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tv   Impeachment of Andrew Johnson in Popular Culture  CSPAN  August 14, 2019 4:44pm-5:17pm EDT

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impeachment." professor thomas discussed three examples. thomas nixon jr.'s 1905 novel "the klansmen." the 1905 novel, the 1942 film "tennessee johnson" and the impeachment story told by john f. kennedy in his 1957 book "profiles in courage." this event was part of a symposium on reconstruction hosted by the u.s. capitol historical society. >> brook thomas is a professor in the english department at the university of california at irving. i think you just took emeritus status, is that correct? which means he now has more time to write and more time to talk and more time to educate all of us. and i am honored that he has come here again. he was here a couple years ago. i'm honored that he is back today. [ applause ]
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>> thank you. i have about 25 minutes so i hope we have time for question and answer. but also to let you know we're moving toward the end. reconstruction stayed alive in the popular memory largely through its portrayal in popular media. i want to look at the politics of the portrayals of andrew johnson's impeachment. and my primary works are going to be thomas dixon's "the k l s klansmen," the film "tennessee johnson." my thesis is that these works portrayal radical reconstruction as misrule re-enforced the highly-held belief that although political factors inevitably
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influence impeachment, only if there's been a legal transgression threatening the welfare of the republic. so let's start with "profiles in colonel." i think as many of you know, this book in 1957 was sketches of senators, who, at personal cost, chose principle, patriotism and rule by law over partisan politics. there's one chapter on johnson's impeachment, which failed by conviction of just one vote. these are the illustrations that kennedy has for this chapter. here is a ticket to the impeachment trial. it lasted almost two months. then here is a cartoon of the senate chambers with the trial going on. and this is edmond a. ross. edmund a. ross is kennedy's hero. he was the kansas senator who sacrificed a promising political career, when previously undecided he delivered the vote to stave off conviction after johnson's impeachment on trumped up charges by ross' fellow republicans.
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fulfilling his sworn duty to follow the law rather than bend to political pressure, he preserved the balance of power by keeping the presidency from in ross' words becoming subservient to the will. we performed what one called the most heroic act in american history, incomparably more difficult than any deed of valor upon the field of battle. in fact, it was so valorous that he wrote his own account of the impeachment which you can still buy. this is a really nice story of courage, but unquestionably accepting ross' self-an gran dizing account, kennedy ignored compelling if not certain evidence that the senator remained undecided to the last minute because he was shopping his vote around for the highest bidder. although, there was no indication that kennedy intentionally distorted the facts, there was ample political motivation for him to highlight this alleged refusal to bow to political pressure. kennedy, of course, then-senator kennedy, in 1957, had presidential ambitions.
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writing soon after brown v. board of education, he was well aware a catholic from massachusetts would eventually need southern support to procure the democratic nomination. so in 1957, it's really important to remember that many americans considered johnson a hero. for kennedy, he was determined to carry out abraham lincoln's policies of reconciliation with the defeated south by seeking to bind up the wounds of the nation and treat the south with mercy and fairness. johnson faced the extremists in congress who already, of course, clashed with lincoln. those radicals passed legislation to administer the downtrodden southern states as conquered provinces. bill after bill was passed -- was veto eed -- on the grounds that they were unconstitutional, too harsh in the treatment of the south, or an unnecessary military rule with the authority of the executive branch. those bills inclouded -- let me
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go back -- the 1866 civil rights act which gave african-americans citizenship and basic economic righ rights, an extension of the bureau and the reconstruction acts of 1867. they were, of course, always unconstitutional, unfair to the south. now, it's no accident that the kennedy's bestselling portrayal of ross are massachusetts' own benjamin butler and charles sumner described by kennedy respectively as the butcher of new orleans and sumner, the south's most implacable enemy who helped to make the reconstruction period a black nightmare the south would never forget. through his attacks on northerners, kennedy assured southerners that this massachusetts politician could be trusted. if you can avert for a moment your eye away from the fact this costs 35 cents, this inaugural edition, down to who wrote the forward. the forward in the ig fanaugura
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edition was written by allan nevins. he was not only then, wrote the forward for the inaugural edition, he was the chairman of presidents for kennedy and he had read the manuscript and for read the narrative to make sure it was historically accurate. nevins said about reconstruction is debasement when the bad got the upper hand in congress. johnson was partly broken for courage. sumner was a contrast to the false kurng that grew out of abolitionist fan attism. >> nevin account of foreign policy, this guy with the view of reconstruction is still influential with grant biographers today. but enough on that, a side late. the clansman, 1905, the racist novel by thomas dixon which became the basis of birth of a nation which omits the impeachment trial but the
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clansman does have the trial and the portrayal has significant similarities with profiles in courage. employing dramatic flair to tell the story. i want not surprising because dixon relies on kennedy's sources and dickss might have been a source for kennedy. but he has a different dramatic focus than kennedy. dixon lionizes ross but also focuses on the character who is embrace of african-american rights was threaten the republic. thaddeus stevens illustrationed in the classman, club foot, cane, no wig and of course arguing with lincoln. in fact, stephens was so sick he had to allow burlt to take over as lead prosecutor and couldn't finish the one speech he tried to give. but dixon need advilen who was rumored to have a mistress and prime architect of the black playing of reconstruction. for kennedy it was a black nightmare. now to the film, in between the
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two. 1942, tennessee johnson. the johnson -- obviously the focus is not on ross it's on johnson. in fact ross doesn't even appear. and johnson is played by van heflin who won an oscar. and the film acknowledges that the medium requires taking liberties. for instance, even though johnson did appear at his own trial in the film he comes in and gives a stirring defense. the film produces drama by pitting johnson against stephens who is played in a wheelchair by lionle barrymore who is perfectly cast after playing the villain in it's a wonderful line. and the screen play is written by a man who wrote for frankenstein who is good at creating monsters. these are the works. they have lots of similarities but different stakes they have in portrayals. for kennedy what was at stake was the checks and balances of government. the independence of the executive office as in coordinate branch of government
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was on trial. dixon agrees with that. he has -- this is a chapter called the supreme test. he says almost exactly the same as kennedy. if a partisan majority in congress could remove the executive and defy the supreme court sblt stability to civic institutions was at an end but ultimately for him however the real supreme question was will the u.s. remain a white republic? in the film it has -- those at stake but it also wants to rally support for the war effort. remember it's '42 by stressing national unity. how does it do that? well it portrays ill literate taylor apprentice johnson coming from north carolina and escapes to tennessee. he learns to read and write. becomes a spokesman for poor whites and of course those poor whites would be needed for the war effort. his hero was tennessee's democrat andrew jackson. and he had opposed the republican lincoln in 1860 but his love of the union made him
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loyal even when tennessee see seeds. he is committed to following lincoln policy rather than stephens' of revenge, confiscation disenfranchisement. inned world war ii you need to have unity in times of crisis and war. you need north and south reconciled as johns johnson was trying to do. and you need jacquecine yan and lincoln republicans getting together. african-americans were needed for the war effort. but their polite is appropriated to bolster the film to poor whites. in the first seen johnson is a shackle on his leg. and he has to have that cut off. so he is a fugitive shackle on leg, cut off, the poor white. he keeps the shackle all of his life. and then when stephens comes in when he is president and offers to help him -- i'll help you one
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win the next election if you support radical reconstruction he says and johnson applies pulse out the chain and says i've been chained before and then he promises that he is going to free southerners just as lincoln freed the slaves. you can imagine the naacp wasn't happy with this and protested. in fact they protested before the film even came out. how did that happen? well a worker for mgm gave a copy of the script to the daily worker. and the daily worker passed it to the office of war information, the naacp who then pressed mgm to make changes before the film came out. influenced by black reconstruction, the naacp sought asset less demonic portrayal of stephens and less demeaning to african-americans. mgm didn't go as far as hoped because they consulted an professor who advised the original script confirmed historical consensus which was
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true at the time. yet some scenes of stephens were shot, recut and making him more human. many scenes with african-americans deleted. meaning fewer african-americans in the film. historians of the civil rights movement pointed to this alliance between the office of war information, governmental agency and the naacp as a strategy that would work then in the civil rights movement. at the same time, conservatives even today point to this as an example of political correctness ledding to censership in hollywood. all three then, we have these -- and they have all agree on the politics of reconstruction. and they all have a common source, david dewit's impeachment appear trial of andrew johnson, 1903. i'm going to give you just a sense what have that agreement about what reconstruction was from dewit. people don't remember this but johnson actually came back to the senate in 1875. this is the dewin then
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describing his return. great as was his personal triechl, the triechl of his policy was more significant. one by one, the africanized rotten boroughs despite support of the federal administration and the u.s. army have allen or are falling. soon no relic will remain of that hybrid empire. just to give you a sense how long this view of reconstruction lasted, in 1960 dewit's become was praised by one of eric phoner's ph.d. advisers in the following way. it's something of a classic whose excellent narrative account is not likely to need redoing for some time to come if indeed ever. that was the view of reconstruction in the '60s. now, there is not only was there agreement about the politics of reconstruction but also about the politics of impeachment. which was all three portray charges against johnson as politically motivated with no legal basis. well what was the legal basis then of the impeachment?
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it was something known as the tenure of office act. congress wagon was trying to restrict johnson's powers as much as they could. and part of the tenure of office act said that senate approval was needed to remove a cabinet member that the president had appointed during his term with the advice and consent of the senate. nonetheless, johnson fired secretary of war stanton who was a radical in order to keep him from using the military to the intervene in the south. now, johnson had some really good attorneys. and those attorneys responded to this legal claim, charge, by saying hold it, stanton didn't even come under the act. why? he was appointed by ling not by johnson. and further, if -- even if he did come under the act, the only reason that johnson was doing this was to get the supreme court to rule on the constitutionality of the act. now that's a crucial interesting question. can a president defy a law in order to get a constitutional
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ruling? well, how was the legal issue then represented in the three works? well dixon more or less avoids. and highlights instead conspiracy theories. and there was one, that johnson was actually helping john willings booth and sensation alism such as the involvement of the teenage sculpture vinnie reem. >> the other two deal with the legal issue. office the they say they forebode dismissal of a cabinet member appointed by lincoln it and kennedy portray the tenure of office act dispute more or less alkt more or less. delighted in knowing the act was said to be unconstitutional in 1926 -- which is true but they fail to mention that bran dies and holmes both dissented. how do we get then to the notion of the law versus politics opposition? for dixon it was all politics. for kennedy and the film it's more nuanced i'll let kennedy speak tor the two. johnson's accusers they said did not give the president a fair
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trial on the formal issues upon which impeachment was drawn but intended instead to depose him from the white house on any grounds real or imagined for refusing to accept their policies. now what's left out of the popular account which is still there today about this impeachment was that many of those policy disagreements had actually become law. and one of the charges against johnson was that he -- of the political not legal misdeed of not doing his constitutional duty to execute them. so at the time there was a strong argument for political grounds for impeachment. and here we'll go back to charles sumner -- up sumner once tried to get rid of the electoral college but didn't work. charles sumner who predicts some bottom basts always there. made crucial points. he said for instance the house impeaches and the senate and the supreme court tries and
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indicates that founding fathers recognized the political aspect. why does the chief justice preside? because the presiding officer senate could benefit? he sites hamilton in 1665 who says can you have impeachment for violation of public trust which is political. sumner cites his mentor the joseph story saying you can have impeachment for misconduct, gross neglect or disregard in the discharge of duties of political office. he then cites the most famous constitutional historian at the time, george curtis who prior to the civil war had written that someone can be unfit for office where there is no offense against positive law, has been committed. for example, through imbesilt, immorality and maladministration. yet if we the want to see how the pliks played out when curtis
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ace brother benjamin a former supreme court justice and dissented in dred scott became one of johnson's attorneys for political reasons george changed his position. and said, no, no it has to be legal. indeed, you have a quotations from some of the people then who voted not to convict who said judge curtis gave us the law and we followed it. now obviously i want to have us rethink the longstanding legal versus political opposition. and to do so i'm a literary scholar you have to lack at the different meanings of political. in the opposition between legal and political grounds, political is almost always become a synonym for partisan. but the founding fathers also thought of the political in a terms as the art of the possible, a mode of governing. in my title i use politics yet in third which sort of the political consequences that of an act or representation or something. my argument is for complicated partisan reasons popular
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portrayals of johnson impeachment helped engrain the long-held belief that impeachment and conviction should occur only for legal transgression. it's certainly plausible to claim the founding fathers felt that someone entrusted with important role in governing the republic could be impeached for reasons both legal and political in the sense of the art of governing. for instance, high misdemeanors could include the president's z abuse of the pardonening power. the hope was that the senate could in a non-partisan way determine if someone was unfit for office. remember this opposition grew at the time when those -- was supported by those who thought that johnson was a a study of biography put a study in courage for battling radicals threatening the welfare of the republic through partisanship and bad government. but what about those recent studies -- and there are a lot on impeachment that acknowledge the possibility of conviction without a legal transgression and denounced johnson as a terrible president? and it was his politics they say
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not the radicals who were threaten the welfare of the republic. and here then i want to bring three post trump studies all good you should all read them they're very important they know more about impeachment kafrt on kass sun in. a citizen goo lawrence tribe and mots. the power to end the impeach pmt and meacham wsh impeachment and american history. all of these draw z lessons from johnson's impeachment. but not one agrees that he should have been convicted. tried for instance was his lesson. he says a failure to convict johnson offers enduring unappreciated lessons. what is that? although impeachment proceedings are intensely political they are technical and legalistic. the house put forth a weak case. that's a good lesson. put forward a good case. sunants says he was kwoechd for one reason violating the tenure of office act purely partisan.
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johnson he says was a terrible president but his impeachment violated the constitutional plan. his impeachment was unconstitutional he says even faresicle. an example of what the united states should avoid. how about meacham? he says that johnson's trial offers a lesson for today. how -- in which we are in a world in which how political passion and national division found expression in the amendment to remove a president. and then he concludes without a clear violation of law the senate -- and he says rightly zaded that the voters acting through the electoral process not lawmakers were to determine the occupancy of the presidency. let me respond to these. it's true, the house's case was a bit of a mess because the republicans themselves were divided over whether the violation of the law was needed. but sunants is wrong that firing stanton was the sole reason. the 10th article of impeachment -- there were 11. the 10th accused johnson of
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bringing the presidency into contempt, rid can kuhl and disgrace. against the office. the 11th article combined legal and political arguments, including the political claim that johnson was not properly executing the reconstruction acts. and what about meacham which sounds reasonable leave it up the voters. the reconstruction act reminds that's the question at the time. who were the voters? johnson was pardonening ex-confederate, not allowing of course aen americans to vote the reconstruction dmid that. were there grounds to declare him unfit for office? turning to a history yn more thannen allen nevins and more than kennedy. david donald. remember at that time johnson was considered a kwod president. for the american heritage he wrote an essay called why they impeach andrew johnson. and donald details how his
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political ineptitude destroyed of any chance of bringing the nation together in a way that would have done justice to the defeated south and african-americans. i'm quoting at length from donald because his voice doesn't get heard as much as it should. sure of his rectitude he was indifferent to prudeens. he never never learn the president president of the united states can't afraid to be a quarreller. in the rough and tumble politics of tennessee orators exchanged bitter denounceiations johnson continued making speeches from the white house. all too often he spoke extemp rain/snowily and permitted hecklers to bring draw him into angry charges against critics. you see why i felt i need to quote np andrew johnson never learned the president of the united states must function as a party leader. while making up his mind johnson appeared receptive to all ideas. when he made a decision his mind was immoveably closed and
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defends his course with all the ob tinnancy of a weasel. no longer sympathetic or kind he was harsh pet lant and unreasonable. promptness persuasion could have create add presidential following. intsz he boggled. after noting historians dismissed charges against johnson as flimsy and false. donald includes by insisting that perhaps the bar of history itself johnson must be impeached with a graver charge through political ineptitude he threw away a magnificent opportunity. i'm going to draw to my conclusion with donald's words in mine. one of the points i've been trying to make, while the dismissal of the political is partisan didn't originate with reconstruction it is i think not an accident that the law versus politicking binary on impeachment arose during reconstruction, which for years was condemned as partisan misrule by radicals. to be sure, in the post trump world, more and more scholar
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acknowledge the legislate macy of considering political factors. but what does their failure to make a case for johnson's conviction tell us about reconstruction status in the national memory? meacham helps us answer that question in the middle of his essay not at the end. where he makes the speculation. he says the fate of reconstruction hinged on whether sumner's political argument would meet the definition of an impeachable offense. but remember what meacham concludes. no it didn't we should leaf to voters. implying he was going to reconstruction to go according to his own logic. of course meacham exaggerates. convicting johnson would not have made reconstruction a success. would have helped. pu johnson more than radicals was threatening the welfare of the republic. was it a weak case as tribe and mots argue that not executing the reconstruction acts was impeachable? that charge was originally proposed by thomas jankis who
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tried to limit partisanship in pliks through civil service reform. and it was he who sponsored the bill creating the justice department. to me the charge was not faresicle,cy sunants says it is. flaur an allegation of mere political rhetoric which others say. the reason is failed was that one too many senators looked for as could be hiding behind meacham's standard of finding a clear vials of law. now to be sure the an argument can be made and compelling one that proceeding with impeachment was unwise because with johnson about to end his term it would have caused unnecessary division but that is a political consideration. in the meantime the narrative of profiles in courage still lives. the narrative in which the radical republicans were so partisan and couldn't even rule well enough to handle impeachment. tribes dismissal of the 11th
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article as vague allegations echos kennedy's charge it was deliberatery obscure. neither mentions the charge of the reconstruction acts. in the conclusion of impeachment an american history, jeffrey a. angle rest you are ecstatic kennedy's account with high praise that he mentions ross who defeated trumped up charges by the considering the conscientiouses as well as constituents. on cnn on friday i watched the special on the history of kbeepment. all of the experts agreed that partisanship reigned and there were no grounds for impeachment. for me, the treatment of johnson's impeachment suggests that reconstruction remains in erick phone areas words unfinished rufrlgs because in part when it's not absent from public memory it's too often misremembered. thank you. [ applause ] . i'm happy to take questions if we have some time. >> actually, let me -- i'm going
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to ask you to sit down. >> okay. and we have questions for bowing panelists. >> i actually -- okay. can you live with that? >> sure. >> okay. are there -- pardon? >> it's okay. >> okay. anyway, so are there people who would like to come up appear ask questions? there is a microphone over there. i'm shocked. i'm going to ask one of -- of brook. which is as most political historians who have studied this have argued that the real ren for the defeat of the impeachment was the fact that the person who would succeed johnson was ben waite of ohio who was despised by an enormous number of people in the senate,
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including fellow radical republicans. and that radical republicans who were pushing for grant to be the nominee in 1868 did not want to have to deal with the incumbent ben wade. and so it was easier to stomach johnson for what would have been less than another year until the new president came into office. >> if i have 30 minutes to talk rather than five you're absolutely right. >> just a minute. >> yeah, again if i had a longer talk i would have included -- tried to include that. he is absolutely right. it's obviously this is more complicated ben wade who was then because there was no vice president he would have succeeded taken over as president for the short time. i can say -- not all but maybe two or three votes and you only need one. also in the film they actually have a figure for wade. and when johnson says, well -- he is introduced, johnson goes
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between him and me -- and he starts laughing. they'll never succeed. the film is accurate about that as it was. >> no questions. no comments? does anyone have a further comment for randy end. i can bring you up here as well. if not we get to leave a few minutes early. i want to thank everybody. i want to thank chuck and lorin who are in the back. and i'd like them to stand one more time for applause. [ applause ] and -- and the rest -- rest of the u.s. capital historical society staff because they are the ones who made this happen. i thank you all of you for come. and next year, probably pretty much the same time, possibly
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even the same place, there will be another conference as the u.s. capital historical society does its best to educate the american people on the history that has helped take us to where we are today. thank you all very much. [ applause ] all week we're featuring american history tv programs a preview of what's available every weekend on cspan2. the lectures in history, american the artifacts, real america, the civil where, oral inherits, the presidency and special event coverage about our nation's history. enjoy american history tv now and every weekend on cspan3. week nights this month, we're featuring american history
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tv programs as a prevow of what's available every weekend on cspan2 cspan3. a look at a recent conference held at perdue university titled remaking american political history. we'll feature programs from the gatherering focusing on u.s. politics and government from the earliest days of the american republic. american history tv aires at 8:00 eastern on cspan3. >> adam arenson, the tielgt of your paper here at the meeting is crossing the border after the underground railroad, african north americans returning from canada. so what might -- people have heard of the underground railroad. but why were slaves trying to escape to canada? and how were they able to do that? >> all right. so the underground railroad is really a whole set of things together. it's boats. it's some rails. it's roads. it was people really trying to get out of


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