President Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House on the ground that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act796 by dismissing a Cabinet chief. The theory of the proponents of impeachment was succinctly put by Representative Butler, one of the managers of the impeachment in the Senate trial. An impeachable high crime or misdemeanor is one in its nature or consequences subversive of some fundamental or essential principle of government or highly prejudicial to the public interest, and this may consist of a violation of the Constitution, of law, of an official oath, or of duty, by an act committed or omitted, or, without violating a positive law, by the abuse of discretionary powers from improper motives or for an improper purpose.797 Former Justice Benjamin Curtis controverted this argument, saying: My first position is, that when the Constitution speaks of ‘treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors,’ it refers to, and includes only, high criminal offences against the United States, made so by some law of the United States existing when the acts complained of were done, and I say that this is plainly to be inferred from each and every provision of the Constitution on the subject of impeachment.798 The President’s acquittal by a single vote was no doubt not the result of a choice between the two theories, but the result may be said to have placed a gloss on the impeachment language approximating the theory of the defense.799
796 Act of March 2, 1867, ch. 154, 14 Stat. 430.
797 1 TRIAL OF ANDREW JOHNSON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES ON IMPEACHMENT 88, 147 (1868).
798 Id. at 409.
799 For an account of the Johnson proceedings, see WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST, GRAND INQUESTS: THE HISTORIC IMPEACHMENTS OF JUSTICE SAMUEL CHASE AND PRESIDENT ANDREW JOHNSON (1992).
Last modified: August 28, 2012