The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 25 Sep 2019

Benjamin Wade

Yesterday Katara asked me about impeachment, and in mentioning the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, I realized that I didn't know who would have assumed the presidency, had Johnson been convicted. Who was Johnson's vice president?

Well, I couldn't remember because he didn't have one. Until the ratification of the 25th Amendment in 1967, there was no provision for the replacement of a vice-president except through a normal election.

Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, next in line was the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. This is a largely ceremonial position, filled by a senator, and elected by the Senate. The President Pro Tempore in 1868 was Benjamin Wade, senator from Ohio. Wade, as a senator, would be voting on Johnson's conviction and therefore had an enormous conflict of interest: if Johnson was removed, Wade would assume the presidency.

There were calls for Wade to abstain from voting. Which he did. Not! Ha ha, of course he didn't. He voted to convict.

The conviction, famously, fell short by one vote: it went 35–19 in favor of conviction, but they needed 36 votes to convict. Suppose it had gone 36-18, with Wade's vote being the 36th, and Wade taking over the presidency as a result? Wikipedia claims (with plausible citation) that at Wade told at least one other senator what cabinet position he could expect to receive in exchange for his vote to convict.

  1. How could those 1792 folks not have foreseen this? Sheesh.

  2. Government is hard. Really, really hard.

  3. Thinking about the Civil War era of U.S. history, I always have ambivalent feelings. First, hope and relief: “Our current situation could be much worse than it is”, followed by dread: “Our current situation might get much worse than it is”.

[ Maybe I should also mention that many sources suggest that Johnson would have been removed had his successor been someone less divisive than Wade. ]

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