The conflict between Stanton and Johnson played a major part in Congress’ effort to impeach President Johnson. Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act on March 2, 1867, requiring Senate approval before the president could remove appointees – including cabinet members – from office.  The legislation was specifically intended to prevent the ouster of Stanton. Johnson vetoed it, but his veto was overridden by Congress.  The president’s decision to fire Stanton was thus an act of defiance. Congress, of course, refused to confirm the suspension.  

After Ulysses S. Grant declined Johnson’s offer to take over the Cabinet position, the president appointed Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas. Stanton, in the meantime, and with the support of many in Congress, refused to accept the legitimacy of the dismissal and barricaded himself in the War Office. On February 24th, the House voted to impeach Johnson for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Stanton did not give up his post as Secretary of War until May of that year, after the Senate narrowly voted against the president’s removal.

The Tenure of Office Act was finally repealed in 1887 and in 1926 the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869) commenced his political life as an Ohio lawyer and antislavery Democrat. He served as U.S. Attorney General under President James Buchanan in the winter of 1860-1861 during which time he strengthened the Administration’s resolve against secession. Appointed as Lincoln’s Secretary of War in early 1862, Stanton brought civilian-style order to the Army and War Department, improving the efficiency of the armed forces. His earlier success as a Pittsburgh lawyer honed his skills in negotiation and communication, allowing him to work with Congress and the president to ensure appropriate involvement in the conduct of the war by each branch of government, as specified by the Constitution. Continuing in the cabinet of President Andrew Johnson, Stanton clearly articulated the Army’s role as a major agent in the implementation of Reconstruction policies. Disagreements over Johnson’s position on Reconstruction led to Stanton’s ouster and eventually to Johnson’s 1868 impeachment. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Stanton to the Supreme Court, but Stanton died before he could take the oath of office.

General Henry W. Halleck (1815 –1872) replaced John C. Frèmont as commander of the Department of the Missouri in November of 1861 after Frèmont exceeded his authority in the position. Eight months later, Lincoln appointed Halleck general in chief of the Union armies. Before the war Halleck had been a successful California lawyer and businessman.  He was the author of the California state constitution and was the author of a well-studied textbook on military tactics. His talent as an administrator far outweighed his talents in the field though.  He was excessively cautious as a commander with a personality that failed to inspire aggressive action in his subordinates. “Halleck was widely disdained in Washington and in the field for his failure to take responsibility or give clear directives.” In March 1864 Ulysses Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General and made general in chief with Halleck becoming chief of staff, an arrangement that made much better employment of the respective capabilities of the two men. Halleck was transferred to the Division of the Pacific August 1865 and was headquartered in California at the time Stanton wrote this letter to him. In March 1869, Halleck was given command of the Division of the South in Louisville, Kentucky.

Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) was the only U.S. senator from the South (Tennessee) who didn’t quit his post with the secession. In 1862 Lincoln appointed him Military Governor of Tennessee, which was occupied by the Union Army, thus placing Johnson in a leadership role with respect to reconstruction of the state. He was nominated as the vice presidential candidate in 1864 on the National Union Party ticket. He was the first U.S. president to succeed to the presidency upon the assassination of his predecessor and the first U.S. President to be impeached. Until Congress took over the Reconstruction process in 1867, Johnson was in charge of the difficult task of the national Reconstruction.


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