This Day in the Law
May 16

President Johnson Avoids Impeachment by One Vote (1868)

On May 16, 1868, President Andrew Johnson avoided impeachment from office by 1 vote in one of the most dramatic political events in U.S. history (and the first impeachment proceeding of a President in U.S. history).

In February 1868, the U.S. House of Representatives impeached Johnson under eleven articles of impeachment based on his alleged "high crimes and misdemeanors" under Article II of the U.S. Constitution. The impeachment was actually based on a strong disagreement between the Republican Party, which held majority in Congress, and the Democratic President Johnson’s view on how to properly deal with the Reconstruction policies after the U.S. Civil War. The Republicans wanted Johnson to take a much tougher stance against the Southern states after the Civil War, but Johnson refused to do so. In short, the trial was much more of a political trial than anything else.

The impeachment trial lasted two months from early March to early May in 1868, and Supreme Court Chief Justice, Salmon P. Chase, presided over the trial. The culmination of the trial came to its head on this day, May 16, 1868.

There was amazing tension in the courtroom and the galleries were packed for the final vote on the impeachment against Johnson. The entire impeachment trial came down to one final vote – the vote of Senator Edmund Ross. In other words, Ross held the fate of President Johnson in his hands. Historian David Dewitt described how the vote by Ross played out:
It is a singular fact that not one of the actors in that high scene was sure in his own mind how his one senator was going to vote, except, perhaps, himself. 'Mr. Senator Ross, how say you?' the voice of the Chief Justice rings out over the solemn silence. 'Is the respondent, Andrew Johnson, guilty or not guilty of a high misdemeanor as charged in this article?' The Chief Justice bends forward, intense anxiety furrowing his brow. The seated associates of the senator on his feet fix upon him their united gaze. The representatives of the people of the United States watch every movement of his features. The whole audience listens for the coming answer as it would have listened for the crack of doom. And the answer comes, full, distinct, definite, unhesitating and unmistakable. The words 'Not Guilty' sweep over the assembly, and, as one man, the hearers fling themselves back into their seats; the strain snaps; the contest ends; impeachment is blown into the air.
Ross voted not to impeach President Johnson and the total vote fell one short (35 to 19) of the two thirds majority needed for the impeachment conviction. So, Johnson was acquitted of impeachment (i.e. found not guilty).

Congress’s failed attempt to impeach Johnson is important. It checked the attempt of Congress from establishing control over the President’s role in creating federal policies (e.g. the Reconstruction policies of Civil War).

The only other U.S. president to face impeachment was Bill Clinton, and he was acquitted like Johnson.