A Conversation with Emma Murphy (part four)

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Murphy, Emma @ ANJO(part four of five)

Emma Murphy is a park guide at Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. In yesterday’s segment of our interview with Emma, she discussed the philosophical battle Johnson engaged in with Radical Republicans in Congress in the wake of the Civil War. Johnson, who believed states should control their own destiny, opted for a more reconciliation-based approach, while Congress pushed for a harder reconstruction of the social, political, and economic order. Congress finally set up a showdown over a piece of legislation called the Tenure of Office Act.

Chris Mackowski: It was the Tenure of Office Act that serves as the excuse for the impeachment trial.

Emma Murphy: Yes, and it’s a very weirdly worded bill. Many years later, it’s deemed unconstitutional and irrelevant, but it basically says that anyone in the cabinet or anyone appointed by the president cannot be removed from office without the approval of the Senate. But Johnson had not appointed any of his cabinet because it was Lincoln’s leftover cabinet. 

There was a lot of tension between [Secretary of War] Edwin Stanton and Johnson when Johnson was military governor of the state of Tennessee. Johnson wasn’t getting along with the military commanders in the state, and so he was constantly writing back and forth to Stanton and to Lincoln. So that tension was already there and growing by the time Johnson became president. When he gets to 1867 and 1868, he’s had it, and he wants to fire Stanton—but with the Tenure of Office Act, he technically can’t. To Johnson, the act is unconstitutional because he, as the president, should have the right to remove or add anyone in his cabinet. He also points out the fact that he hadn’t appointed Stanton; Lincoln had—and it was even Lincoln in early 1862, not 1864, so at the time, it wasn’t even the current presidential term, it was the previous one. It was kind of just a battle for language.

CM: Wasn’t the Senate’s premise that they had to provide “advice and consent” to confirm, so they also had to provide advice and consent to fire?

EM: Yes, and that’s something that they brought up in the articles of impeachment, which said that Johnson could not only not remove Stanton, but also couldn’t put Thomas Lorenzo in his place. Johnson didn’t even turn to the Senate and ask if he had their approval on it. He has the power as the commander in chief, but also as the president, to remove without the consent of the Senate. So it turns into a battle for power.

CM: Do you find people have misconceptions about what impeachment is?

EM: Yes. I think a lot of that has to do with the way that the text is worded, even in the visitor center. The exhibit was put up right around the time of the Clinton administration and his impeachment trials, so a lot of that impacted the language that was used. Not that it was a bad thing, but the staff was discussing this with me, and I didn’t want to tell them I was four years old when that was all going on. I have no memory about Clinton’s impeachment trial! A lot of people do, though, so when they come in, that’s how they view Johnson’s impeachment, which is different but is also, in our current political climate, hard to talk about.

There’s one line in the display that talks about trying to take a president out of office because you simply don’t like him. That’s a precedent that probably would’ve been set if Johnson had been impeached. That is kind of taking a stance that Congress was trying to take Johnson out of office simply because they didn’t like him.

Yeah, there were a lot of problems, but a lot of the articles had to do with Johnson’s actions and how he read the constitution. I keep coming back to that, but it’s really important. It’s not just personal, but a lot of it has to do with the political agenda of both sides.

That is not something visitors understand about impeachment. They say it’s the removal of the president from office, and it’s almost sort of a lump term: Johnson’s impeachment, Nixon’s almost-impeachment, Clinton’s impeachment—they’re all the same. But they’re not. The reason they’re brought up on these different charges is because there are many different ways to try to impeach a president, but there’s no direct definition of “you can only impeach a president because of X,Y, and Z.” There are many ways around it, and that’s what Congress did: they made a way around it to get him impeached.

CM: So he stays in office, does not get reelected, but his political career is not over. He goes back to Washington eventually.

EM: He does. He does return and is the only living president that leaves office and then returns to the Senate. He makes a little bit of a snarky, passive-aggressive comment to Grant, since Grant is president. Johnson still feels betrayed by the, at the time, general because Johnson had tried to appoint him to the Secretary of War office, but the Senate came back and said “That’s unconstitutional,” and Grant just backed off and disregarded the whole conversation he had with Johnson about how he was going to take the office. Johnson felt personally hurt.

So, when Grant is inaugurated, Johnson doesn’t go. In the Senate, he is constantly battling over whether Grant’s policies are working or not and challenges them frequently., and a lot of that has come from his personal feeling about how he was hurt by Grant. So, Johnson has a very prominent post-presidential political career, but there are instances where his personal feelings do get in the way.

When he does return back to Greeneville, he hasn’t lived there for a while. Unfortunately, he doesn’t die in his house. He dies at his daughter’s home of a stroke. But his home stayed in his family’s name and someone lives there or has some relationship with the house giving tours until 1992. The Johnson family was very conscientious about the history and the story, and that’s why a lot of the artifacts, I think it’s 80% of the artifacts, are not only in the house but in the local museums and the college. They have so much of Johnson’s stuff because the family kept it there and wanted to keep it preserved.

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When we wrap up our conversation with Emma tomorrow—part of our Women’s History Month commemoration—she’ll talk about the things she loves about her new park as she learns more about it story. “There’s a lot to love,” she says.

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