How Washington’s media reacted to impeachment over 150 years ago

Dec 18, 2019, 8:42 AM | Updated: 8:47 am

Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presided over the Senate impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, as depicted in "Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper." (US Senate) In an era known for partisan journalism, "The Walla Walla Statesman" was a Democrat paper; its coverage of the 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson reflected support for the Commander-in-Chief and disdain for "Radical Republicans." (Washington State Archives)

As the House of Representatives votes Wednesday on Articles of Impeachment for President Trump, we look back more than 150 years – with help from the Washington State Archives — to see how newspapers in then-Washington Territory reported and opined on the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

In Washington Territory, far from the infamous battlefields, the Civil War impacted local politics, with anti-Lincoln, and pro-Confederacy people and groups on the West Coast. Republicans in Washington Territory in the 1860s were typically abolitionists, and supported emancipation and the Union cause in the Civil War.

Democrats in those years were opposed to Reconstruction, and not in favor of allowing African-Americans, Chinese, or any people of color the right of citizenship. Bitter ideological battles played out over local offices, and in the partisan pages of the many newspapers that sprung up as Washington’s population grew in the 1850s and 1860s, as the telegraph allowed for rapid dissemination of news from thousands of miles away.

Because Washington was a territory and not a state like Oregon or California, citizens here were not allowed to vote in presidential elections, so Washingtonians never weighed in on Abraham Lincoln in either 1860 or 1864.

However, national politics and the results of presidential elections always found a way to touch Washington Territory, because territorial governors were partisan appointments made by the Commander-in-Chief. Territorial Governor Richard Gholson, who had been appointed by Lincoln’s Democrat predecessor, resigned in 1861 to return to Kentucky and support the Confederacy.

The bitter divide continued into the Reconstruction era, the first clipping comes from the Walla Walla Statesman of December 14, 1866, when Republicans initially began talk of impeaching Johnson. The Statesman was a Democrat paper, and the Republicans had just retaken the majority in House of Representatives in the wake of the New Orleans Massacre, and other violence by whites against blacks in the South.

Walla Walla Statesman of December 14, 1866:

The impeachment of the President is a measure about which the radicals will blow and bluster, but no sane man dreams that they will ever attempt to carry out such a desperate measure; or that if the attempt be made, that it will not be the signal for another civil war, vastly more destructive than the conflict from which we have so lately emerged. […] They are only playing a harmless game of “bluff,” and with the cards stacked, hope to dictate terms to the president. Andrew Johnson has too much good sense to take a hand in this game of “brag,” and most likely will allow them to run to the length of their tether. Let them, however, attempt to carry out these revolutionary propositions, and they will find that they have to deal, not with the president, but with an outraged people, who once aroused, will never rest until the radicals of the Rump Congress are driven from the places they disgrace and are made to surrender the trusts they dishonor.

The term “radicals” refers to the Republicans, many of whom called themselves “Radical Republicans” for their stance on rapid citizenship, suffrage, and other major reforms for freed former enslaved people. Incidentally, in 1868, Walla Walla was the most populous city in Washington Territory with nearly 1,400 people.

On March 2, 1868, the House approved Articles of Impeachment based largely on President Johnson’s firing and replacement of Lincoln-appointed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The impeachment trial in the Senate convened on March 5, 1868. This is what the Walla Walla Statesman said on March 13, 1868:

The Impeachment

The die is cast and the radicals are jubilant. […] The committee on reconstruction, to whom the question was referred, reported in favor of impeaching Andrew Johnson of high crimes and misdemeanors; immediately thereupon the question was put to the House and passed by a strict party vote. The grounds for this outrage upon the Constitution and liberties of the people is what—simply removing [Secretary or War Edwin] Stanton, a man who is to-day confessedly the most unpopular man who ever held position under the government. […] In looking over the list of Senators we do not find that number who will sustain the action of the House in its mad attempt to overthrow a co-ordinate branch of the government. Come what may, we have the utmost confidence in the people that they will stand by the President in any steps he may take to perpetuate the government founded by Washington.

Closing arguments in the Senate impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson ended May 6, 1868. Here’s what the Walla Walla Statesman said on May 15, 1868:

A Fizzle

The New York Herald pronounces the great impeachment trial a fizzle. There never was such a failure. There never was such a stale, flat and unprofitable conclusion to anything that’s so thundered and threatened in the prologue. […] So the nation that was assured its liberties and peace were in danger from the countless and heinous crimes of the executive finds, when it comes to evidence in court, that the prosecution cannot prove enough to send a juvenile delinquent to the House of Detention for two days.  On the trial it has been proved that the president “issued an order“ for the removal of Stanton – – not that he had removed him, or had not the right to remove him or issue the order; the attempt has been made to prove that the president conspired with soldiers to oppose the laws, and this has resulted in clearly proving that he did not so conspire. Instead of showing anything to justify the removal, or even censure of the president, the trial has shown that the executive acted with vastly more circumspection then he had been given credit for […] it is quite certain that the trial has greatly strengthened the President in public estimation.

One other Washington Territory newspaper in the Washington State Archives also covered the 1868 impeachment. The Washington Standard, also a Democrat paper, was published in Olympia, when the Territorial Capital had a population of about 1,200 (Seattle’s population around this time was roughly 1,100 people).

The impeachment trial ended on May 26, 1868. The Republican Senate acquitted Johnson by the narrowest possible margin, just one vote shy of a two-thirds majority — 35 to 19 — because seven “Republican Recusants” voted to acquit the Democrat president. This is what The Washington Standard said on June 6, 1868:

The Glad Tidings

The telegraph the past few days has brought us glorious news. The defeat of the impeachment scheme has fallen like a thunder-bolt upon our enemies. The President stands triumphant, vindicated before the world, and the Radical party the most contemptible political organization under the sun. The result proves what we have all along contended, that selfish aggrandizement, and not the public weal, has been the object of the impeachers.  When impeachment was first attempted, one year ago, the Congressional Committee consumed many months in the vain endeavor to ferret out something upon which to base the charge, submitting official and private character to the minutest of scrutiny, and the object of their malignant hatred came forth from the ordeal unscathed. […] The history of the trial in all its details, shows anything but a desire for fairness on the part of the managers. Still, with all the devices of Radical craft brought to play against him, the President will stand on the pages of history as the safeguard of the country; the “stumbling-block” in the way of a despotism that threatened to ruin our Government.

President Johnson sought re-election in 1868, but was not chosen by the Democrats at their convention in July 1868. Republican candidate and Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant defeated Democrat Horatio Seymour to win the presidency.

Washington Territory became Washington state in 1889, and voters – only men in those years — in Washington first became eligible to participate in a presidential election in 1892. The incumbent Republican President Benjamin Harrison carried Washington and 15 other states. His opponent, Democrat Grover Cleveland won the election and returned to the White House after having been defeated by Harrison in 1888.

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How Washington’s media reacted to impeachment over 150 years ago