- Jake Wynn
A Pennsylvania Congressman launched the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868
On February 21, 1868, Representative John Covode jotted down a quick note on the floor of the House of Representatives that became a critical document in American history. Covode’s note began the impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson – the first in American history.
On the paper, the Republican representing Pennsylvania’s 21st District wrote down 16 words imbued with great power.
Resolved, That Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, be impeached of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Three days later, the House of Representatives moved to impeach Johnson.
Representative Covode came from Westmoreland County in western Pennsylvania and had significant credentials as an abolitionist and a Radical Republican. During the Civil War, he lost one son to battle with Confederate forces outside Richmond and had another whose health was destroyed by his experience in the infamous prison camp at Andersonville.
Covode and his fellow Republicans were enraged by the behavior of Johnson, a Tennessee native who showed his sympathies for ex-Confederates as Reconstruction began. Radical Republicans despised Johnson for his blatant racism and his opposition to their policy proposals about how to deal with the war-torn South.
But it was the president’s attempted firing of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that ultimately provoked Covode’s impeachment resolution. The two men fought frequently as Reconstruction developed, and the president suspended Stanton from his role as Secretary of War in August 1867. Congress restored Stanton to his full role in January 1868, but Johnson notified Congress on February 21, 1868 that he intended fire Stanton.
Representative Covode’s resolution was entered into the Congressional Record that same day and it proceeded to the full House of Representatives on February 24. Their vote was 126 to 47 in favor of impeachment. The House ultimately decided upon 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson.
Johnson barely survived his impeachment, staying in office by a single vote after a trial in the United States Senate. His reputation did not survive the ordeal, however, and Andrew Johnson has largely viewed as one of the nation’s worst presidents.
Want to read more about the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson? Check out this brief piece in the Politico by David Priess.
Information about the Civil War service of Representative Covode's sons came from this published letter from January 1868
The papers of John Covode are held at the George and Ann Richards Civil War Center at Pennsylvania State University.