Review of The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation by Brenda Wineapple
The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation
by Brenda Wineapple
I grew up in the ’90s, and I vaguely remember on TV when I was a kid some kind of scandal involving this guy named Bill Clinton, whom I knew as the President of the United States. The word impeachment kept getting thrown around, but of course I didn’t really know what that meant. Fast-forward 20 years, and the word has resurfaced as a possible fate for the current President, Donald Trump—and this time, I knew what the word meant, but I didn’t really understand what impeachment entails. So Brenda Wineapple’s book on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson came into my life at an opportune time. The Impeachers explains the nature of presidential impeachment through a case study of one of the only two presidents ever to be impeached. However, it is much, much more than that. It’s really a snapshot of American history immediately following the American Civil War. Thanks to NetGalley and Random House for the eARC.
Here in Canada, we learn some very bare-bones American history (which means we learn slightly more than the average American does about American history). So obviously I knew what the Civil War was, what it was about, causes, etc. I knew the names Lincoln and Grant and (vaguely) Johnson. As history classes in school often do, however, they elide the difficult reconstruction parts that follow any massive conflict. I had known the Civil War was a thing, and that it had led to Emancipation. Never did I really pause to think what that actually looked like, how the Confederate states were readmitted into the Union, the immediate effects of emancipating slaves in the South, the violence that ensued … but of course, the moment Wineapple starts describing the headaches, problems, and loss of life, it was immediately obvious. Just because the Union had “won” the war didn’t mean everyone in the South was suddenly going to magically be all right with living next to free Black people. Duh.
So Wineapple spends the first part of the book on a brief history of the United States right at the beginning of Johnson’s presidency: Lincoln assassinated, the country still fractured, legislators deeply divided on what an equitable Reconstruction looks like. Wineapple frames this as Johnson essentially being the wrong man at the wrong time, his temperament and ideology inappropriate for the task of Reconstruction. As I mentioned above, lots of this was new to me. I had no idea about Johnson’s political views on secession, suffrage, etc.
Wineapple also covers a lot of the animus and internecine racial conflict in the South. She doesn’t mince words: the Union might have won the war and abolished slavery, but that didn’t end racism any more than Obama’s election in 2008 ended it. White people were lynching Black people (and white allies) quite openly. The overall effect is to belie the comfortable idea that the violence and unrest in the present-day United States of America is somehow a new or different condition than earlier in its history. So many people seem interested in “returning” to the better days, of making America—dare I say—great again. Although Wineapple doesn’t come right out and say it, we can infer that there is a strong possibility America was never “great” in that sense. Indeed, even with the civil war “won,” the idea that the former Confederate states would simply return to the Union was not a foregone conclusion….
So, impeachment trial itself aside, The Impeachers provides such valuable insight into US history just after the Civil War. How does it fare with the impeachment though?
Honestly, there are more details here than I probably wanted. This will be an excellent reference for anyone who is a student of this era. Wineapple is careful to go into the backstories of anyone who might be anything more than a passing player in this drama; there are even photos! Believe me, I’m not criticizing the book for these attributes—but they do add up for a somewhat drier experience than I typically look for in my history books. This is just a case of mismatched book and audience, though, not a reflection on the book’s quality.
When we finally get to the impeachment trial, things feel more anticlimactic. Again, Wineapple wants to recount everything in as much detail as possible, drawing out the inevitable acquittal (uh … sorry, spoilers) that we know must be coming. Again, if detail is what you want, then you will not be disappointed. I really just wanted to know what happened and hear Wineapple’s take on the how and why.
On the other hand, all of the back and forth helps us understand what impeachment is and is not. Firstly, it’s not clearly laid out in the Constitution. This first presidential impeachment was very improvisational and ad hoc. It’s not a criminal procedure—it’s a political one, despite the Chief Justice presiding. Finally, its political origins mean it hangs more on the well-chosen words and backroom deals of political vote-grubbing than it does on any type of evidentiary support. At the end of the day, Johnson is acquitted not because he’s “innocent” of the articles of impeachment but because enough senators had doubts, or professed to have doubts because it was more politically expedient for them to do so.
I understand now better the issues at stake as people call for the impeachment of Donald Trump. It’s not just a procedural but an inherently political decision. And, without meaning to downplay the direction in which the United States is currently heading, this book reminds us that there have definitely been Constitutional lacunae previously in American history. It’s true that we don’t really know what Americans and their government will do if Trump finally crosses some kind of line he hasn’t already crossed with apparent impunity—but the United States has actually been in similar situations before. Now, I don’t say this to be reassuring in any way. Instead, I just want to observe that The Impeachers is a good lesson in why learning one’s history is so important: if we remember where we’ve been, we have a better sense of the precedents that can shape our future.
Anyway, as a non-American who doesn’t often read about American history, this was a pretty OK read. A little too technical/detailed for my history-reading tastes. A student of history might be more appreciative of that kind of thing, though. This definitely improved my understanding of an important period of American history and helped put some current events in a new perspective. If we take that to be part of history books’ purpose, then on that scale, The Impeachers succeeds.