Thaddeus Stevens, Speech of 24 February


Thaddeus Stevens is perhaps the most well-known man on the other side of Andrew Johnson's prosecution trial. Stevens was a representative from Pennsylvania and a strong Republican leader. Known for his strong personality, Stevens essentially dominated the House from 1861 onwards, and it was he who led the charges for impeachment. From 1866 to 1868 he delivered many speeches to the House floor proclaiming why Johnson was unfit to stay in the Executive Office after committing a number of high misdemeanors. In this speech given on February 24, 1868, he appeals to the safety of the public and the nation. He emphasizes the need for a strong Congress not dominated by an abusive president in order to most efficiently and effectively carry out the reconstruction policies. In his mind, this was a time of great need for the country. The way in which the reconstruction policies were carried out and put into place was crucial to the survival of the country. Stevens accuses Johnson of undermining Congress's authority when he dismisses Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Not only was this in violation of a recently enacted law, but it was detrimental to the nation.


Mr. STEVENS, of Pennsylvania. Mr. Speaker, I agree with those gentlemen who have gone before me that this is a grave subject and should be gravely treated. It is important to the high official who is the subject of these charges, and it is important to a nation of forty million people, now free, and rapidly increasing to hundreds of millions. The official character of the Chief Executive of this great nation being that involved, the charge, if falsely made, is a cruel wrong if, on the other hand, the usurpations and misdemeanors charged against him are true he is guilty of as atrocious attempts to usurp the liberty and destroy the happiness of this nation as were ever perpetrated by the most detestable tyrant who ever oppressed his fellow men. Let us, therefore, discuss these questions in no partisan spirit, but with the legal accuracy and impartial justice. The people desire no victim and the will endure no usurper.

The charges, so far as I shall discuss them, are few and distinct. Andrew Johnson is charged with attempting to usurp the powers of other branches of Government; with attempting to obstruct and resist the execution of the law; with the misprision of bribery; and with the open violation of laws which declare his acts misdemeanors and subject him to fine and imprisonment; and with removing from office the Secretary of War during the session of the Senate without the advice or consent of the Senate; and with violating the sixth section of the act entitles “An act regulating the tenure of certain civil offices.” There are other offenses charges in the papers referred to the committee, which I may consider more by themselves.

In order to sustain under our Constitution I do not hold that it is necessary to prove a crime as an indictable offense, or any act malum in se. I agree with the distinguished gentlemen from Pennsylvania, on the other side of the House, who holds this to be a purely political proceeding. It is intended as a remedy for malfeasance in office and to prevent continuance thereof. Beyond that, it is not intended as a personal punishment for past offenses or for future example.

Impeachment under our Constitution is very different from impeachment under the English law. The framers of our Constitution did not rely fir safety upon the avenging dagger of a Brutus, but provided peaceful remedies which should present that necessity, England had two systems of inrisprudence: one for the trial and punishment of common offenders, and one for the trial of men in high stations, whom it was found difficult to convict before the ordinary tribunals. This latter proceeding was by impeachment or by bills of attainder, generally practiced to punish official male factors, but the system soon degenerated into political and personal persecution , and men were tried, condemned, and executed by this court from malignant motives. Such was the condition of the English laws when our Constitution was framed and the Convention determined to provide against the abuser of that high power, so that avenger and punishment should not be inflicted upon political or personal enemies. Here the whole punishment was made to consist in removal from office, and bills of attainder where wholly prohibited. We are to treat this question, then, as wholly political, in which, if an officer of the Government abuse his trust or attempt to pervert it to improper purposes, whatever might be his motives, he becomes subject to impeachment and removal from office. The offense being indictable does not prevent impeachment, but is not necessary to sustain it. (See Story's Commentaries, Curtis on the Constitution, Madison, and others.) Such is the opinion of our elementary writers, nor can any case of impeachment tried in this country be found where any attempt was made to prove the offense criminal and indictable.

What, then, are the official misdemeanors of Andrew Johnson disclosed by the evidence? On the 2d day of March 1867, Congress passed an act entitled “An act regulating the tenure of certain civil offices.” Among other provisions it enacted that no officer who had been appointed by and with the advice and consent of the Senate should be removed from office without the consent of the Senate, and that, it during vacation a suspension should be made for cause, such cause should be reported to the Senate within twenty days after their next meeting. If the Senate should deem the reason of the suspension sufficient, then the officer should be removed and another appointed in his stead; but if the Senate should refuse to concur with the President, and declare the reasons insufficient, then the officer suspended should forthwith resume the functions of his office and the powers of the person performing its duties should cease. It is especially provided that the Secretary of War shall hold his office during the term of the President by whom he may have been appointed, and for one month thereafter unless removed y and with the consent of the Senate as aforesaid. On the 12th day of August, 1867, during the recess of the Senate, the President removed the Secretary of War, whose term of office had not expired, requiring him to surrender the office with the public property and appointed General U.S. Grant Secretary of War ad interim.

When Andrew Johnson assumed the office of President he took the oath to obey the Constitution of the United States and to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. This was a solemn and enduring obligation, nor can he plead exemption from it on account of his condition at the time it was administered to negligence which would have been a misdemeanor, but a daring and bold conspiracy, was attempted by him to induce the General of the Army to aid him by defeating the operation of this law; and when he had suspended the Secretary of War he appointed General Grant Secretary ad interim, with the avowed purpose of preventing the operation of that law, if the Senate should decide in favor of the Secretary; and he says that the General did enter into such conspiracy to air him in obstructing the return of the rejected Secretary nonwithstanding the Senate might decide in his favor. This is denied by the General, and a question of veracity, rather angrily discussed, has arisen between them. Those gentlemen seem to consider that that question is one of importance to the public. In this they are mistaken. Which man of truth and which man of falsehood is of no more public importance than if it arose between two obscure individuals. If Andrew Johnson tells the truth then he is guilty of a high official misdemeanor, for he avows his effort to prevent the execution of the law. If the General commanding tells the truth then the President is guilty of a high misdemeanor, for he declares the same thing of the President, denying only his own complicity. No argument can make this point plainer than the statement of the culprit. If he and the General told the truth to take care that the laws should be duly executed.

To show the animus and guilty knowledge with which this law was violated we have only to turn to the proceedings of the Senate notifying him of his illegal and void conduct, and then to consider that he has since persevered in attempting to enforce. Indeed, to show his utter disregard of the laws of his country, we have only to turn to his last annual message, in which he proclaims to the public that the laws of Congress are unconstitutional and not binding on the people. Who, after that, ca say that such a man is fit to occupy the executive chair, whose duty it is to inculcate obedience to those very laws, and see that they are faithfully obeyed? Then the great beauty of his remedial and preventive process is clearly demonstrated. He is dull and blind who can not see its necessity and the beneficial purposes of the trial by impeachment.

By the sixth section of the act referred to, it is provided

“That ever removal, appointment, or employment made, had, of exercised contrary to the provisions of this act, and making, singing, sealing, countersigning, or issuing of any commission or letter of authority for or in respect to any such appointment of employment shall be deemed , and are hereby declared to be high misdemeanors and upon trial and conviction thereof every person guilty thereof shall be punished by a fine not exceeding $10,000 or by imprisonment not exceeding five years, or both said punishments, in the discretion of the court.”

Now, in defiance of this law, Andrew Johnson, on the 21st day of February, 1868, issued his commission or latter of authority to one Lorenzo Thomas, appointing him Secretary of War ad interim, and commanded him to take possession of the Department of War and to eject the incumbent, E. M. Stanton, the in lawful possession of said office. Here if this act stood alone, would be an undeniable official misdemeanor-not only a misdemeanor per se, but declared to be so by the act itself, and the party made indictable and punishable in a criminal proceeding. If Andrew Johnson escapes with bare removal from office, it he be not fined and incarcerated in the penitentiary afterward under criminal proceedings, he may thank the weakness or the clemency of Congress and not his own innocence.

We shall propose to prove on trial that Andew Johnson was guilty of misprision of bribery by offering to General Grant, if he would unite with him in his lawless violence, to assume in his stead the penalties and to endure the imprisonment denounced by the law. Bribery is one of the offenses specifically enumerated for which the President may be impeached and removed from office. By the Constitution, article two, section two, the President has power to nominate and, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to appoint all officers of the United States whose appointments are not therein otherwise provided for and which shall be established by law, during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session. Nowhere, either in the Constitution or by statute, has the President power to create a vacancy during the session of the Senate and fill it without the advice and consent of the Senate, any yet, on the 21st day of February , 1868, while the Senate was in session, he notified the head of the War Department that he was removed from office and his successor ad interim appointed. Here is a plain, recorded violation of the Constitution and laws, which, if it stood alone, would make every honest and intelligent man give his vote for impeachment, The President has persevered in his lawless course through a long series of unjustifiable acts. When the so-called confederate States of America were conquered and had laid down their arms and surrendered their territory to the victorious Union the government and final disposition of the conquered country belonged to Congress alone, according to every principle of the law of nations.

Neither the Executive nor the judiciary had any right to interfere with it except so far as was necessary to control it be military rule until the sovereign power of the nation had provided for its civil administration. No power but Congress had any right to say whether ever or when they should be admitted to the Union as States and entitles to the privileges of the Constitution of the United States. And yet Andrew Johnson, with unblushing hardihood, undertook to rule them by his own power alone, to lead them into full communion with the Union; direct them what governments to erect and what constitution to adopt, and to send Representatives and Senators to Congress according to his instructions. Where admonished by express act of Congress, more than once repeated, he disregarded the warning and continued his lawless usurpation. He is since known to have obstructed the reestablishment of those governments by the authority of Congress, and has advised the inhabitants to resist the legislation Congress. In my judgment his conduct with regard to that transaction was a high-handed usurpation of power which ought long ago to have brought him to impeachment and trial and to have removed him from his position of great mischief. He has been lucky in thus far escaping through false logic and false law. But his then acts, which will on the trial be shown to be atrocious, are open to evidence of his wicked determination to subvert the laws of his country.

I trust that when we come to vote upon this question we shall remember that although it is the duty of the President to see that the laws be executed the sovereign power of the nation rests in Congress, who have been placed around the Executive as muniments to defend his rights, and as watchmen to enforce his obedience to the law and the Constitution. His oath to obey the Constitution and our duty to compel him to do it are tremendous obligation, heavier than was ever assumed by mortal rulers. We are to protect or to destroy the liberty and happiness of a mighty people, and to take care that they progress in civilization and defend themselves against every kind of tyranny. As we deal with the first great political malefactor so will be the result of our efforts to perpetuate the happiness and good government of the human race. The God of our fathers, who inspired them with the though of universal freedom, will hold up responsible for the noble institutions which they projected and expected us to carry out, This is not to by the temporary triumph of a political party, but it is to endure in its consequence until this whole continent shall be filled with a free and untrammeled people or shall be a nest of shrinking, cowardly slaves.


Transcribed by Jacquelyn Mershon.