Out of 44 American presidents, only two have been impeached by the House, although both were acquitted in the Senate.
Because Congress has rarely resorted to this extreme remedy for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” one might assume that both cases would be familiar to everyone.
But while many remember the fairly recent impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the trial of President Andrew Johnson remains obscure to all except historians of the Civil War era.
Author Brenda Wineapple, who grew up in Haverhill and whose father was from Salem, became so curious about Johnson’s story that she wrote a book about it, “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation,” which was published in May.
“People assume we go from the assassination of Lincoln into the Grant administration, because those are larger-than-life figures,” Wineapple said. “But there’s a three-year period, an enormously long time, right after a war — and the country is laid waste by a terrible war, 750,000 people were killed — a generation was laid waste. You got rid of slavery. And then there was an impeachment? What happened?”
Wineapple has been responding to such questions with book-length answers since 1988, when she published “Genet: A Biography of Janet Flanner,” about the woman who served as Paris correspondent for The New Yorker magazine for many decades.
“What interested me about Janet Flanner was, she couldn’t be categorized easily,” Wineapple said. “She didn’t want to be called a journalist. What is she? In that sense, she didn’t write personal essays, she didn’t write in first person. She crossed categories.”
Wineapple, who also recently edited a volume of Walt Whitman’s “pronouncements” on a range of topics, is also hard to label, having written six books about major writers and complex historical issues, but for a wide audience.
Wineapple’s approach in most of her books has been to look at a central figure, whether Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne or Gertrude Stein, in the context of their historical periods and social circles, which may include family, friends and lovers.
“What I’m interested in is the interaction of literature and history,” Wineapple said. “I’m interested in seeing history through people and seeing people through history, understanding what was going on as the people were living through what was going on.”
And so along with highlighting Johnson, who enjoyed alcohol and was prone to making nonsensical declarations, “The Impeachers” introduces readers to enough vivid figures to fill a mural.
There is the “abrasive” Edwin Stanton, secretary of war under both Lincoln and Johnson, who simply refused to leave his office when Johnson tried to fire him.
We also hear from familiar figures like Mark Twain, who wrote about Johnson’s impeachment with his famous biting wit, while Thaddeus Stevens, a congressman from Pennsylvania and ardent abolitionist, is a key figure from the period who deserves to be better known.
“Known for his sarcasm, his masterful intelligence and his generosity, he might annihilate a colleague on the House floor, it was said, and then take him to lunch,” Wineapple wrote.
“The Impeachers” is Wineapple’s first book about a political, rather than a literary, figure. She started thinking about Johnson while writing her previous book on the Civil War era, “Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877,” which was published in 2013.
Johnson was a tailor from Tennessee who had no problem with slavery, but did believe in preserving the union, and was the only senator from a Southern state to oppose secession. Lincoln chose him as a running mate to broaden his appeal among voters.
But when Johnson was sworn in as president following Lincoln’s assassination, he allowed Southerners to re-enter the union without paying a price for having rebelled or halting their murderous treatment of former slaves.
“What Congress finally did was hammer out the process by which a state, formerly in rebellion, could get back into the union,” Wineapple said. “Congress said that was their jurisdiction. Johnson said that it was his jurisdiction.”
When Johnson did nothing to enforce three Reconstruction Acts that were passed, many in Congress were outraged and felt he was betraying the bloody sacrifices that had just been made to defeat the South. They saw no recourse but impeachment.
This position was fully embraced by committed abolitionists in the Republican Party, but there were other Republicans who would only vote for removal if Johnson committed some more technical infraction.
“The interesting thing with Johnson was that he violated the Tenure of Office Act, which made it easier for moderate Republicans to vote for impeachment,” Wineapple said. “Congress passed the law, so to violate the law is to oppose Congress. Can you impeach somebody because they are abusing the public trust, or because they violate the law?”
This question still resonates, in part because impeachment has been attempted so rarely that criteria for carrying it out have never been thoroughly defined.
It is also topical because Congress is considering impeachment again today, and is divided over similar questions about causes, although Wineapple said she didn’t have contemporary politics in mind as she wrote “The Impeachers.”
“The way I wanted to write the book is, I think you can draw the parallels easily,” said Wineapple, who has been making the rounds of literary festivals this year, including an appearance at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. “If I do it for you, it looks polemical. I think it’s more important to have history speak for itself.”
Editor and teacher
In addition to writing five books, Wineapple has also edited three volumes, which include an anthology of “19th Century American Writers on Writing” and “Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America.”
The latter was published in April, in time for the great American poet’s 200th birthday, which was May 31.
The book condenses nine volumes of conversations that the poet held over the last four years of his life with Horace Traubel, his neighbor in Camden, New Jersey, who recorded everything Whitman said in 5,000 pages of shorthand.
“Walt Whitman Speaks” is the second book that Wineapple has edited for Library of America, the first being a volume of selected poetry by John Greenleaf Whittier.
Wineapple admitted that she liked the Haverhill and Amesbury native’s poems much better the second time she read them, when she was working on the book, which was published in 2003.
The first time was in eighth grade, when she was at Whittier Middle School, where reading the poet — for whom the middle school was named — was more of an obligation.
“We read ‘Snow-Bound,’ and I hated it,” Wineapple said. “So when I got this assignment, I went back now as an adult, and not being told what to do or like, I found it illuminating and thrilling and very exciting.”
She also discovered that her connection to Haverhill had played a role in landing the job to work on the Whittier volume, which was published by the Library of America.
“I was startled and pleased and half-jokingly, when I asked the editor why me, he said, ‘because you’re from Haverhill,’” Wineapple recalled.
She was also pleasantly surprised when one of her teachers from Haverhill High School attended a talk that she was giving in the city in 2005 at the Whittier Birthplace.
“Who showed up but the teacher I had for math and advanced math, Diana Hanoian,” Wineapple said.
Wineapple now lives in New York and is a teacher in a graduate program at Columbia University, where her students are training to be writers like herself.
“These are students whose first love is writing and literature, but their ambition is not to be a college teacher per se, but to be a writer,” she said. “That’s the kind of teaching I do, although not full time, because I’m a full-time writer.”