The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
ĽOvert Obstruction of Congress

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Editorial
Harper's Weekly, October 19, 1867, page 658

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SUSPENSION DURING IMPEACHMENT
The President is reported to have said to a Tennessee friend that if Congress should impeach him and attempt to suspend him during the trial he would resist. He would endeavor to justify such a course, probably, upon the ground that the Constitution—which is so precious to him and to the Democratic allies and apologists of the rebellion—provides for the removal of the President only on conviction. But if Congress, upon assembling, should pass a law providing for the suspension from their functions of all impeached officers of the Government, from the moment of impeachment until the end of the trial, what then? The President would, of course, veto the bill; Congress would pass it over the veto, and it would become the law of the land. Would Andrew Johnson then undertake armed resistance to the law?

Undoubtedly he would if he thought he should be supported, and very possibly he would under any circumstances. It must be remembered that the President is not only an ignorant, obstinate, and passionate man, but—if common report may be trusted—he is an intemperate man. It has been publicly stated that he intended to relieve General Grant and make General Frank Blair Secretary of War. Now the habits of General Blair are notorious. Jeremiah Black is the President’s confidential adviser, and Jeremiah Black is a patriot of the school of Fernando Wood and Robert Toombs. It is idle to say that such men will not dare to do this or that. They will dare to do anything. They would undoubtedly prefer the form and letter of law, but they could very readily devise any pretext. There can be no more stupendous folly, with our recent experience, than to insist that it is a mere partisan trick to say that violence is very possible and probable upon the part of the President.

He is besotted with the notion that it is his business to defend what he calls the Constitution—in other words, certain theories of his own—against Congress. Now, as a matter of fact, under the Constitution there is no power whatever to oppose the action of Congress, when the veto has been outvoted. To the extent of the veto the President has a constitutional check upon Congress. Beyond that, he is as powerless as the man in the moon. When, in opposition to his veto and by the Constitutional provision, the will of Congress has become law, the sole constitutional duty of the President is to take care that it be faithfully executed in such manner as Congress may have appointed. The President may think that it is a law destructive of the Government, of civil liberty, and of the rights of human nature. But under the Constitution, when he has vetoed it in vain, he must see to its faithful execution or resign. If he will do neither—if he remains merely an encumbrance and paralysis upon the law—Congress may, at its pleasure, constitutionally proceed to impeach him for high misdemeanors.

The truth is, under the Constitution, Congress, when it has a two-thirds majority against the President, is the really superior and supreme branch of the Government; and the only final check of its action is not the will of the President but of the people. One very great advantage of the present political situation is that it dispels some of the vague traditional untruths about our Government. One of the most common theories has been that it was a government of three co-ordinate branches. Co-ordinate means not subordinate; and the theory, therefore, was, that ours was a government of three equally supreme departments. Such a fallacy might be entertained until it was tested. Then, of course, it was sure to be discovered that three supremacies in the same systems was a mere fiction. When an actual contest arises between all of them, or any one of them and the other two, it must either be compromised—which settles nothing, and leaves the essential question still open—or one most wholly yield—which establishes its inferiority—or each must persist to the last—in which case force would determine the superiority of one or the other.

The history of the present conflict between the President and Congress shows that when Congress has not a majority of two-thirds against the President he is master of the situation. But when Congress has that majority the President is utterly powerless. If Congress should pass a law over his veto, and the President should refuse to see it faithfully executed upon the ground that the Supreme Court had declared it unconstitutional, Congress must either yield to the Supreme Court, which would make that Court the government of the country, or is must impeach the President despite the court. If, then, the Chief Justice refused to sit upon the impeachment, there must be a compromise or a forcible solution. Or suppose Congress and the President united, and the Court opposed to them. Congress passes a law, and the President sees that it is executed, while the Supreme Court declares it to be unconstitutional. What can the co-ordinate supremacy of the Court do? Does the Constitution require the President to ask the Court before he sees to the execution of a law, or does it require him to refuse to execute it because the Court declares it unconstitutional? May every law be held invalid until the court legitimates it? Such a theory subordinates both Congress and the President to the Supreme Court? In any cast the fiction of the co-ordinate branches is exposed.

Take another possible case. The President has issued an amnesty. Certain ex-rebels demand to be registered under it and are refused. The Supreme Court decides that they may be registered and vote. They are permitted to vote by authority of the President, sworn to see that the laws are faithfully executed. But such voting is against the law of Congress, and the President is impeached for authorizing a plain violation of the law. There is again no alternative but submission or resistance. There is certainly no equal supremacy. The truth again is, that the will of Congress must prevail despite the President and the Supreme Court, or the Supreme Court is the real Legislature.

It was this combination of the Executive and the Supreme Court upon which the leaders of the Democracy relied ten years ago to secure the nationality of slavery. They were sure that the opposition could not obtain a two-thirds majority in Congress, and they everywhere declared that a decision of the Supreme Court settled finally and forever the constitutionality of a law. Therefore Buchanan in his inaugural announced the Dred Scott decision. When it came, the New York Express and the other slaves of the slave-power insolently asked, "What are you going to do about it?" Mr. Douglas asked Mr. Lincoln the same question upon their stumping contest through Illinois. Mr. Lincoln, as usual, answered for the intelligence and conscience and determination of the country in replying that the decision of a court might be revered as decisions often had been.

If Congress shall think it wise to impeach the President, after having provided for the suspension of all impeached officers pending their trial, there will be no letter of the law even upon which the President could hope to justify resistance. Resistance would be mere revolution. Even if he pleaded that he was persecuted for opinion’s sake—which would be ludicrously untrue—there would be no course for him but submission or resistance. All that Congress and good citizens can do is to take care that he has no excuse for violence. For the violence itself, however, they ought to be prepared. If it is not attempted it will be chiefly because it is anticipated.

Articles Related to Overt Obstruction of Congress:
Congress
February 2, 1867, page 67
February 16, 1867, page 99
March 16, 1867, page 163


How Long?
June 29, 1867, page 402


Reconstruction and Obstruction
July 6, 1867, page 418


The Summer Session
July 6, 1867, page 418


The Fortieth Congress
July 17, 1867, page 467


Thanks to the District Commanders
July 27, 1867, page 467


Impeachment Postponed
July 27, 1867, page 467


A Desperate Man
August 13, 1867, page 546


The Secretary of War
August 24, 1867, page 530


Samson Agonistes at Washington (cartoon)
August 24, 1867, page 544


The Stanton Imbroglio (illustrated satire)
August 24, 1867, page 542


Secretary Grant
August 31, 1867, page 546


Southern Reconstruction
August 31, 1867, page 547


The Political Situation
September 7, 1867, page 562


General Thomas
September 7, 1867, page 563


Southern Reconstruction
September 7, 1867, page 563


The General and the President
September 14, 1867, page 578


General Sickles Also
September 14, 1867, page 579


Southern Reconstruction
September 21, 1867, page 595


The President’s Intentions
September 28, 1867, page 610


Impeachment
October 5, 1867, page 626


The Main Question
October 5, 1867, pages 626-627


Suspension during Impeachment
October 19, 1867, page 658


"Disregarding" The Law
November 2, 1867, page 691


Impeachment
December 14, 1867, page 786


General Grant’s Testimony
December 14, 1867, page 786


The President’s Message
December 14, 1867, page 787


General Grant’s Letter
January 1, 1868, page 2


Secretary Stanton’s Restoration
January 25, 1868, page 51


Reconstruction Measures
January 25, 1868, page 51


The President, Mr. Stanton and General Grant
February 1, 1868, page 66


Romeo (Seward) to Mercutio (Johnson) (cartoon)
February 1, 1868, page 76


The War Office
February 1, 1868, page 77


Secretary’s Room in the War Department (illus)
February 1, 1868, page 77


The New Reconstruction Bill
February 8, 1868, page 83

 

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