John Brooks Henderson remained steady as the political world spun out of control during the 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

Editor’s note: The following is the third part of a story by Louisiana author Brent Engel about the role of Pike County lawmaker John Brooks Henderson in the 1868 impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.

John Brooks Henderson remained steady as the political world spun out of control during the 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

Only once did the U.S. Senator from Pike County even remotely show a sign of bowing to pressure, and he quickly – and very eloquently – reversed course.

Henderson certainly didn’t waste any words during debate over whether the Democrat commander-in-chief had violated the law by firing Republican Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Henderson assured colleagues he did not think Presidents “may in mere wantonness violate or disregard” any statute, but said each case should be judged individually.

“If the President’s purpose be criminal and corrupt, he should be removed,” Henderson added. “If he honestly intended only to procure what he says in this case (was) a judicial construction of a doubtful law – doubtful not only in its terms, but in its constitutionality – what right have we to pronounce him guilty of high crime?”

Henderson also criticized exclusion of some testimony, pointed out that previous Presidents had taken similar actions and that, technically, Stanton still held office because he had refused to comply with Johnson’s dismissal.

“The worst phase of the matter is that the President has attempted to do these things and failed,” the senator said. “This is not a high crime or misdemeanor for two reasons: first, he had full power under the laws of Congress to remove and appoint as he tried to do; and second, if he had no such power, the attempt thus to exercise it is not by statute law nor by common law nor by common sense a high crime or misdemeanor.” (Italics by Henderson based upon Senate transcripts).

Henderson finished with a flourish, saying the Senate should not “surrender our convictions of duty.”

“We have been sworn to examine this case from a legal and not a party point of view,” he said. “If this were a vote on whether Johnson should be elected President, or whether, being in, he is a fit person for the exalted office, our position might be relieved of much embarrassment. The question is simply one of guilt under the charges…and I cannot, in justice to the laws of the land, in justice to the country or to my own sense of right, render any other response to the several articles than a verdict of ‘not guilty.’”

Henderson had specifically targeted the first eight accusations against Johnson. And though the Chicago Tribune said the speech “discouraged the friends of impeachment somewhat,” Henderson was still non-committal on at least one of the three remaining charges.

On May 11, 1868 – five days before the first vote to convict or acquit -- Henderson had dinner with Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who was overseeing the impeachment trial. People who favored throwing Johnson out of office saw it as an effort to cement the senator’s vote for acquittal. That drew Chase’s ire.

“I have not exerted myself to influence anybody one way or the other,” the chief justice wrote in a letter, saying Henderson was a “near neighbor” and adding he was sure he gave the senator “no advice nor sought in any way to control him, and could not if I had.” (Emphasis by Chase based upon his personal papers collection).

Nevertheless, the tide against conviction apparently was churning.

“It may be a trifling circumstance, but the impeachers take it sadly to heart,” the Richmond Daily Dispatch noted.

“There was no sleep that night for the leaders of the impeachment, whether in the House or in the Senate,” wrote author David Miller Dewitt.

The next day, five of the eight Republicans from the Missouri Congressional delegation paid Henderson a visit. The group included Ninth District Representative George Washington Anderson -- as with Henderson, a lawyer from Louisiana. They “laid siege in due form to their backsliding senator,” according to Dewitt.

“They told him that the position he had taken on the Impeachment question was against the almost unanimous wish of the ‘Union’ party of their state, and that violence and bloodshed, they feared, would follow the President’s acquittal,” Dewitt said.

In response, Henderson said it would be dishonorable of him to change his mind. Then, he shocked them by offering to resign and have Gov. Thomas Fletcher telegraph the name of a replacement “so that by four o’clock that afternoon they would have a senator to their liking,” Dewitt wrote.

“The representatives, however, were not satisfied on this point and protested that they did not want his resignation, what they wanted was his vote,” the author added.

Henderson asked delegation members to meet and write down what they would like him to do. The letter asked the senator to “withhold your vote on any article upon which you cannot vote affirmatively.” Again, Henderson said he could not do so without “humiliation and shame.”

Anderson likely understood Henderson’s approach. Not only did he know the senator well, but allegations of political chicanery had clouded his 1866 Congressional campaign when Democrat opponent and newspaper editor William Franklin Switzler contested the results.

Meanwhile, on the night of May 13, the delegation – this time without Anderson – took aim at Henderson one last time, insisting “that duty required the senator to cast a vote of guilty on one article, if that vote were found indispensable to secure a conviction,” Dewitt said.

Henderson “pointed out the difficulty attending this suggestion,” according to Dewitt. The Senate had already decided against voting on the charges separately and the senator “”felt, so he said, inclined to vote for the single clause” in the 11th article, which accused Johnson of trying to keep Stanton from resuming office.

Newspapers which favored impeachment were quick to remind readers that early caucusing of senators had shown Henderson inclined toward conviction.

“How the honorable gentleman can reconcile his previous vote with his present declaration, we cannot imagine,” the Evansville, Ind., Journal offered.

The Nashville Union and Dispatch from Johnson’s home state of Tennessee noted that Henderson was among senators who “form a fruitful theme for Radical animadversion.”

Henderson got a telegram the next day from E.W. Fox, president of the St. Louis Board of Trade. Fox said Henderson’s friends wanted to know if they should “hope you will vote for the eleventh article.”

Samuel S. Cox, a former Ohio Congressman then working as an attorney in New York City, came to Washington and found his friend’s “sense of justice had been affronted.”  The Rock Island, Ill., Argus ran a big headline that declared “Attempt to Bully Senator Henderson.”

Whatever momentary melancholy the senator had felt as a part of offering to resign, Cox’s visit quickly dissipated it.

“This act seems to have restored (Henderson’s) usual sense of honour and propriety; and he wrote a letter to the representatives of his state, informing them that he could not ascertain the probable outcome of the trial; that he could not, consistently with the obligations of his oath, resign; and that he had resolved to remain at his post and to do his duty as it was given him to know it,” Dewitt noted.

Henderson also sent what the Argus called a “noble response” to Fox and his quasi-jurist jackals.

“Say to my friends that I am sworn to do impartial justice according to law and evidence, and I will try to do it like an honest man.”

Next time: The series concludes with Henderson’s vote and its aftermath.