This trial isn’t usually mentioned in histories of the war, and often glossed over when it is mentioned with the usual veneer of ‘Radicals’ acting extremely.
Johnson got into trouble initially due to his veto of the Reconstruction acts. The issue of how to reintegrate the Southern states and assure that the Negro citizens kept their rights was a tough one, despite intellectuals afterwards asserting otherwise. With the political class more or less all involved in the rebellion, and with the ex-slaves not being ready to take their place, the alternatives were to rule with the military until the whites acquiesced, or doom the blacks to generations of ‘neo-slavery’. While in the end, this is what happened anyway, Congress should not be dismissed for making an effort.
So when Johnson began relieving the military governors, and the Secretary of War in defiance of the Tenure of Office Act, which held that appointed persons must serve a full term, Congress was angry. Johnson had already vetoed several Reconstruction bills that were overridden. and here he was trying to do the same through the back door.
Johnson’s dismissal of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War that organized the victory in the Civil War, was designed to precipitate a crisis. Remember, Stanton was overseeing an occupation of a dozen states at the time. These states had been at war with the country just before that. Congress had a very real interest in having someone competent and incorruptible overseeing this. Stanton was many unpleasant things besides competent and incorruptible, but he had what was needed in the post.
The trial came down to a few Senators in the middle. The Democrats would vote no for political reasons, many Republicans would vote yes for the same. The middle found their verdict came down to the charge of violating the Tenure of Office Act in firing Stanton. Ironically, it did not apply to Stanton, who had been confirmed under Lincoln in 1862. Enough Senators found for Johnson that the impeachment failed.
Afterwards, things cooled down on both sides. Johnson nominated men that Congress could accept in the posts, and Reconstruction went on. It would finally end as a political deal with the Democrats in the disputed Hayes-Tilden election in 1876. The troops were pulled out, and the white majority was free to enact Jim Crow legislation to eliminate the rights of the blacks living there.
- Notable Historical Trials IV – The Assassination of Lincoln (kilobooks.wordpress.com)