“Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy” is David Stewart’s 2009 biography of our seventeenth president. Stewart is a former trial lawyer and has written four books including the highly regarded “The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution.”
Stewart’s book is more a review of Johnson’s presidency and his impeachment than it is a comprehensive biography. Given its title, that fact is unsurprising. But what is somewhat unexpected (at least for me given my experience with texts focused on somewhat abstruse topics) is how interesting and coherent this book proves.
Given its focus, Stewart’s book could easily have been mundane and tedious (my apologies to fans of the Reconstruction era). Instead, it is consistently lively, clear and engaging. Rather than approaching the complex issues associated with Johnson’s presidency from a dry academic perspective, Stewart’s book resembles the work of an extremely eloquent and thoughtful investigative journalist.
Although Johnson’s impeachment is the overwhelming focus of his book, Stewart provides enough political, social, economic and cultural context to ensure a smooth, comprehensible experience for a reader of almost any background. He even paints a vivid portrait of the nation’s capital during Johnson’s presidency – right down to its appalling roads and lack of sanitary infrastructure.
Early in the book Stewart sets the stage for the more detailed discussion of impeachment to come by reviewing Reconstruction’s goals and articulating the competing objectives of “Northerners” and “Southerners.” And for political or legal neophytes, he reviews both the history and mechanics of the presidential impeachment process.
The best features of the book are its preface and its final chapter (intriguingly called “The Rorschach Blot”). Even for an impatient, uninterested reader these fifteen or so pages are a fascinating summary of Johnson’s failed presidency. Best of all is that Stewart takes the time to place Johnson’s regrettable presidency into a broader historical context.
Notwithstanding the book’s clear objective, however, I would have preferred less focus on Johnson’s impeachment and more emphasis on his extraordinary rise from poverty to the presidency. Although this would have shifted the book’s center of gravity slightly, Johnson’s fall from grace would seem appropriately more dramatic and unfortunate.
In other words, I wish Stewart had chosen to write a comprehensive birth-to-death account of Johnson’s life. This would have afforded him the opportunity to provide more insight into Johnson’s family life, which was largely missing, and a more complete description of his personality.
Overall, David Stewart’s review of Andrew Johnson’s presidency and impeachment is as fascinating as it is articulate. Going far beyond simply recounting the facts of Johnson’s impeachment, Stewart’s analysis is excellent and his commentary is skillful. Unfortunately, readers with little knowledge of Johnson will not fully appreciate the incredible story behind his rise to political power, but his fall from grace could hardly be better described or more riveting.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars