The Johnson Impeachment

SECTION 4. The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.


President Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House on the ground that he had violated the “Tenure of Office” Act879 by dismissing a Cabinet chief. The theory of the proponents of impeachment was succinctly put by Representative Butler, one of the managers of the impeachment in the Senate trial. “An impeachable high crime or misdemeanor is one in its nature or consequences subversive of some fundamental or essential principle of government or highly prejudicial to the public interest, and this may consist of a violation of the Constitution, of law, of an official oath, or of duty, by an act committed or omitted, or, without violating a positive law, by the abuse of discretionary powers from improper motives or for an improper purpose.”880 Former Justice Benjamin Curtis controverted this argument, saying: “My first position is, that when the Constitution speaks of ‘treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors,’ it refers to, and includes only, high criminal of-fences against the United States, made so by some law of the United States existing when the acts complained of were done, and I say that this is plainly to be inferred from each and every provision of the Constitution on the subject of impeachment.”881 The President’s acquittal by a single vote was no doubt not the result of a choice between the two theories, but the result may be said to have placed a gloss on the impeachment language approximating the theory of the defense.882

879 Act of March 2, 1867, ch. 154, 14 Stat. 430.

880 1 Trial Of Andrew Johnson, President Of The United States On Impeachment 88, 147 (1868).

881 Id. at 409.

882 For an account of the Johnson proceedings, see William H. Rehnquist, Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments Of Justice Samuel Chase And President Andrew Johnson (1992).