Why Is This Happening? How to impeach a president with Brenda Wineapple: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks to author Brenda Wineapple about Andrew Johnson, the white supremacist president whose impeachment reveals a wild truth about the history of this country.
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By Why Is This Happening?

Got impeachment on the mind? If you do, odds are there are two recent examples of the impeachment process you might be drawing from — Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. But what do you know about the first ever presidential impeachment? There is no better time to revisit the case of Andrew Johnson, the white supremacist president whose impeachment reveals a wild truth about the history of this country.

Brenda Wineapple spent the last six years uncovering the details of an erratic and power hungry president thrust into power following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, illustrating how his dangerous actions during Reconstruction presented an extraordinary moral dilemma for the nation and its leaders.

CHRIS HAYES: They're looking for some technical violation they can nail him on, when the man is presiding over the resurgence of white supremacist terror in the South.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: But think of it. Think of it. It's America in 1867-

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Think of it now. Can you impeach somebody because they're a white supremacist? Don't forget either it's the first ever impeachment. Nobody had gone down this road before, and there's no roadmap. There's no Google Map to say you take a left turn here.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

Well, I don't know about you, but for some crazy reason, and I really don't have any explanation for it, I've been thinking a lot about impeachment recently. I know, it's a weird, esoteric thing to spend your time meditating on. In all seriousness, obviously it is the center of the political debate right now about whether the president of the United States has committed, in the words of the Constitution, high crimes and misdemeanors, and should be impeached and then possibly removed from office. And I would say 95 percent of the discussion is colored by two different previous experiences of presidential impeachment, Richard Nixon, who was never actually impeached by the House.

There were articles of impeachment that were passed by the House Judiciary Committee, and he resigned before he was actually impeached by the House, partly because it was clear he was going to be impeached and probably removed, and a bunch of Republican senators walked over, or I don't know, bused over, drove over to the White House, went over to the White House and told Richard Nixon, "It's over buddy." So that's one. So people think a lot about that, and we have a lot of time we'll refer to it, and John Dean, he was The White House council under Nixon, has testified before the House Judiciary Committee now, and Liz Holtzman, who was on the House Judiciary Committee that drafted and passed those articles of impeachment is on our show. So that's one touchstone.

And the other is Clinton's impeachment. And it's interesting because in some ways there's like different messages from them. The first impeachment of Richard Nixon, I think the consensus was like, "Of course he deserved to be impeached," and it turned out after he was gone that we learned all sorts of stuff about the rampant criminality that was the Nixon presidency that weren't even in the articles of impeachment. They didn't know at that time that people on the payroll of the president broke into the therapist's office of Daniel Ellsberg, who published the Pentagon Papers, to steal the private therapy files. They didn't know that one of the ideas that got tossed around by the “plumbers” in what was called CREEP at the time was to maybe bomb The Brookings Institution. They didn't know the half of how criminal the entire Nixon enterprise was, and so I think history looks extremely favorably on the fact that like the Special Counsel pursued an investigation. They pursued articles of impeachment, and it lead to his removal. And I think people think, "Yeah, right. Good."

I think Bill Clinton's probably goes the other way, largely in the kind of consensus view of history, which is that he didn't really deserve to get impeached even though he did lie under oath, and the impeachment was both a kind of a substantive and political mistake, that it represented this kind of zealous overreach by the Republicans who were so intent on getting Bill Clinton out of office and so motivated by their personal animus and hatred for the man that they got out of head of where public opinion was, and it came back to bite them. Infamously, they lost seats in the 1998 Congressional midterms, which almost never happens for the out party in those second term midterms, and it's gone down in history, I think, as like that was not a smart move. And obviously I think that haunts a lot of the Democrats in Congress right now, but it is worth noting there have not been two beginnings of impeachment proceedings in American presidential history, there have been three.

Rev. Jesse Jackson listens to Bill Clinton at a convention in Atlanta on Sept. 9, 1992.Curtis Compton / AP

The first impeachment of a United States president in which he was actually impeached by the House was Andrew Johnson in 1868. It was an election year. It is also three years after the end of The Civil War, and after Lincoln's assassination. It was Lincoln's assassination that made Andrew Johnson president. He was impeached by the House of Representatives and came within one vote of removal. And it's kind of a wild thing to me that that story, the first presidential impeachment, I remember being taught about it in high school, and it was a just like little kind of asterisk that was kind of like, "Well, it very messy, and he was maybe not a great guy, but also the people in Congress were kind of nutty, and really who's to say who was right, who was wrong, and we all moved on after that." That was basically what that moment was taught as in high school history.

It's actually way, way, way, way, way more interesting, way more high stakes, way more relevant to today than that characterization. Nothing less than the fate of the nation post the Civil War was at stake in the fight over Andrew Johnson being impeached and removed from office. Nothing less than the future of America as a white man's republic or as a true multiracial democracy was at stake in the fight over Andrew Johnson's impeachment. The most essential battles of the American political project were all present in this impeachment and subsequent trial. Now, they were largely filtered through a lot of procedural fights about whether he was constitutionally able to fire the Secretary of Defense, and you'll hear about all that in our conversation, but fundamentally there is no better time to go back and examine the first presidential impeachment than right now as we have this discussion, and we discuss it in these very kind of cramped historical terms.

I think there's a case to be made that, actually, Johnson was probably the best analog, even though the times were extremely different, the media environment was different, but there's a lot about Andrew Johnson that you will hear in this conversation you will find familiar if you follow our current president.

And so a few months ago I got an email from The New York Times' book review that said, "Would you like to review a book, a history of Andrew Johnson's impeachment?" I said, "Absolutely." So I got this book called "The Impeachers" by Brenda Wineapple, and it's 500 pages long; read the whole thing. I wrote a review in The New York Times which appeared a few weeks ago, maybe about a month ago. It's a great book. It's a fascinating read. And I thought to myself, "I would love to talk to Brenda about all this on the podcast." So Brenda Wineapple came in. She's a really interesting woman. She's written a whole bunch of books. I mean, this history of Andrew Johnson's impeachment, it's a wild truth about the history of this country, how little of the story of Reconstruction has truly been told from the perspective of the reconstructors, from the perspective of those who were fighting for multiracial democracy as opposed to those who ultimately prevailed who were fighting for the maintenance of white supremacy.

This book is a revolution in our understanding of what that impeachment meant, how important it was. I have to say, almost more than anything I've read, more than the stuff I've read about Nixon, more than the stuff I've read about Clinton, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson echoes in my mind as I think about the moment we are at right now. I think you're going to learn a lot from this conversation with Brenda Wineapple.

CHRIS HAYES: I reviewed this book for The New York Times. I really enjoyed it. I learned a ton from it. It's a capacious ambitious volume. It's not like a slim… just the facts. It's a full sort of look at the circumstances of this event, and-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah, what led up to it-

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, as I was reading it-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: ... even what happened after.

CHRIS HAYES: ... I thought to myself ... This was how many years in the making?

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: I said six.

CHRIS HAYES: It was six years in the making?

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: What got you started on this six years ago, because you've managed to sort of publish this into-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: I know.

CHRIS HAYES: ... an incredibly-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: I know.

CHRIS HAYES: ... relevant news cycle, but six years ago, not many people were thinking about Andrew Johnson's impeachment.

BRENDA WINEAPPLEE: No one was thinking of it, and when I told people, they would say, "Uh-huh” and they'd walk away from it-

CHRIS HAYES: Do you ever-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: ... because it seemed so boring and dusty and uninteresting, and nobody knew who Johnson was anyway.

CHRIS HAYES: I've sometimes referenced Andrew Johnson-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: And they think-

CHRIS HAYES: ... and people will say, "You mean Andrew Jackson?"

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: "No. No. No, Andrew Johnson."

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Right. Isn't that amazing? So that's the first thing, they don't know who he is, and then the second thing is impeachment, they might think of Clinton. It seems ridiculous, and the conventional wisdom was that the impeachment of Johnson was a horrific mistake. It was embarrassing, let's forget it. I started it because when I was finishing the last book, I realized I really didn't know very much about this impeachment, and it bothered me, because I thought, "How is it there's a major event in American history that I don't know about and other people don't seem to know about? Why is that?"

CHRIS HAYES: So that was the question that got you motivated? When I think back to my high school history education, which was quite good, we studied the impeachment briefly-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: You did?

CHRIS HAYES: ... and it was kind of like, "Oh, it was all very messy," was kind of the takeaway. "Who's to say who was right and wrong. It was just over an obscure Tenure of Office Act, something, and they were mad at each other, and it was all messy," and squabbles basically is what the kind of takeaway. That's the benign-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's a benign version.

CHRIS HAYES: That's the benign version. The malign version is what? What is the malign version?

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: The malign version, there was a group of fanatical partisans called radical Republicans, and that was meant almost as an epithet, radical was bad, and they wanted to seize power, and that they were power hungry, and they were diabolical, and they ensnared poor Johnson in this Tenure of Office Act, and tried to impeach him. That was the take from it. That's how I was taught it, and actually that view almost comes out of "Birth of a Nation." That's so bizarre when you think about it. So squabbles, as you said, squabbles is benign, but it's still dismissive of it. It's like, "It was a mistake. Let's move on. Let's move on to something interesting, whether it's Reconstruction or Grant or Jim Crow," or whatever happens to be where you're going, but it was just this blip.

CHRIS HAYES: And the malign, you grew up in Boston, right?

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: I just want to be clear, the malign version of this history. You grew up in-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: North of Boston, but it doesn't matter.

CHRIS HAYES: North of Boston in the heart of-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Of abolitionism.

CHRIS HAYES: ... abolitionism, and the history that you got was that "Poor Andrew Johnson was ensnared by a bunch of zealot maniacs."

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly. Maniacs. That's a good word for it-

CHRIS HAYES: Maniacal who tried to arrogate themselves the power-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Power. Mm-hmm.

CHRIS HAYES: ... that's the takeaway that generation of school children are taught this.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: School children got that. Absolutely. And that was maybe 10, 15 minutes of your American History class.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, yes. If that. Yes.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah. And it was strange to me, because some of the people I was reading about, even then I felt they were kind of likable, but I was told, "You're not supposed to like them, and that-"

CHRIS HAYES: They're the villains.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah, exactly. And that stays with you, because it makes you feel like an outsider, like you don't really understand things, and so as an adult, that's one of the nice things of adulthood, you go back and you revisit some of this and say, "Why did they think that exactly?" When I worked on the other book and I finished it, I realized there's something unsettling about this, that there's more to it, and I really wanted to know what happened, why did it happen, and also what was so interesting to me is when it happened. That's what's amazing too. When you think of Clinton, you're not thinking about a Civil War, and the first ever assassination of a president, not just any president, not Franklin Pierce, but Abraham Lincoln. That's horrible. Imagine what it was like living then. It must have been terrifying really. The war's barely over. Your president is gone. The country's not put back together. People have basically more or less stopped fighting, but what are you going to do now? And then really in a matter of just a really short amount of time, the president is being impeached. To me, that seemed remarkable.

CHRIS HAYES: It comes across in the book how unstable everything felt-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Felt.

CHRIS HAYES: ... in that moment. The worst tragedy in the history of the country. Well, slavery is the worst tragedy. So just to be clear-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Well, it's part of it. No. No. No, but that's very much part of it. It is the worst.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. So you have 600,000 dead. You've got wounded. Sherman-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: People dying and hungry.

CHRIS HAYES: ... has made his march, that the South is in flames. Right?

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Right. That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: And the president has been murdered. They tried to kill his secretary of state as well. There's this question about the stability of the-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Country.

CHRIS HAYES: ... country, the Union. Will it hang back together? What is it-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: What country? What country even? Because you had 11 seceded states. Now what? Where are they? Are they in the Union? Are they out of the Union? Do you recognize secession? Do you say, "Oh, it was a mistake. Come on back? Come on back, have your seat in Congress."

CHRIS HAYES: So all of those question are presented to the man who was the Vice President, a man named Andrew Johnson. So let's start, as we sort of tell this arc, let's start with who was Andrew Johnson.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Andrew Johnson grew up in poverty, basically. He was born Raleigh, North Carolina, and as a young boy he was sent out as an indentured servant, which makes him just above the class of enslaved people, which means that when he ran away, which he did from the tailor shop where he was indentured, they put out an arrest warrant for him. That makes him really like a fugitive slave. He was a self-made man. That's another way to look at him. He grew up, he was unlettered, unschooled, and found his way into politics, because he loved the Union, he loved to speak, and he was very successful in politics.

So eventually he was in the United States Senate during what was called the Secession Crisis. Lincoln has been elected, he hasn't been inaugurated yet, and the southern states were beginning to succeed. And Johnson, who very courageously stood up against these seceders, they were called Fire-Eaters, and he said, "Secession is wrong. We have to stay in the Union. The South is protected and slavery is protected in the Union not out of it," and he was against it, and it practically could have cost him his life, because in Tennessee he was burned in effigy, and went he left Tennessee, he left it was said in a hail of bullets. He was very outspoken. He was very frank. He believed in the country.

So Lincoln, more or less under the table, authorized him as his vice president, because Lincoln in 1864 was afraid he wouldn't win the election. There was no telling, really.

President Abraham Lincoln delivers his second inaugural address on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. in March, 1865.Library of Congress via Reuters

CHRIS HAYES: Right. So Johnson, he's white obviously, but he's got this kind of class chip on his shoulder against the southern planter aristocracy, because he is an unschooled former indentured servant. Kind of thinks they look down on him, which they do.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Of course they do, and the whole country's hierarchical and status conscious, but the South is very, very much so, and he was very conscious of being a poor white, and they actually used the term in those days “poor white trash,” but it didn't broaden his horizons, didn't make him sensitive and empathetic. It made him really want to have what other people have. One of the first things that he did when he began to have money, because the tailoring was very successful, is he bought slaves.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. He became a slave owner-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right. Not a planter, he would never get up that high. He wasn't the aristocracy, but this was a way, somebody called it conspicuous consumption, this is the way that he showed that he had arrived in southern society. They would never accept him in southern society, but you're right. It's really very, very class conscious, and is interesting that way.

CHRIS HAYES: And in some ways, the thing that makes him in that moment, the moment of peak heroism and courage, which is that he, taking literally his life in his hands, stands against the Secessionist Movement, the southern planter aristocracy, and he says, "If you force the question of secession or slavery, I will say, 'Stay in the Union and let the slaves go.'"

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yes, and he was very clear about that.

CHRIS HAYES: And it takes a certain kind of bullheadedness to do that.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Well, yeah, and that's bullheadedness in retrospect. At the time, especially if you were in the North and an abolitionist, you don't call it bullheadedness, you call it heroism. You know? So it's an interesting phenomenon. When does heroism become bullheadedness?

CHRIS HAYES: Well, because that same character trait that gives him, I think, the inner strength to do that we will later see in very nefarious light. So, Lincoln, who is running in '64 for re-election in the midst of the war, the war is not going great-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: No, exactly. That's why he thought he was going to lose, and he knew he was going to up against McClellan and what were called the Peace Democrats who just wanted enough. The war had turned into butchery really, and everybody knew that, and there wasn't any guarantee. You couldn't see the end of it coming, and you couldn't see a northern victory, so he was worried, and he thought a war democrat, which is what Johnson was, and a Southerner would keep the border states in line and help him at the polls. Ultimately, he didn't need Johnson, because the fortunes of the war changed, but it doesn't matter. The other thing that's interesting, and it's so kind of poignant really, Lincoln didn't think he was going to die. All his dreams notwithstanding, who thinks that this is the person who's going to follow me, because you don't think-

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Right. Right. He was not thinking of who do I want to president-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: No.

CHRIS HAYES: ... if I'm gone. He was just thinking-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: He was thinking-

CHRIS HAYES: ... in this short-term sense, this is someone who will help me-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Help me stay in office and prosecute the war the way it should be.

CHRIS HAYES: And that ends up being the great question of the '64 election is basically to come to some peace with the Confederate states, or to finish the war.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yes, exactly. And Lincoln was adamant that he wanted to prosecute and finish the war, and he was very powerful about that, and he was respected for that. Even McClellan who was running against him, McClellan had been a general didn't much like Lincoln, but didn't want the war-

CHRIS HAYES: Well, Lincoln fired him.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Well, why would he like him?

CHRIS HAYES: He was a terrible general.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah, well. But nonetheless, McClellan did love his soldiers, and he didn't want all those people to die in vain, and just to say, "Okay, forget it” and have peace.

CHRIS HAYES: So, Lincoln wins, and the second inaugural happens, which is one of the most famous speeches in American history, "the better angels of our nature," right. It's inscribed on his memorial. Johnson also has his inaugural speech.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Well, Johnson does. Johnson gets loaded basically. He has too much whiskey with his cold medicine or whatever he's taking, nobody's quite sure, maybe he was nervous, but he begins to babble, and begins to talk about himself, and plants a sloppy kiss on the Bible, and everybody is mortified.

CHRIS HAYES: He's like making out with the Bible.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly. He said, "Where did this guy come from?"

CHRIS HAYES: Think about this, right-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: No dignity.

CHRIS HAYES: ... the study and character, this is like foreshadowing of what we're going to get, because it's probably one of the greatest figures in American history, an icon at the peak of his rhetorical powers extending grace viewing through the kind of moral prophecy into the future of the-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Country -

CHRIS HAYES: ... the egalitarian republic-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly. Well, that's-

CHRIS HAYES: ... and then this drunken weirdo-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Right. From the South, who's kind of, his clothes are nice because he was a tailor, but can't handle the moment at all, and-

CHRIS HAYES: And contemporaneously, people at the time were like-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Oh. Oh, they were horrified. They were whispering. They said, "What is he, crazy?" And Lincoln presumably, it was reported to say, "When we go outside, keep him away from me." In other words, "I don't want to have anything to do with this guy. We've won. That's the end of that." And it was a vice president after all, which meant he was going to be inconsequential. We would never have to-

CHRIS HAYES: He served his purpose. Basically, we-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah. How many vice presidents in the 19th century can you count in that sense. So he'd served his purpose, exactly, and he was an embarrassment, and then low and behold a month later Lincoln is dead and Johnson is taking another oath of office, but this one is to become the president. It should have given more people pause, but people wanted continuity. I mean, how could you not? I mean, you have a dead president, you have a war that's just about finished, but nobody knows the direction of the country. Who is this person? You have to put all your faith in this person.

CHRIS HAYES: In the beginning everyone's like ...

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: "Okay, we have faith in you." They said.

CHRIS HAYES: Pulling for him and trying to see the best in him.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: He was the guy that stood up to the slavers of Tennessee.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Not only that he had said, "Treason is a crime and must be prosecuted." It seemed like he was on the same page as radicals who were basically saying, "We have to change the entire structure, and nature of the South, and we can not let this happen again, and we have to really rebuild the country." It seemed that that was the case and he left Lincoln's cabinet intact too. Even the Democrats, because he was a Democrat, even the Democrats who said, "You got to get rid of some of these guys in the cabinet." Johnson wouldn't do it. He wouldn't. He never listened. Very rarely listened.

CHRIS HAYES: Then you have two major questions that confront the country. What to do with the states that seceded? How to reintegrate them into the Union and what posture, legally-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: And morally.

CHRIS HAYES: ... and morally the government takes towards the millions of-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Four million formerly enslaved people who had been deprived of schooling. Who had been deprived of the ability to move. Who had no jobs, no land. Didn't really, in a sense, own their own clothes on their back. What's going to happen to those people? Where do they go? Where are they going to live? Lots of those plantations had been confiscated. Who owned them? Nobody knew. It's an enormous problem.

What was also a problem, in relation to the first issue, which is how do these states come back, was that people who had been counted as 3/5 of a person are now whole persons. If you count them towards representation in the electoral college but you don't give them the vote then, in a sense, you're repopulating this Southern power structure but not with people who can vote in their own interest.

CHRIS HAYES: This is a really important point. Take away the moral question here and just look at in political terms for-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: I'll try.

CHRIS HAYES: Well I'm just saying for the listener.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: No, no, I know.

CHRIS HAYES: For Republican Northerners who have just fought this bloody war because of these a*****e Southerners, these treasonous Southerners. I'm just saying, take away that people are actual egalitarian. Just the partisan practical. They seceded, they waged a war against our government that cost 600,000 lives.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: 750,000 and counting.

CHRIS HAYES: 750,000.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah, that's the latest count.

CHRIS HAYES: If we end up in a situation in which we take them back to the Union-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Guess what-

CHRIS HAYES: ... but the 3/5 are now full but they don't have any political rights, they have basically come back.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: They won.

CHRIS HAYES: They've lost their slaves but we've just given them all this political power.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly. It's exactly right. Everybody knew that. That becomes a tremendous problem.

Then there are two issues that are related to that. One is political power but one is citizenship even. First you have to get citizenship before you even get political power. Political power in terms of the vote.

These are enormous questions, and you're right, taking aside the moral question people in the North would know that and they would be very wary about giving Southerners that kind of authority once again. Even if they were loathe and reluctant to give people the vote. There were many who were because women didn't have the vote so there was an argument, "Why are you not enfranchising women when you want to enfranchise black men? Give them the vote and they can't read or write and we can." You see?

There was a lot that was going on that had to be adjudicated, had to be ironed out. Johnson is in this mix and his position is just basically say that the Southern states never seceded. Just push them back in. End of story.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, just come back in.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah, which means that basically the South will rise again immediately. In fact you have a situation in the South that you still have slavery by another name. In other words you've eventually ratified the 13th Amendment, there's no more institution of slavery but in the South, while he's legislating with our Congress, what he's able to do is allow the South to pass these black codes, which makes it impossible for the formerly enslaved people in the South to move feely, to marry, to have all of the rights and privileges of a citizen.

CHRIS HAYES: Johnson's confronted with this and he starts to take these-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Takes charge.

CHRIS HAYES: ... unilateral actions-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: ... in which he is giving huge pardons. Anyone who comes and says, "I'm loyal now"-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Or pays.

CHRIS HAYES: ... pays, you're back in. He starts appointing these provisional governors in the South.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right. Some of them are of really dubious backgrounds.

CHRIS HAYES: Confederates. Then you've got ... You document in the book and there's great passages of this, I mean basically they set to work immediately of reconstituting the power of white-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Supremacy.

CHRIS HAYES: Of violent, deadly white supremacy.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: They pass black codes. You have sheriffs roaming around in Confederate uniforms.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: I know. Shooting people.

CHRIS HAYES: Shooting and killing what are-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Black-

CHRIS HAYES: What are, quote unquote, "free men."

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Right. Quote unquote, "free men." They kill a few white ones on the side too.

CHRIS HAYES: Loyalists. We should say-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: So called loyalists. That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: This is one of the things I think is important that gets the conscience of the North as well, right? It's not just racialized violent. It's also targeted at white loyalists. People perceived-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right. People who were perceived as Republicans and who were against the war effort. Some Southerners were. I mean, to be fair to the South.

CHRIS HAYES: Totally.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: In that sense the white loyalists, the white Republicans, as well as all black people, were targets.

CHRIS HAYES: The Republicans and the Northern abolition press are watching this happen as Johnson's basically, what they see, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Right? That the war has been won and he's turning around and giving the Southern treasonous slave power back all of its power. Reputting them in power. They are-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: They're horrified. Congress is out of session. Remember a bunch of Congress people go to Johnson and say, "Don't you think we aught to have a special session? Because really it's Congress' prerogative to decide who is its own members. We decide who goes into the legislature.” He said, "No," so he kept doing this. All the things that you're enumerating, he was able to do that spring, and that summer, and early fall because Congress wasn't in session. I mean, that was ...

Forgetting the press for a minute. I mean to be in Congress and watch your powers being taken away from you is horrific. That's called executive power in a sense or to them it was an abuse of power and a loss of the balance of power.

CHRIS HAYES: That sets the stage for a couple of major incidents that end up pushing impeachment full steam ahead. We're going to get into that right after this.

There's two key precipitating incidents that really capture the imagination of the North, which is Memphis and New Orleans. What happens there that so captures the imagination of the country?

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Well particularly New Orleans but Memphis too. There were basically what General Phil Sheridan, who was in charge of some of the Southern states and he was away from New Orleans. He said, "There's no other word for what happened here. It was a massacre." It was basically ... There was a parade that was going on because there was a state constitutional convention being called in New Orleans. This was in late June, early July. It wasn't just a white mob that went after the blacks and also people who were going to the constitutional convention. It was firefighters and police. The police was mainly composed of ex-rebels, ex-Confederates.

It was a melee, it was a slaughter, it was a massacre. It went on for three days. In Washington, Johnson had gotten word, that something bad might be happening. “Shall we send in the military?" Stanton, who was the War Secretary, should have known. Nobody knows why he didn't do anything. Johnson didn't do anything. Johnson basically authorized the mayor of New Orleans to go ahead with what he had planned because he said, "Oh, there's going to be trouble." The mayor of New Orleans was a known Confederate and he had just recently been pardoned by Johnson.

CHRIS HAYES: Just to be clear, there's a state Republican constitutional convention.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: The Republicans are all gathering. It's black Republicans, white Republicans-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Veterans of the war who'd fought for the Union. They're congregating in a place. Basically the mayor allows essentially state backed militia-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right. To come in-

CHRIS HAYES: ... to massacre them.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right. That's right. Then-

CHRIS HAYES: While the Army is garrisoned and lets it happen.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right. They come in a couple of days later. Sheridan, as I said, was out of town. When he comes back in he's horrified by what he sees. I mean, there were bodies on the streets. That happened in Memphis too. Not to the same extent earlier. There were bodies on the street and the people are afraid to claim the bodies on the street because they, themselves, were afraid they'll be shot. I mean that is so horrific.

A congressional committee goes down to investigate and that's how we know some of what happened because there were a lot of people who testified to this congressional committee. They were just appalled by it. To the extent that they needed waking up, which was probably quite a bit, it woke up the North to what was going on in the South because before a lot of what northern journalists, who went South, were reporting was dismissed as propaganda or just isolated incidents. "Oh, so this happened, this person was running away, got shot in the back. Well these things happen. It doesn't really represent anything," but it really did.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. There had been this sort of scattered reports and people swept it under the rug. This was, you couldn't deny what was happening.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: You could not deny it. Also because the military, as I said, couldn't deny it. The military was horrified. Believe me, the military was not made up of abolitionists or anti-slavery people. There were a lot of pro-slavery people in the Union military who were also, for want of a better word, radicalized.

CHRIS HAYES: What's happening here, you've got Johnson who's taken these unilateral steps. Violence and tyranny descending on the South. The violence and tyranny starting to radicalize white opinion in the North, who were ready to move on.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Everybody was ready to move on. I think after a war-

CHRIS HAYES: But are now seeing that if we move on what we get is these bastards are going to come back in power.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Right, but one thing I want to mention ... You're absolutely right, but there were people in Congress, and this is very heartwarming to me and that's why I want to mention it, who even before this happened had been sounding the alarm. We think, today, some of us or some people think that we're very woke, or liberated, or whatever. You know they were these people, there were a number of them, who foresaw this happening, if in fact legislation protecting the free people of the South and also the white loyalist. If that wasn't passed, if civil rights wasn't passed, if there wasn't a mechanism, an institution called the Freedmen's Bureau that was allowed to persist and was fully funded. If these things weren't happened then the whole country, for the rest of its history going forward, was in trouble. They saw this.

CHRIS HAYES: There's people like Thaddeus Stevens, particularly, who saw this.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: The radical Republicans who were white people committed to a vision of multi-racial equitable democracy that I think would be current now.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: One would hope.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, I think their vision, it's remarkable to go back-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: I know.

CHRIS HAYES: ... and see how clearly they saw the issue-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: I know and they were vilified. They were vilified. They were vilified in my high school class. They were reduced to squabbles in yours. For many, many years they were vilified as fanatics and crazy people.

CHRIS HAYES: The fanatic belief they had was-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah. Was a belief in equality. That was-

CHRIS HAYES: ... basic genuine multi-racial-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Go figure.

CHRIS HAYES: ... American democracy in which each person is equal.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah, go figure.

CHRIS HAYES: That is viewed as nuts.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly, exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: Those are the racial views of the radical Republicans lead by Stevens, and Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner and others.

Johnson's ... Tell me about Johnson's racial views.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Johnson's racial views are benighted, is the nice word for it. I mean, he was a white supremacist basically.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, yes.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: I mean, as I said before, the first thing he did when he had some money was buy slaves. One of the things when Frederick Douglass and a delegation of black men came to the Oval Office, and talked to Johnson, and said, "Black men, especially who fought in the war, should be able to vote. If we carried bullets we can carry ballots." He went on some kind of rant and he basically said to them, they must have been so bewildered, he said, "But I never sold a slave." It's like he missed the point entirely.

After this delegation left he said to someone, "Those sons-of-bitches were out to get me." I mean he was horrible really. He was afraid of what he called, quote unquote, "Africanizing the country." He felt that blacks were decidedly, I don't know where he got his information, inferior. He certainly didn't want them to have ... anybody to have the vote but even citizenship, basic human rights, was something he was against.

CHRIS HAYES: Now you've got the trains headed towards each other, metaphorically, here. Congress comes back and they start saying ... They have supermajorities because the Confederate states are not back yet, they're not seated.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right, that's right.

CHRIS HAYES: They're like, "No, no, no."

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: "No, you can't sit here."

CHRIS HAYES: "This is not working."

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah. "You can't sit" ... The Southerners sent people like the vice president to the Confederacy to take a seat in Congress. They said, "No." Thaddeus Stevens, who's an excellent parliamentarian, which is another reason people didn't like him, managed to not even have the roll call with their names called so they weren't allowed to take their seats. Johnson is furious. He's apoplectic that he's not getting his way. In point of fact, Congress is not pleased either because this is a legislative, as I said, prerogative. That they should be able to determine who sits in those Houses, basically. Especially in the House of Representatives.

CHRIS HAYES: With this supermajority that they have, of Republicans, without the South seated. They begin to pass a bunch of legislation over-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Civil rights for example.

CHRIS HAYES: ... Johnson's veto.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Vetoes.

CHRIS HAYES: … because they have veto proof majorities. To basically undo what Johnson has done in the South.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: To try to undo as much as they can because you have to remember a lot of the damage, by this time, has been done. There were state militias forming of white men out to kill people but they're doing the best they can. They were trying still to appease Johnson. They were trying still to make deals with him.

One of them was sort of moderate. A guy name Lyman Trumbull and he said, "Look at the civil rights legislation." Johnson seemed to be okay with it and then he vetoed it. He was, himself, forgetting the massacres. He was, himself, radicalizing people because they couldn't believe he was so stubborn, so intransigent. Unwilling to compromise. If there had been compromises, even, on basic human rights. We're not even talking about voting yet.

Congress and the president are at loggerheads. It's only going to get worse and it does get worse.

CHRIS HAYES: Congress is now trying to implement their own vision of reconstruction.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: They're passing it over veto, after veto, after veto.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: I guess the next plot in the story, I guess we should probably do, is that Johnson does the swing around the circle.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah he does.

CHRIS HAYES: Right?

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: The mid-terms are coming up and this is his shot to win back some power in Congress because-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: And also to stop the Fourteenth Amendment from being ratified because Congress was smart enough, as in the case of the Thirteenth Amendment, is if you have civil rights legislation, legislation's not good enough, you've got to enshrine in the Constitution, make an amendment to The Constitution to make sure there were equal rights under the laws of the country.

CHRIS HAYES: That's the Fourteenth amendment.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's the Fourteenth amendment-

CHRIS HAYES: He wants to stop the fricking amendment, which of course is-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah, that's amazing.

CHRIS HAYES: Along with the first amendment ... I mean, the Fourteenth Amendment basically makes the modern Constitution, I think it's fair to stay.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Well it's a certain turning point, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: It's also remarkable to think that it is seen by some egalitarian abolitionists and free blacks as a sell out because it doesn't give voting rights. It's a half measure.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: I know. Not everybody likes everything but it was a step in the right direction. If you were a purist, like somebody like Charles Sumner, was a great guy in many ways but nobody's perfect. He sees it as a sell out but others like Thaddeus Stevens in the House says, "Look, we can take what we can get. We'll do the best we can. Don't despair, we'll move on in any case."

Either way Johnson takes this, what's called ... Which made fun of, as the swing around the circle because he goes on basically a campaign tour. Presumably he's going up to Chicago to lay a cornerstone for Stephen Douglas' memorial up there. He undertakes a series of rallies, basically, and he's trying to rally people. That's when he says, once again, "Hang Thaddeus Stevens. Hang my enemies. Execute them. They're terrible, they're responsible for the slaughters in the South not me. I've done everything I can do right. I'm wonderful."

CHRIS HAYES: These self-pitying, narcissistic harangues. Racist demagoguery. The crowd getting worked up and angry at him often, and saying, "Hang Robert E. Lee." And he says, "Why don't you hang Thaddeus Stevens?" This is the president of the United States saying, "Why don't you hang Thaddeus Stevens?" He says this in front of a crowd!

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: No, he does. He does, he does. It's reported in the newspapers. Absolutely.

CHRIS HAYES: Again, like the massacre that happens in New Orleans, this is a huge deal at the time in the press.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Huge, huge deal.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: It was such a huge deal, he made people like Ulysses S. Grant come along with him. Grant was so horrified. He was writing to his wife, "This is a national disgrace." He was so upset he went on a bender. I mean, it was the worst thing for Grant to do, is to find a few bottles, and go into a baggage car, and to have to sleep it off because he couldn't bear it. It was such a humiliation to be on the same platform as this particular man.

People said, "Johnson must be drunk again," but the fact is he wasn't. He was drunk on power. Whatever-

CHRIS HAYES: He disgraces himself.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: He does disgrace himself. He disgraces the country-

CHRIS HAYES: What's fascinating to me is you do have these moral profits of the radical Republicans-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: You do.

CHRIS HAYES: ... but that is not representative of white northern opinion at all. But Johnson is being such an a*****e and such a disgrace that he is basically consolidating northern white opinion against him.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah. No, no, absolutely.

One of the thing ... I call the book "The Impeachers." One of the things I say, I think I say it more than once, is that Johnson is one of the architects of his own impeachment.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That basically he's impeaching himself. He doesn't really see what he's doing. When people try to point it out to him he refuses to see that either because many people say, "Listen, don't stand in front of the Fourteenth Amendment. Just play along. Everything will be fine. You'll get your way. You'll even get the 1868 nomination." He won't do it. He just can't bring himself to do it because he believes ... Oh God. He believes that he's defending the Constitution.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: He's defending an interpretation of pro-slavery-

CHRIS HAYES: Well he's defending the-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: ... and Constitution.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes. He's defending a white supremacist Constitution.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, the racial part of this is key.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Is absolutely key.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: It's what it's about really.

CHRIS HAYES: It's what it's about.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: It's really what it's-

CHRIS HAYES: That ... I just want to make an intervention here, which is that the historiography of this moment is that that has been ripped out of it.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: What this book does, which is the first real major capacious study of this incident, re-centers this question on the central moral struggle of the country.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Absolutely. It wasn't ... People think, "Oh it was about the 10 years of… No it wasn't that.

CHRIS HAYES: No, no.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: It really was something else. It was about the same issues as the war had been fought. I mean it's the very, very same and that it's absolutely right. That, to me, is so interesting. That I had to re-center it. That it had to be re-centered.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: For getting me ... Why didn't we know that? Why didn't we know that those were the terms and that's what was behind impeachment?

CHRIS HAYES: Republicans win even bigger majorities. The midterms are a disaster-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

CHRIS HAYES: ... and as soon as they come back there's a sense that they're going to impeach him. They-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Well, yeah. A couple of people who are sort of more radical than the radicals even they ... this one guy named James Ashley, who's forgotten obviously, who says, "Let's impeach Johnson", and everybody's, "Oh no, no, it's too early. You can't do that." They-

CHRIS HAYES: "What about his base? He'll fire up his base."

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Something like that, yeah, really. No, seriously it's-

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: What is it history doesn't repeat it, Twain said, it rhymes?

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: In any event, so what they do is they pass everything off. They pass an investigation of Johnson off looking for an actual impeachable offense, which is to say a violation of law and they put it in the Judiciary Committee. The Judiciary Committee begins its long investigations, but at the same time these Republicans are also trying to use the threat of impeachment to curtail Johnson. Of course, that doesn't work at all. Nothing at this point could curtail him because he feels so beleaguered. He feels misunderstood. The more he feels that way-

CHRIS HAYES: Put upon, victimized.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly. The more he feels that way the more he digs his heels in. What can I say?

CHRIS HAYES: Originally, the Judiciary Committee doesn't pass-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: No.

CHRIS HAYES: ... impeachment on him.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: No, no. They vote it down.

CHRIS HAYES: I note this in the review that I wrote in The Times, I thought it was very interesting that there's a sense of like they're looking for the smoking gun. There's a-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: They ... yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: There's conspiracy theories. There's a moment in which-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: They look through his finances.

CHRIS HAYES: They look through his-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: They look through his wastebasket. They look for payments to prostitutes. They look at everything. I mean they, in a sense, embarrassed themselves.

CHRIS HAYES: Here's what's so perfect. They're looking for some technical violation they can nail him on when the man is presiding over the resurgence of white supremacists, terror in the south.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Think of it. Think of it's America in 1867.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Think of it now. Can you impeach somebody because they're a white supremacist?

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: I mean what are the grounds? Then you could say, "Well, maybe I'll impeach somebody because they're a brunette." In other words, you have to be careful with things like that. Don't forget either it's the first-ever impeachment. Nobody had gone down this road before and there's no roadmap. There's no Google map to say you take a left turn here. It's kind of ambiguous.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. What's a high crime and misdemeanor, what counts? They sort of search and they don't come up with anything.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah, because if you have something concrete-

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: It's like with Clinton, at least they could find perjury.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: They wanted to get rid of the guy, but they had to find something. It seemed small. They were looking for something that could seem small. Now, Johnson didn't give them anything like that at first, not for a long time. They knew that there were larger issues, but you can't just impeach somebody because you don't like them. That does become political in the narrowest sense. Nobody really wanted to deal with that, so the Judiciary Committee doesn't find anything. They vote to not proceed.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, and then what happens is basically a new arrangement begins in which Congress works with the military to administer a new version of Reconstruction in the South.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: They pass a variety of legislation. They break the South up into these military districts. They have military commanders. What you have is a very weird situation in which the military is executing Congress' wishes because the military is loyal to the Union cause, doesn't want to see the Confederate-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Loyal to Edwin Stanton, I have to point that out, and to Ulysses S. Grant. They're working hand-in-hand, and that's important for what happens later.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, so Stanton, who's the head of what's called the Department of War-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: ... and Grant who's got this new title that he's gotten at the end of the war because he's a hero.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: General-in-chief or something.

CHRIS HAYES: The General-in-chief, yes. He's got this new title that's been granted to him, and the two of them who were heroes of the war.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Absolutely.

CHRIS HAYES: They won the war. They're working with Congress to administer this new system, which is a new sheriff in town, which is like-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: What? What is that new system?

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: It's interesting because the military is then they are to protect the freed people and also the white loyalists. Particularly because now southern states can come back into the Union, it's said by Congress, if they ratified the Fourteenth Amendment and also they enfranchise — I'm not going to get into the technicalities, but basically enfranchise black men. Black men can register and then vote, and so what the military is there to do is to protect them, to register them, first of all, and then protect them at the polls.

CHRIS HAYES: Think about this. Military occupation in the South, which is a slavocracy, then briefly has this period in which they lose. Andrew Johnson says, "Go back to what you want", and now a military occupation at the point of a gun is going to say black suffrage ... these are people that were enslaved two years ago.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: I know it's unthinkable. It's amazing, but it's interesting you used the word occupation because that was the kind of word, it's the kind of red flag that someone like Johnson and the Democrats were using, and even came down to the 20th century it seems to me where, "Oh God, what happened? These crazy fanatics", we're back to that again-

CHRIS HAYES: Right, occupied.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: They occupied the South. You know?

CHRIS HAYES: No, they liberated the free people.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly. Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: The South hates this system ... I'm sorry, white southerners hate this system by and large.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly, mm-hmm.

CHRIS HAYES: It does this incredible thing. You start getting biracial state governments in the south.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly. That's the most amazing thing, and it works for a while.

CHRIS HAYES: To be clear, if I'm not mistaken, I think in 1868, the majority of the lower house of South Carolina state legislature is black.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS HAYES: In 1868. It has never happened again in American history. There has been no majority black legislature in American history since this moment.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: This is why this moment is so crucial, and so wonderful, and so horrible all at the same time. That's, to me, so interesting and eminently fascinating because it seems to me, and it seems too small a word, even the country was really at a crossroads and it really could've gone into a different direction. It started to go in that direction and Congress was set on making sure it went in that direction and used the military to go in that direction, but Johnson was just as set as changing that direction and saying, "This is a military occupation. This is terrible. Look what you're doing to the poor white southerners. This is appalling." He's trying to do everything to stop it. Then-

CHRIS HAYES: Then what happens next?

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Well, one of the ways in which these Reconstruction laws, that's what we've been talking about, can be maintained is by maintaining Edwin Stanton in the cabinet, Stanton, secretary of war. Congress is wily enough to think we'll have to pass some act to protect Stanton and people like him. It was mainly for Stanton-

CHRIS HAYES: Because they know that Johnson's going to take his wrath out on Stanton because Stanton is administering this against the presidential wishes.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: He's been firing people left and right anyway. He's been replacing some of these military people to get lackeys in there, and he's been firing people in the post office and federal employees, because he wants to shape the country in terms of his vision of the past really. The Tenure of Office Act, simply put, is that any, for example, cabinet officer who's been confirmed by the Senate can only be fired if the firing is confirmed by the Senate. It really gives Congress more power over say cabinet positions, civil officers, than they had. That's why it's a dubious act in that it's-

CHRIS HAYES: It's later ruled unconstitutional.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah. It's constitutionality is of real question. It's later thrown out. The interesting thing, too, is Stanton himself, who was a lawyer and a Democrat before he became what he became, he too said the law is not constitutional, but it was passed and it protected him. Well, it protected him until it didn't because, basically to make a long story short, that's what Johnson did. He violated that particular act. Once that was ... that was the smoking gun that everybody had been looking for. He stepped on a statute.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. They pass the statute, it's of dubious constitutionality, but he ultimately fires Stanton anyway and that's a tripwire. It's like-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's exactly right.

CHRIS HAYES: ... "We've been looking for the cause to impeach you. You have now violated the law."

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: They move towards impeachment.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Well, and it's not even so rational. They're so horrified. They just passed a law and Johnson just flouted it. It's like thumbing your nose at Congress.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, which he's been doing now for several years.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: They took this somehow more to heart, more personally. I mean people who'd never spoken before they all stand up and say, "He has to be impeached." It's an overwhelming vote. The House votes, you need 50 percent of the House, they vote more than 50 percent to impeach him. That's what happens in February of 1868.

CHRIS HAYES: In the book, what's interesting to me is there's a long section on the impeachment trial because the articles, there are 11 or 12-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Eleven articles.

CHRIS HAYES: There's 11 articles, 10 of which are about the Tenure of Office Act and one of which is basically he's a scoundrel essentially.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: And a white supremacist.

CHRIS HAYES: He's a scoundrel and a white supremacist.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: He's not upholding the Constitution. The Constitution that he loves and he's buried with it, but he's not upholding the Constitution. He's betraying his oath of office. He's abusing power. He's degrading Congress and the country. All of that. That's the catchall.

CHRIS HAYES: In the end, the trial is kind of anticlimactic.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Well, yes and no. I found it very moving in a sense.

CHRIS HAYES: It's moving, but one of the things you show is that it very quickly gets bogged down in a bunch of sort of procedural questions.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: In a sense it's fascinating from a procedural point of view. People wanted lightning and thunder and all kinds of bombast. What they got is a bunch of lawyers saying, "Is this a court or is this a Senate?"

CHRIS HAYES: "Can you call that witness? Can you admit hearsay?"

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly. Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: "Who makes the rules?"

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly. It might be okay on television, "Law & Order," but for people sitting there they started to eat their sandwiches.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, right.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: It wasn't what they thought it was going to be. In fact, what was good about that, not from a dramatic point of view, but in a sense from our point, is how seriously-

CHRIS HAYES: Seriously, yeah.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: it's like jury duty in a way. My experience of jury duty is that people really try to do the best for whatever reasons. That's too hard for me to figure out, but people really ... they were trying to do their best, and even the best isn't good enough because everybody has a certain point of view or an agenda and certainly the chief justice had his own agenda because he wanted to be president.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, Salmon Chase.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah, but it does get bogged down. In that sense, if that's what you mean anticlimactic, absolutely.

CHRIS HAYES: What I write in the review is there's a kind of mismatch between the cramped proceduralism of the procedures and the stakes of what's happening.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: It's like there are people being murdered in the streets, their blood is running on the steps of the Capitol, and we're here talking about-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: As soon as you say that — this guy, Beast Butler says that — and then he's immediately derided as raising the red flag and how dare you talk like this because you're supposed to be dignified and this is a court. It gets very complicated very fast, and the people who do feel that, listen, there's blood running in the streets, we fought a war, you can't give away the fruits of victory, that's not going to pass muster with the moderates who didn't do anything until there was this infraction of law, and that's why it gets bogged down in procedures. That's why, in a sense, those prosecuting Johnson kind of maybe didn't do the best job that they possibly could, but they were trying to go for that audience. Whereas Johnson's defense team, ironically, painted with a broader brush and said, "You have to preserve the dignity of the office. You don't just run somebody out in that way because you don't like him. This act anyway is dubious and you can't really prove it." To me, it was very interesting because of the kinds of arguments that you had.

CHRIS HAYES: Ultimately, the Senate, which needs a two-third vote, acquits him by one vote.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: One vote. That vote was memorialized in 1957 by John F. Kennedy or Ted Sorenson, depending on who wrote the book "Profiles in Courage," and that vote was cast by a man named Edmund Ross of Kansas. Kennedy, Sorenson, whomever, said that he was courageous because he cast that one vote.

CHRIS HAYES: He bucked his party and did the right thing and acquitted the scoundrel tyrant.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Right, exactly. White supremacist, stubborn, pigheaded and perverse, as Sumner called him, yes. That courageous act was probably, if not literally, bought with money. It was greased in some way with favors or promises that Ross would keep his seat. There were a lot of, let's say, extenuating circumstances surrounding that vote. He was a weak man and people found ways to maneuver and manipulate him.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. There's a lot of varying degrees of confirmation in the historical record backroom dealing around this vote. I mean it a very corrupt time generally and the amount of like sort of trading of patronage and favors and money is-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Huge.

CHRIS HAYES: It was huge. That happened under Lincoln. It happens under Grant, which is-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right. Well, Grant it really becomes sort of front and center. In this particular case ... it had been going on for a long time because when it works in your favor ... Seward had been bribing people to get the 13th Amendment passed. Now he's probably bribing people. I really looked hard for the real evidence and it's gone and suppressed, but there's a lot of circumstantial evidence. As I say in the book, there's a lot of smoke, but no fire.

CHRIS HAYES: Johnson is acquitted, but he is politically, I think it's fair to say, mortally wounded.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Why do you think that is? Clinton, I think the most recent impeachment, it's like when you come for the king you best not miss.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Right, right, right.

CHRIS HAYES: They came for the king and they did-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: And they missed.

CHRIS HAYES: ... and they missed.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: He got more popular.

CHRIS HAYES: He got more popular. He doesn't get reelected. Obviously, he can't. He leaves office-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: No, but he left office sort of smelling like a rose pretty much in that sense and Johnson not so much. Even if history was kinder to him than it should've been or just called impeachment a mistake it's still he was mortally wounded because nobody wanted him anymore. I mean even his own party wouldn't even think of nominating him in 1868.

CHRIS HAYES: The entire spectacle was so awful in some ways for the nation, right?

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: It was awful.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean that's part of, I think, what comes out. You do a really good job of like there's something about the messiness of it that no one can walk away clean.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: No. Nobody was.

CHRIS HAYES: No one walks away clean from this ultimately.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Well, there are a couple people-

CHRIS HAYES: Although he's hurt the most.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah. I mean I think Thaddeus Stevens walks away clean. I think Charles-

CHRIS HAYES: Well, in the view of history he does, but not at the time and not in the view of recent history. He's one of the villains. I mean I agree with you-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: You and I, Thaddeus Stevens-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: We went to the same school.

CHRIS HAYES: I've got a statue to him in my house.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah, exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean God bless Thaddeus Stevens.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Listen, when he found out that the cemetery he was going to be buried in didn't allow black people in he took his money away and he went to an integrated cemetery. On his tombstone he said that he wants to be buried in a place which honors equality of people under their creator. I mean that's amazing, 1868. Anyway, yeah, most people don't come across that well at that particular time. In a sense, that explains why it's been buried. I think people are embarrassed by their own failures really, but Johnson ... the good news is that Johnson is wounded. The bad news is he comes back to the Senate later on.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, yeah.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Tennessee actually sends him back to the Senate and there are flowers on his desk. That's pretty depressing, but nonetheless he was so disliked, as I said, even by his own party, even by the people who voted to acquit him. They were trying to save either their own skin or some view of the presidency, but they said they thought he was unfit for office.

CHRIS HAYES: Ultimately, the reconstruction effort will last until essentially 1877 when a deal is made to withdraw the troops. It inaugurates the reassertion of white supremacy in the South as a formal state structure, Jim Crow, etc.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: History is written glorifying that and vilifying the Thaddeus Steven's of the word.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: That's right. That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Poor Andrew Johnson, and a history that comes to us now in the present day. In the year 2019 you are publishing a book-

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Isn't that amazing if you think about it?

CHRIS HAYES: That re-centers our view of the righteousness in some ways of the radical Republican cause.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Yeah, absolutely, and of the need for that impeachment. It was necessary really. It was necessary and it didn't break the country. It didn't create a war. Grant got elected anyway if that was what you wanted, and given who was running against him you did. In a sense, it's kind of reassuring in a way because there were people who actually stood up for principle. That's remarkable because the principle was equality. The principle was justice. That's really quite incredible. To me that's very moving.

CHRIS HAYES: Brenda Wineapple is the author of the new book The Impeachers. It's about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, the first presidential impeachment. I've got a book review of it in the New York Times book review, which you can check out. It's a fascinatingly amazing read, which you can tell from this conversation. I really recommend it. Brenda, thank you so much.

BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Thank you so much, Chris. Pleasure.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Brenda Wineapple for coming in and talking to me about her great new book "The Impeachers," which you can pick up at any bookstore to your liking.

We'd love to hear your feedback. As always, Tweet us #WITHpod, email withpod@gmail.com.

Related links:

"The First Presidential Impeachment" by Chris Hayes

"The Impeachers" by Brenda Wineapple

"Why Is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to NBCnews.com/whyisthishappening.