Thursday, June 11, 2009

David O. Stewart's "Impeached"

David O. Stewart is the author of the highly acclaimed The Summer of 1787, the bestselling account of the writing of the Constitution. He has practiced law in Washington, D.C., for more than a quarter of a century, defending accused criminals and challenging government actions as unconstitutional. Stewart has argued appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and was law clerk to Justice Lewis Powell of that Court.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy, and reported the following:
No test is perfect, not even one decreed by Ford Madox Ford. I squirmed when I applied the page 99 test to Impeached, my book about the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial of 1868. Because page 99 is the last page of Chapter 8, it holds but four-and-one-half lines of print, a grand total of 58 words. Ouch. My entire book judged on a haiku-like excerpt due to an offhand pronouncement by a British novelist who changed his last name to be the same as his first name in order to avoid anti-German sentiment during World War I. (Ford’s last name was originally “Hueffer.”)

But rules are rules. Adding the 22 words that form the beginning of the sentence from the bottom of page 98, this passage describes the bitter standoff in late 1867 between President Johnson (the Southern Democrat who became president when Lincoln was assassinated) and the overwhelmingly Republican Senate, just before the impeachment crisis:

As Congress and the president circled each other warily, each looking to gain ground against the other, perhaps to administer a coup de grace, [General-in-Chief Ulysses S.] Grant stood on the most critical ground in the fight – at the War Department, in charge of the military. Not only that, his stature with the public was too great for anyone to ignore. With Grant holding the pivot of the contest, the battle would be joined again in the poisonous political climate of Washington City.

Not so bad. Here are crystallized two of the Big Themes in the book.

The first is the rancorous political atmosphere of post-Civil War Washington, as the nation and its leaders groped towards a reconstruction of the Southern states and of the nation. Reconciliation after bitter civil war was no easier for Americans in 1866 than it has been for Vietnamese in 1980 or Iraqis in 2005. The process curdles even well-intentioned initiatives into bitter disputes.

The second was the surprising importance to the impeachment effort of General Grant, military hero and presumptive next president. Repelled by Johnson’s belligerent defense of the Southern states’ right effectively to re-enslave four million black people, Grant’s support for impeachment – at first tacit, then overt – was essential to the impeachment drive. The impeachment crisis marked Grant’s transition from a military to a political figure.

Those 80 words leave out a few important themes. That Johnson’s talents were a woeful mismatch for the challenges of reconstruction, and that his own blunders fed the flames of the impeachment effort. That the case against him was largely botched by his prosecutors in the Senate trial. That the acquittal of Johnson by a single vote in the Senate was almost certainly the result of backroom deals for patronage jobs and hard cash. That the often baffling impeachment process provided the nation a critical cooling-off period at a moment when it teetered on the edge of a second civil war.

But you can read the book for all that.
Read an excerpt from Impeached, and learn more about the book and author at David O. Stewart's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue