Impeachment Speech of Thaddeus Stevens


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. This speech was given on April 27, 1868 at the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. It is very similar to other speeches given by Stevens advocating Johnson’s removal from office. He lays a strong foundation in describing the duties of the President and why they are essential to the survival of the United States. In analyzing the role of the President and the ways in which Johnson does not fit that role, Stevens hopes, unsuccessfully to impeach the president.

Hon. THADDEUS STEVENS, one of the Managers on behalf of the House of Representatives, addressed the Senate as follows:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the court, I trust to be able to be brief in my remarks, unless I should find myself less master of the subject which I propose to discuss than I hope. Experience has taught that nothing is so prolix as ignorance. I fear that I may prove thus ignorant, as I had not expected to take part in this debate until very lately. I shall discuss but a single article-the one that was finally adopted upon my earnest solicitation, and which, if proved, I considered then, and still consider, as quite sufficient for the ample conviction of the distinguished respondent and for his removal from office, which is the only legitimate object for which this impeachment could be instituted. During the very brief period which I shall occupy I declare to discuss the charges against the respondent in no mean spirit of malignity of vituperation, but to argue them in a manner worthy of the high tribunal before which I appear and of the exalted position of the accused. Whatever may be though of his character of condition, he has been made respectable and his condition has been dignified by the action of his fellow citizens. Bailing accusation, therefore, would ill become this occasion, this tribunal, of a proper sense of the position of those who discuss this question on the one side or this other.

To see the chief servant of a trusting community arranged before the bar of public justice, charged with high delinquencies, is interesting. To behold the Chief Executive Magistrate of a powerful people charged with the betrayal of his trust, and arraigned for high crimes and misdemeanors, it always a most interesting spectacle. When the charges against such public servant accuse him of an attempt to betray the high trust confided in him and usurp the power of the whole people, that he may become their ruler, it is intensely interesting to millions of men, and should be discussed with a calm determination, which nothing can divert and nothing can reduce to mockery. Such is the condition of this great Republic, as looked upon by an astonished and wondering world. The offices of impeachment in England and America are very different from each other in the uses made of the for the punishment of offense and his will greatly err who undertakes to make out an analogy between them, either in the mode of trial or the final result. In England the highest crimes may be tried before the high court of impeachment, and the severest punishments, even to imprisonment, fine, and death, may be inflicted. When out Constitution was from all these personal punishments were excluded from the judgment, and the defendant was to be dealt with just so far as the public safety required, and no further. Hence it was made to apply simply to the political offenses-to persons holding political positions, either my appointment or election by the people.

Thus it is apparent that no crime containing malignant or indictable offenses high than misdemeanors was necessary either to be alleged or proved. If the respondent was shown to be abusing his official trust of the injury of the people for whom he was discharging public duties, and persevered in such abuse to the injury of his constituents, the true mode of dealing with him was to impeach him for the crimes or misdemeanors, (and only the latter is necessary,) and thus remove him from the office which he was abusing. Nor does it make a particle of difference whether such abuse arose from malignity, from unwarranted negligence, or from depravity, so repeated as to make his continuance in office injurious to the people and dangerous to the public welfare.

The punishment which the law, under out Constitution, authorizes to be inflicted, fully demonstrated this argument; that punishment upon conviction extends only to removal from office, and if the crime or misdemeanor charged be one of a deep and wicked dye the culprit is allowed to run at large, unless he should be pursued by a new prosecution in the ordinary courts. What does it matter, then, what the motive of the respondent might be in his repeated acts of malfeasance in office? Mere mistake In intention, is so persevered in after proper warning as to bring mischief upon the community, is quite sufficient to warrant the removal of the officer from the place where he is working mischief by his continuance in power.

The only question to be considered is: is the respondent violating the law. His perseverance in such a violation, although it shows a perverseness, is not absolutely necessary to his conviction. The great object is the removal from office and the arrest of the public injuries which he is inflicting upon those with whose interest he is intrusted.

The single charge which I had the honor to suggest I am expected to maintain. That duty is a light one, easily performed, and which, I apprehend, it will be found impossible for the respondent to answer or evade. When Andrew Johnson took upon himself the duties of his high office he swore to obey the Constitution and take care that the laws be faithfully executed. That, indeed, is and has always been the chief duty of the President of the United States. The duties of legislation and adjudicating the laws of his country fall in no way to his lot. To obey the commands of the sovereign power of the nation, and to see that others should obey them, was his whole duty-a duty which he could not escape, and any attempt to do so would be in direct violation of his official oath; in other words, a misprision of perjury.

I accuse him, in the name of the House of Representatives, of having perpetrated that foul offense against the laws and interests of his country.

On the 2d day of March, 1867, Congress passed a law, over the veto of the President, entitles, “An act to regulate the tenure of certain civil offices,” the first section of which is as follows:

“ Be it enacted by the Senate and the Hose of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That every person holding any civil office to which he has been appointed to and every person who may hereafter be appointed to any such office and shall become duly qualified to act therein, is and shall be entitled to hold such office until a successor shall have been in like manner appointed and duly qualified except or herein otherwise provided: Provided, That the Secretaries of State, of the Treasury, or War, of the Navy, and of the Interior, of the Postmaster General, and the Attorney General, shall hold their offices respectively for and during the term of the President by whom they may have been appointed, and for one month thereafter, subject to removal by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.”

The second section provides that when the Senate is not in session, if the President shall deem the officer guilty of acts which require his removal or suspicion, he may be suspended until the next meeting of the Senate; and that withing twenty days after the meeting of the Senate the reasons for such suspension shall be reported to that body; and, if the Senate shall deem such reasons sufficient for such suspension or removal, the officer shall forthwith resume the function of his office, and the person appointed in his place shall cease to discharge such duties.

On the 12th day of August 1867, the Senate then not being in session, the President suspended Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of the Department of War, and appointed U.S. Grant, General, Secretary of War ad interim. On the 12th day of December 1867, the Senate being then in session, he reported, according to the requirements of the act, the causes of such suspension to the Senate, which duly took the same into consideration. Before the Senate had concluded its examination of the question of the sufficiency of such reasons he attempted to enter into arrangements by which he might obstruct the due execution of the law, and thus prevent Edwin M. Stanton from forthwith resuming the functions of his office as Secretary of War, according to the provisions of the act, even in the Senate should decide in his favor.


Transcribed by Jacquelyn Mershon.