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Whiskey, Washington and Impeachment

On May 16, 1868, Senators cast their first votes in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.  By a margin of one, the president was found not guilty.  That night there was celebration on one side of a deeply divided capital city.  Whiskey was involved.  Whiskey may have been involved in other aspects of Johnson’s impeachment.

During the Civil War Congress passed an excise tax on alcohol.  In 1862, before the tax was imposed, whiskey sold for 24 cents a gallon.  Three years later, the same gallon cost $2.  Because the tax was large, there were huge profits to be made for any distiller who could get the tax collectors to look the other way.

A group of corrupt distillers, known as the Whiskey Ring, desperately wanted Andrew Johnson to remain as president of the United States.  Their reasons were not high minded.  If Johnson were removed from office and new appointments were made in the Treasury Department, the new officials might close the gaps in the tax collection system.

The story of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment has many subplots.  One of the most colorful involves money allegedly raised by the Whiskey Ring for the purpose of buying Senate votes.

Since a guilty finding in an impeachment trial requires a two-thirds vote of Senators, and since most southern states in 1868 had not yet resumed their Senate representation, the magic number was 19.  A total of 19 “not guilty” votes would keep Johnson in the White House.  When the House passed its impeachment articles, there were nine Democratic Party Senators publicly opposed to Johnson’s removal and three “Johnson Republicans” pledged to support the president.  Seven more acquittal votes were needed.

Some of those votes surely came from undecided Senators who carefully weighed the evidence against Johnson, considered the technicalities of the Tenure of Office Act and whether it was constitutional or wise for Congress to claim a say in the firing of cabinet officers.  Other Senators may have thought broadly about the battles between Johnson and the Congress over reconstruction and wondered whether the best way to resolve those issues was by impeachment or the forthcoming election.

Politics has a high road and more than a few travelers on it.  But let’s not kid ourselves, there is also a low road in Washington, D.C., and because the city was built on a swamp, there are plenty of places where that road gets mucky and muddy.

Did money provided by the Whiskey Ring end up in the hands of undecided Senators who chose acquittal in the spring of 1868?  The evidence is suggestive, but not conclusive. No one went to jail for impeachment collusion between distillers and Senators, but there was a congressional investigation of possible payoffs, and press speculation about Johnson votes that may have been won by appointment promises, Bureau of Indian Affairs corruption, in addition to whiskey cash.

In the impeachment process of 1868, Johnson was found not guilty.  It’s a safe bet that some of his supporters were guilty of shady, and perhaps illegal, deeds in pursuit of acquittal.

No one knows at this point if the various investigations of Donald Trump will lead to articles of impeachment and a Senate trial. If voting on such issues followed party lines, there would be a Democratic bill of impeachment and a Senate trial where loyal Republicans guaranteed acquittal.  Nothing much would happen.

But if new and compelling evidence against Trump is uncovered and partisan divisions loosen, Republican Senators might give serious consideration to his removal from office.  In that situation, there would certainly be some high road moments with Senators giving dramatic speeches explaining why they were choosing conscience and Constitution over the nominal party leadership of a president.

But the low road would also have a lot of traffic.  There would be whispers on Capitol Hill about interest group preferences, dangled appointment offers, dark money campaign commitments, primary challenges and a host of retaliations against Senators who broke ranks with party majorities.  The shouting—for and against impeachment—on MSNBC and Fox News would be deafening to the older Americans who still watch cable television.  The spectacle of a hard-fought Senate trial over the fate of Donald Trump would make talk of the Whiskey Ring seem quaint by comparison.

To the proponents of impeachment, the lesson of 1868 is be careful what you wish for.  You might get it.


A version of this essay was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on May 12, 2019.


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