Senator John Brooks Henderson endured scorn and accusations of corruption in exonerating Democrat President Andrew Johnson of impeachment charges in 1868.
The Pike County lawmaker from Louisiana – one of only seven Republicans who voted to acquit Johnson – made a remarkable decision amid threats, bribery and the contempt of people with whom he had once been close.
Even more extraordinary was that the senator knew it would end his political career at a time when he held sway in Washington and was about to marry a woman with equally strong ambitions and abilities. Henderson ultimately found that standing upon principle and the rule of law brought a measure of vindication.
Johnson was accused of undermining a constitutionally-questionable edict called the Tenure of Office Act, which was passed by an antagonistic Congress intent upon limiting his post-Civil War authority. When Johnson allegedly violated the law by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, critics claimed abuse of power – one of the key accusations in 2020 efforts to oust Republican President Donald Trump.
The House of Representatives filed 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson. After a trial that lasted almost three months, the Senate was finally ready to vote on May 16, 1868. Before that could happen, there was a twist.
On May 11, Henderson declared he was against all but one of the articles, and might even have trouble with the charge that Johnson overstepped his authority. The announcement made him what author David O. Stewart called “a prime target for the forces of influence.” Consequently, Henderson got a visit at 8 a.m. on May 12 from some powerful Missouri political leaders.
The meeting prompted conjecture, accusations and questions. Various reports had the senator promising to convict if enough of his colleagues did the same; agreeing to abstain from voting if acquittal seemed likely; or saying he would resign so Missouri Gov. Thomas Clement Fletcher could appoint a replacement more favorable to impeachment.
Meanwhile, Missouri Democrats allegedly agreed to back Henderson for re-election later that year if Republicans followed through on threats to show the senator the same door as Johnson.
What is known is that seven Congressmen asked Henderson in a letter to “withhold your vote upon any article upon which you cannot vote affirmatively” for impeachment because “we believe the safety of the loyal people of the United States demands the immediate removal of Andrew Johnson.”
One of the signers was Pike County Republican George Washington Anderson, a Louisiana lawyer who had served in the Union Army with Henderson. Whatever doubts Henderson harbored on the morning of May 12, he no longer had them by that evening, promptly sending an elegant telegram addressed to a political acquaintance but meant for a much broader audience.
“Say to my friends that I am sworn to do impartial justice according to law and the evidence, and I will try to do it like an honest man,” he wrote.
On May 16, the Senate voted 35 to 19 to convict Johnson on one article – one vote shy of the required two-thirds majority to remove him from office. Mary Foote, a 25-year-old lifelong Democrat and social activist with whom the 41-year-old Henderson would recite wedding vows the following month, was watching from the gallery. Ten days later, the same outcome occurred in a vote on two other articles and the impeachment ended.
In a lengthy explanation of his vote, Henderson said he had to “examine this case from a legal and not a party point of view.” To that end, he could not “in justice to the laws of the land, in justice to the country or to my own sense of right, render any other response to the several articles than a verdict of ‘not guilty.’”
One of the impeachment managers, Massachusetts Congressman Benjamin Butler, led an investigation into whether Henderson and the other six Republican dissenters were offered cash or promised political patronage in exchange for their votes.
No evidence was found. The New York Herald called the investigators’ report a “weak, trashy and stupid production” that “proves nothing” and did not tie any of the senators to corruption. Speculation continued, however. Henderson visited the White House twice in the week before his wedding and Johnson even attended the June 25 nuptials at the National Hotel.
On July 26, Henderson took to the Senate floor to quell the bribery talk, blasting the conduct of impeachment supporters who sought vengeance as “disgraceful” to the American character.
“I am not now, and never expect to be, ashamed of anything connected with this purpose of mine,” he proclaimed.
Johnson remained in office as a lame duck until Republican Ulysses S. Grant succeeded him in 1869. He got a measure of revenge in 1875, when he was sworn in as a senator from his home state of Tennessee by one of the men who had voted to impeach him. His only Senate speech concluded with the words “God save the Constitution.” Johnson died four months later at age 66.
Henderson declined to seek re-election in 1868 and ran unsuccessfully for Missouri governor. He went on to prosecute federal tax evaders, deal with Native American affairs and campaign for women’s voting rights. Grant fired him as a special prosecutor in the Whiskey Ring scandal after suspicions were cast upon the White House.
Shrewd investments paved the way in 1888 for a return to Washington, where the Hendersons quickly became social power brokers. He died at 86 on April 12, 1913. She passed on July 16, 1931, five days shy of her 89th birthday.
Henderson was “the only one of the Seven Traitors whom the Republican party publicly and formally forgave,” noted author Horace White. It came at the party’s 1884 national convention in Chicago, where the former senator served as chairman.
“The assembled multitude knew at once the significance of (the choice) and gave cheer after cheer of applause and approval,” said White, who was in attendance. “It was the signal that all was forgiven on both sides. Which side most needed forgiveness was not asked.”
Two other chief executives, Rutherford Hayes and Grover Cleveland, sparred with Congress over the Tenure of Office Act before it was repealed in 1887. A similar law was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1926.
Today, little is remembered about the nuances of the Johnson case. As the years pass, the same likely will happen with the 1998 impeachment of Democrat President Bill Clinton. It’s only natural, and a probability that bodes well for Trump, too.
Republican James Blaine, a two-time presidential candidate who served in both houses of Congress, recognized the greater considerations born of time.
“The sober reflection of later years has persuaded many who favored impeachment that it was not justifiable on the charges made, and that its success would have resulted in greater injury to free institutions than Andrew Johnson in his utmost endeavor was able to inflict,” Blaine said.
Henderson also weighed in, with what Trump supporters likely would claim as a comment which could be made in 2020.
“It would be well if those who urged (impeachment) as a general panacea for mistakes and dissatisfaction in the workings of elections would study the personal motives and partisan maneuverings which were the soul and body of this enormity of injustice in American history,” he said.
Editor’s note: The preceding is the final part of a series written by award-winning journalist, author and public relations professional Brent Engel of Louisiana.