Dickie, Don, and Andy

July 28, 2017

Impeach 1

Andrew Johnson shortly before his death in 1869.

A former colleague of mine used to say that I could work Enos Slaughter, Harpo Marx, or Andrew Johnson into any conversation.

He might have been right, but where Johnson is concerned, I didn’t need any help to work him into the general discourse about the presidency of Donald Trump. Others did it for me by invoking the impeachment of Andrew Johnson as a precursor to what—in theory, at least—could be in store for the 45th president of the United States.

That was understandable. Once impeachment was added to the discussion, there were only three precedents to turn to—the cases of Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton. The impeachments of Johnson and Clinton and the likelihood that Nixon would have been impeached had he not resigned all arose from circumstances that were particular to the behavior of those three men. In Johnson’s case, the circumstances were also particular to that time in history—the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the murder of Abraham Lincoln. There is a limit to the parallels that can be drawn between those three cases and that of Donald Trump.

Impeachment 2

Richard Nixon

There are parallels, though, limited as they might be. The myriad authorities—the former directors of this and the professors of that—who help TV faces torture and dissect the matter virtually around the clock—have frequently recalled Nixon’s dismissal of special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox as the sort of  decision that Trump might take regarding the investigation of Russian meddling in the last presidential election. And the authorities have speculated that such a decision on Trump’s part—with respect to special prosecutor Robert Mueller II, for example—would lead to the same sort of disaster that befell Nixon.

There is also this parallel—in this case concerning, if you’ll forgive me, Andrew Johnson. This has to do with the arms-length dust-up between Trump and his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions. Johnson also had a falling out with a member of his cabinet—the able secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, who had served in that capacity under Abraham Lincoln and as attorney-general under James Buchanan.

Johnson, although an admirable man in many respects, was famously the wrong person to succeed Lincoln at such a contentious and sensitive time in the nation’s history. There were several reasons for that, and one of them was that he was incapable of compromise. He and a Congress that was dominated by the Republican Party disagreed fundamentally about how the federal government should proceed with the defeated Confederate states and with the millions of black men and women who had been freed from lives of slavery.

Impeachment 3

Edwin M. Stanton

The short-hand version of this dispute is that the Republicans—led by the so-called Radical wing—wanted to put the southern states through a process of re-admission to the Union—including a period of military government—and extend to black Americans the same right to vote enjoyed by white Americans. Johnson, a southern Democrat who had stuck with the Union to the point of risking his life—wanted to restore the southern state governments with relatively little to-do, and he did not want to give the vote or much of anything else to the former slaves. Besides the obvious disagreements, there was an underlying difference with respect to the prerogatives the states and the prerogatives of the federal government—or the “general government,” as it was sometimes called in those days.

Included in the thrusts and parries of this contest was the Tenure of Office Act, a law passed by Congress, over Johnson’s veto, restricting the president’s power to remove from office, without the consent of the Senate, any federal officer the president had appointed with the consent of the Senate. That would include cabinet officers, of course, and it was designed to protect Stanton, who not only supported the whole Radical program but worked against the president’s agenda. This was a wry turn of events, because one of the bona fides Johnson could lay claim to was that he had retained Lincoln’s whole cabinet, even though Johnson was a conservative Democrat. In fact, he and others believed that he could not have violated the Tenure of Office Act by removing an officer he had not appointed in the first place.

Impeachment 4

Ulysses S. Grant

The law was in place, however, and it specifically provided that if the president suspended an officer while the Senate was not in session, the Senate, when it reconvened, could reinstate the rascal, and the president would have to keep him on. That provision meant a lot more then than it does now, because in the mid 19th century, Congress was not in session for most of the year.

Eventually, Johnson had enough of Stanton; while the Senate was in recess in August 1867, Johnson suspended Stanton and told him to turn the office over to Ulysses S. Grant—who not only opposed the suspension but disagreed with Johnson’s policies regarding reconstruction of the South. When the Senate returned in January, it did not uphold the suspension. Johnson believed, correctly, that the law was unconstitutional, and he decided to force the question in the courts. He removed Stanton and appointed in his place the comic-opera Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas who was not up to the fight when Stanton refused to leave office. When Johnson was impeached in February 1868, the charges against him boiled down to his violation of the Tenure of Office Act and his public challenges to the legitimacy of what he had referred to as a “rump Congress”—meaning that it represented only part of the country.

Johnson was acquitted by one vote, although some historians have maintained that several more Senators were prepared to vote for acquittal if there was a chance of conviction. Being partisan politicians, they weren’t about to climb out on that limb if it were not necessary.

The charges against Johnson regarding the dismissal of Stanton were flimsy, and the charges related to his public speeches were absurd. But impeachment is a political process, not a legal one, which is why—whenever the possibility of impeachment arises—the question of what constitutes an impeachable offense is argued anew. Gerald Ford once observed that grounds for impeachment are whatever Congress says they are; that’s true on a certain level, but the republic can’t stand if Congress can remove a president for expressing his opinion, much less for the color of his ties.

Many wished for the conviction of Andrew Johnson, but they might unwittingly have been wishing too for a serious jolt to the balance of powers intended by the founders.

 

 

 

 

 

Mudd 2In the 1936 film Prisoner of Shark Island Samuel Mudd is portrayed (by Warner Baxter) as a well-meaning country doctor who unwittingly abetted the escape of John Wilkes Booth and wound up in a federal prison on an island in the Caribbean. He is pardoned after stemming a yellow fever epidemic that swept the prison.

It’s a good story, but it isn’t entirely true. The truth, some might think, is even more interesting, and it is laid out in detail in The Assassin’s Doctor  by Robert K. Summers.

Summers, a great-grandson of Dr. Mudd, has written several books on this and related subjects, but he is not an apologist for his forebear. He seems more interested—particularly in this book—in spreading the record before the reading public.

Mudd - 2

Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas Islands, where Dr. Mudd was imprisoned for four years.

Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln just as the Civil War was ending, and the reaction of the federal government—particularly of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—was affected by the intense feelings rippling through the country, feelings that included fear, disillusionment, desperation, and paranoia.

After shooting Lincoln, Booth jumped from the presidential box to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, breaking a leg. He stumbled out of the theater, mounted a waiting horse, and galloped off to Maryland where, in the company of David Herold, one of his co-conspirators, he arrived around 4 in the morning at the home of Dr. Mudd.

Aroused from his sleep, Dr. Mudd took Booth in, put a splint on the broken leg, and provided Booth with a makeshift pair of crutches. Booth remained at Dr. Mudd’s home until the following day, and then left with Herold, heading for Virginia where Herold surrendered and Booth was shot to death by a Union soldier.

Mudd - 4

Dr. SAMUEL MUDD

Dr. Mudd did not tell anyone about his visitors until several days later, and even then he didn’t do so directly but asked his cousin, Dr. George Mudd, to notify federal authorities in a nearby town. Military personnel visited Samuel Mudd’s home where the Mudds eventually turned over a boot that had been cut from Booth’s leg and that bore the inscription “J. Wilkes.”

Dr. Mudd was arrested, charged with conspiracy, tried by the same military commission that condemned to death three men (including Herold) and one woman (Mary Surratt); Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas islands south of Key West. He was pardoned in 1869 by President Andrew Johnson after working diligently to treat victims of yellow fever at the prison and contracting the disease himself.

There are no serious disagreements about these facts, but there is a lingering discourse about certain aspects of Dr. Mudd’s behavior. The most important question is whether Dr. Mudd recognized Booth when the assassin came calling with his broken leg. Dr. Mudd had met Booth before, when the actor was in the neighborhood ostensibly looking at real estate and seeking to buy a horse. But the doctor and his wife, Sarah, maintained that Booth was wearing false whiskers when he came seeking help with his injury and that Dr. Mudd did not recognize him and had no reason to suspect him. The Mudds’ account was that Booth left their house on Saturday, April 15, while Dr. Mudd was absent, and that Mrs. Mudd noticed the false whiskers at that time. According to this version of events, when Dr. Mudd resolved to notify authorities about these now-suspicious men, Mrs. Mudd prevailed on him to stay at home inasmuch as the men might still be in the area and might pose a danger to the family. So Booth used his cousin as a surrogate messenger.

mudd 5I think the consensus among historians now is that Dr. Mudd’s acquaintance with Booth was more than the incidental encounter Dr. Mudd described, and that Dr. Mudd participated in conversations with Booth and others concerning Booth’s earlier plan to kidnap Lincoln and take him to Richmond, hoping to enable the Confederate government to negotiate a release of military prisoners. Dr. Mudd was a slave holder and a Southern sympathizer living in a border state, although not an activist against the Union government. It is unlikely, however, that he knew anything about Booth’s decision to murder Lincoln, both because Booth seems to have made that decision only shortly before carrying out the murder and because Dr. Mudd’s character suggests that he would not have agreed to have any part in such a crime. If he did help facilitate Booth’s escape, his primary motive might have been to purge the Mudd household of a murderer.

All the questions about what Dr. Mudd knew and when he knew it are explored in this book. Summers also includes extensive documentation, including many letters that Dr. Mudd wrote to his wife and others while he was a prisoner at Fort Jefferson. These letters include a description of his one attempt to escape from the prison, the harsh conditions under which he and the other prisoners lived, his relationship with other men who were sentenced in connection with the conspiracies against Lincoln, and his heroic part in stemming the yellow-jack epidemic. The average reader might not want to read all of these documents—although a history wonk such as me might devour them—but they do present in a convenient collection an opportunity to hear history unfolding in the voices of those who were taking part in it.

Mudd 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

Justin S. Vaughn, a political science professor at Boise State University, writing recently in The Times, raised the question of which of Barack Obama’s predecessors have been the best and the worst former presidents. It’s an uncommon way to look at the presidency, and it adds a useful context. Those of us who are only casual observers of history tend to think of the presidents strictly in terms of their time in office and evaluate them accordingly. But, as Vaughn points out, “Our greatest ex-presidents have engaged in important work, sometimes at a level that rivaled their accomplishments in the White House. Our worst ex-presidents, on the other hand, have been noteworthy for taking strong positions against the national interest and consistently undermining their successors for personal and political reasons.”

Vaughn’s choices as the best former presidents included John Quincy Adams, Jimmy Carter, William Howard Taft, and Herbert Hoover. When the Washington Post, in 2014, asked 162 members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents & Executive Politics section to rank the presidents, Taft was 20th and Quincy Adams 22nd. Carter and Hoover did not place in the top 24. That implies, if one were to take these things literally, that the four best former presidents by Vaughn’s estimation were only middling or worse as presidents.

HERBERT HOOVER

HERBERT HOOVER

But Adams, one of only two presidents to be elected to public office after leaving the White House, was a leading member of the House of Representatives for almost 20 years; Carter has devoted himself to promoting human and political rights all over the world. Hoover headed the program to stave off starvation in Germany after World War II and he was appointed by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower to lead commissions that successfully recommended reforms in the operations of the federal government.

Vaughn’s nominees for the worst former presidents include John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Theodore Roosevelt. The first three did not distinguish themselves as president, but Roosevelt is regularly ranked among the best. He finished fourth in the 2014 survey, following Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT

I recently got a belated education regarding Taft and Theodore Roosevelt by reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit, which is sort of a double biography. The careers of these two men — their whole careers, not only their presidencies — occurred during a critical era in American history in which the nation grappled with the tension between free enterprise and the government’s attempts to prevent large business interests from unfairly controlling whole sectors of the economy. Goodwin paints impressive portraits that convey the personal and political integrity and the spirit of public service that characterized both Taft and Roosevelt. Both men were highly distinguished before they were elected to the presidency. Taft, as Goodwin relates, was mostly interested in the law and hoped to some day serve on the United States Supreme Court. He did not aspire to be president, but accepted the role under the heavy influence of his wife and of Roosevelt, who had promised after he was elected to his second term that he would not seek a third — a promise he lived to regret.

One of the reasons Roosevelt lands in Vaughn’s list of worst former presidents is that he disapproved of Taft’s administration and, forsaking his “two and through” pledge, challenged him for the 1912 Republican nomination and, failing at that, ran for president on a third-party ticket, guaranteeing the election of the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. Taft, on the other hand, realized his ambition when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice of the United States, a position in which he served with distinction for a decade.

Although Roosevelt was an egocentric and therefore sometimes childish character, his life and that of Taft, on the whole, were among the most exemplary among American public figures. Goodwin’s account of their careers, by bringing them to life, also brings to life an often neglected epoch in American history.