The president came to power by accident, a populist, out of the mainstream of the party that nominated him, and believed by many to be a racist.
His name was Andrew Johnson and he escaped removal from office by impeachment by one vote in the Republican senate.
In looking for an historical parallel to the statements this week of prominent Republican senators about the president of their party—the example of Andrew Johnson is the closest I can come.
Sure, there have been lots of senators who have opposed their party’s presidents — think Ted Kennedy running against Jimmy Carter in 1980. But to have this kind of denunciation of a president’s character by high-ranking members of his own party is virtually unprecedented.
Andrew Johnson, of course, came to power after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He had been a Democrat but an ardent Union man who refused to secede from the Senate with his home state of Tennessee. When Lincoln sought a second term his re-election was far from certain and he needed the support of “Union Democrats” so he chose Johnson as his running mate.
The new vice president disgraced himself at the inauguration by showing up drunk (his defenders insisted that he was ailing) and he was dismissed by the powers in Washington as an irrelevancy. But just weeks after he assumed his position as the number two in government, he ascended to number one.
At first the Radical Republicans in Congress thought they could work with him because of his populist positions and his disdain for secession. They had been ready to take on Lincoln for what they saw as his temporizing on Reconstruction. But those Republicans soon found that Johnson was even less willing to impose any punishment on the southern defectors than Lincoln had been.
The president opposed his party on measure after measure but the Republicans had enough votes to defy Johnson and pass the all-important 14th and 15th amendments—extending the protections of the federal government to the states and granting African American men the right to vote.
Finally, Johnson’s persistence in opposing the Republican majority paved the way to impeachment proceedings. After the House voted to impeach and the trial in the Senate began, the assumption was that the president would soon be looking for work. There were more than enough Republicans to constitute a two/thirds vote for conviction.
But it didn’t happen. Every one of those Republicans had his own political reasons for wanting Johnson, whom they universally despised, either to stay or go. (The highly influential daughter of the presiding Chief Justice Salmon Chase was said to oppose Johnson’s ouster because his wife was a nonentity and with her in the White House Kate Chase Sprague could rule the Washington social scene.)
“I cannot agree to destroy the harmonious working of the Constitution,” argued Iowa Senator James Grimes, “for the sake of getting rid of an Unacceptable President.” That was perhaps the least self-interested reason for voting to keep Johnson in office, if true, but others in the Senate also had cause to stop short of the drastic step of removing a the constitutionally chosen chief executive.
So Johnson served out his term and returned to Tennessee where five years later he was re-elected to the Senate and briefly took his seat among the men who had voted to throw him out of office. He died a few months later but died having defeated his enemies.
The speeches of Republicans opposing this president passionately and persuasively mark a meaningful milestone in the U.S. Senate. But it would be a leap to assume that anything will come of it.