May 26th 1868: President Johnson acquitted

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Senate trial of Johnson – Theodore Davis

 

On this day in 1868 President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial ended, finding him not guilty by one vote. Johnson became President in 1865 after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and was thus in power during the crucial stage of Reconstruction after the Civil War. However, Johnson did little to support the newly emancipated slaves, and opposed measures like the Fourteenth Amendment which granted them citizenship. A Tennesseean, chosen as Lincoln’s running-mate to give the impression of national unity, Johnson was more sympathetic to the former Confederate states than a Northern counterpart may have been.

 

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Andrew Johnson (1808-1875)

 

The unpopular President was impeached in February by the House of Representatives, with the main charge being that he violated the Tenure of Office Act by attempting to remove Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War. Johnson was then put on trial in the Senate, with Chief Justice Salmon Chase presiding. He was tried by two articles of impeachment, and both fell short – by just one vote – of the required two thirds majority needed to find him guilty and remove him from office. Whilst Congress gave specific reasons for the impeachment, many still consider the affair a mostly political retaliation by Radical Republicans against the President’s Reconstruction policies. Johnson and Bill Clinton in 1998 remain the only two Presidents to have been impeached.

 

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The affair became a national scandal – tickets were sold for the trial

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April 30th 1789: Washington inaugurated

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Inauguration of Washington 1789

 

On this day in 1789 the leading general of the War of Independence and one of the framers of the Constitution, George Washington, was inaugurated first President of the United States on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York City. He was unanimously chosen President by the Electoral College and the runner-up, John Adams, became Vice President. At his inauguration, Washington set the first of many precedents in making an inaugural address. In office, he created a stable and strong national government with a cabinet system and ensured neutrality in the European wars. Washington was re-elected in 1792 but stepped down after two terms, thus setting the precedent that Presidents usually served two terms (this became part of the Constitution with the 22nd Amendment in 1951).

 

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George Washington (1732 – 1799)

“Long live George Washington, President of the United States!”
– New York Chancellor Livingston upon swearing in the President

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Federal Hall in New York where Washington was inaugurated

 

Washington is still considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, President in history for his systematic, effective and thoughtful leadership. All future presidencies have been influenced by the legacy of the ‘father of the country’. His inaugural address, addition of ‘so help me God’ to the oath of office, and two terms in office, are all precedents set by Washington that are still followed today. He has become the standard by which all politicians are compared, and has become a mythical hero in the grand story of America’s founding; a Romulus for the New World. He was not a perfect man (ostensibly standing for liberty and freedom but a slaveowner himself), nor was he a perfect President, but none of his successors have been either. Americans have a tendency to expect perfection from their leaders, and Washington is therefore held up as an ideal type of politician. Whilst he had his flaws, the general who united the states does deserve his esteemed standing in the history books, if only for the precedents he set for years to come.

January 6th 1853: Franklin Pierce’s train accident

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Franklin Pierce (1804 – 1869)

On this day in 1853, the President-elect of the United States Franklin Pierce and his family were involved in a train accident in Massachusetts. Pierce and his wife saw their young son Benjamin decapitated before their eyes and both subsequently sank into deep depression. Benjamin was the couple’s last surviving child, the rest had died young. Pierce’s depression over his son’s death and the distance it had created between him and his wife severely affected his performance as President. The 14th President is commonly regarded as one of the worst in US history, especially due to his failure to deal effectively with the slavery issue which would, in a few years, divide the nation in two during the Civil War.

 

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Benjamin and Jane Pierce

“How I long to see you and say something to you as if you were as you always have been (until these last three dreadful weeks) near me. Oh! How precious do those days now seem, my darling boy – and how I should have praised the days passed with you had I suspected they might be so short”
– extract from one of Jane Pierce’s letters to her late son

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One of the letters Jane wrote to her late son ‘Benny’ after his death

November 18th 1886: Chester Arthur dies

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On this day in 1886, the former President of the United States Chester A. Arthur died. Arthur became the 21st President in 1881 upon the assassination of President James A. Garfield. He served until 1885 and his tenure is best remembered for civil service reform tackling the corrupt ‘spoils system’ with the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Arthur was suffering from declining health when he left office after the 1884 election, which he did not contest, was won by Democrat Grover Cleveland. He died the following year aged 57.

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