Editor’s Note: Larry Ambrosy of Bellevue last week brought a chapter of a history book pertaining to Iowa to our attention. The book, entitled ‘Iowa: The Land Across the River,’ by Don Doyle Brown (1977), contains a segment on the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Abraham Lincoln as president after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Three years later in 1868, Iowa Senator James Grimes played a key role in the Senate Impeachment vote. The following, which seems somewhat pertinent to what is going on in our national politics today, is reprinted from the book.
When the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, people everywhere in the United States breathed a sigh of relief and hoped that arguments and bitterness were now things of the past. But this was not to be the case.
After President Lincoln was assassinated, Vice President Andrew Johnson succeeded him. Johnson (who was actually a Democrat, part of Lincoln’s ‘Team of Rivals’) soon ran into trouble with a group of radical Republicans in Congress who wanted to deal harshly with the South. Johnson had many disagreements with Congress and he vetoed many bills only to have Congress pass them over his veto.
Members of Congress became particularly upset over Johnson’s dismissal of Secretary of War Stanton. Congress declared this dismissal violated the Tenure of Office Act and the House of Representatives drew up papers of impeachment against Johnson.
Under our Constitution, a President may be impeached, that is, removed from office, for high crimes and misdemeanors. The charge against President Johnson was that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act by firing Stanton and had libeled Congress in speeches.
These charges actually were not sufficient grounds for Johnson’s removal but were simply excuses of those who wanted him removed.
The impeachment trial
The trial of President Johnson started in March 1868. It was held before the Senate with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding. The Senators would then vote as to whether Johnson should or should not be convicted of the charges and removed from office.
Iowa was fortunate in having two widely-respected men representing this state in the United States Senate; James Harlan, who wanted Johnson impeached, and James W. Grimes. Both men were Republicans.
As the trial of President Johnson began, tension ran high in the country. A small group of Republicans were working hard to oust the President. Speeches were made by the special prosecutors appointed by the House of Representatives and by the defense attorneys appointed by President Johnson.
Meanwhile, before the impeachment charge came to a vote in the Senate, Iowa’s Senator Grimes suffered a stroke of paralysis and became very ill.
On the day the question was to be voted upon in the Senate the galleries were packed. All of the Senators were present except Senator Grimes who was still quite ill. Nobody expected him to come.
The, as Senators and spectators watched in surprise, the Senate door opened and some men carried the ailing Iowa Senator to his desk.
Then the Clerk started calling roll with each Senator rising as his name was called and casting his vote. When the name of Senator Grimes was reached, the Chief Justice told him he could remain seated to cast his vote.
However, Grimes answered feebly that he would rather stand and asked some colleagues to assist him. With his friend helping him, Grimes stood to announce his vote.
“Mr. Senator Grimes,” said the Chief Justice, “how say you? Is the defendant Andrew Johnson, President of the United States guilty or not guilty as charged?”
In a voice a little stronger, Senator Grimes said “Not guilty.”
When the roll call was completed the Chief Justice announced that 35 Senators voted guilty and 19 voted not guilty. By the lack of one vote from the required two-thirds majority, the President was found not guilty of the impeachment charges and thus was not removed from office. He was saved by one vote.
Critized in the media
Because of his stand on the matter, Senator Grimes was severely criticized by his own party and former friends. The New York Tribune said the following.
“Those who know Mr. Grimes can easily understand why he, a Republican- raised to eminence by Republicans, trusted, honored, promoted, cherished by Republicans-seems compelled to send a Parthian arrow at the party life. History merely repeats itself. It seems that no generation can pass without giving us a man to live among the warnings of history. We have had Benedict Arnold, Aaron Burr, Jefferson Davis, and now we have James Grimes.”
Abuse after abuse was heaped upon Grimes by those who thought Johnson should be removed from office. Even Grimes’ hometown newspaper rebuked him for his ‘not guilty’ vote.
The turmoil and abuse, and his own frail health, caused Senator Grimes to resign his Senate seat and return to Iowa in 1871 for a rest.
When James Grimes died in 1872, Iowa had finally come to realize and appreciate his courage. Most historians feel that if Johnson had been convicted and removed from office merely because Congress disagreed with him, our democratic form of government would have suffered. Credit is given Grimes for forestalling such action by his courage and determination to vote even though he was very ill.
Iowa, and the nation, can be proud that in the midst of one of the most emotional and threatening periods of history, James Grimes added dignity, courage and statesmanship when it was needed most.