150 Years ago today, May 26, 1868, at the end of a two-month trial, the U.S. Senate narrowly fails to convict President Andrew Johnson of the impeachment charges brought by the House of Representatives three months earlier. The senators voted 35 guilty and 19 not guilty on the second article of impeachment, a violation of the Tenure of Office Act. Ten days earlier, the Senate had failed to convict Johnson on another article of impeachment, with the same results, 35 for conviction and 19 for acquittal. Because both votes fell short–by one vote–of the two-thirds majority needed to convict Johnson, he was judged not guilty and remained in office.

Congress used the controversial Tenure of Office Act as the legal basis for its impeachment. Seeking to limit his power to interfere with Reconstruction in the South, Congress passed the Act on March 2, 1867. The bill prohibited the president from removing officials appointed by and with the advice of the Senate without senatorial approval.

In theory, the Tenure Act was to protect low-level patronage appointees. In practice, it was to shield members of Johnson’s cabinet who disagreed with him over Reconstruction-especially Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. When Johnson tried to oust Stanton and replace him with Ulysses S. Grant, the Senate disapproved of the president’s actions, and when Johnson then sought to replace Stanton with Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, the House impeached him. Nine of the eleven impeachment articles cited Johnson’s removal of Stanton and appointment of Thomas. The problem was the Tenure Act’s murkiness: whether Stanton was protected was unclear. He had been a Lincoln appointee who simply remained in office, without being formally appointed, after Johnson became president. In any event, the effort to remove Johnson from office failed by one vote.

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