Johnson vs. Grant

War Department (1866; LOC:

going to war over the war office

In August 1877 President Andrew Johnson suspended Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and named General Ulysses S. Grant Secretary of War ad interim. The president’s actions complied with the Tenure of Office Act enacted the previous March. When the 40th Congress reconvened in December 1867 it took up the matter of the suspension of Mr. Stanton. On January 13, 1868 the Senate restored him to office as Secretary of War. Based on his reading of the Tenure Act, General Grant immediately vacated the office and allowed Mr. Stanton to resume his position. This irritated President Johnson, who wanted the general to stay on as ad interim Secretary until the law’s constitutionality had been determined or resign so that President Johnson could name a successor.

On February 4th Secretary Stanton released the Grant-Johnson correspondence on the subject to House Speaker Schuyler Colfax. It quickly became public. A Northern newspaper sided with the general. From The New-York Times February 6, 1868:

Gen. Grant and the President.

Those who have complained of Gen. GRANT’S reticence must admit that, for once, he has spoken out fully and unequivocally. There can be no misapprehending the statements of his letters to President JOHNSON, or the tone and purpose which inspire them. The correspondence is characteristic, too, as an illustration of what provokes Gen. GRANT into explanatory writing. He is not easily driven into controversy. The ordinary slander of newspapers and politicians has no more effect on his nerves than the straggling shots of the rebel enemy. but when the President becomes his assailant, and furnished material to be used to his detriment, the case is changed. He must then speak, or lie under imputations prejudicial to his truthfulness and honor.

Portrait of Ulysses S. Grant ([ca. 1865] ; LOC:

he’s opening up

And this fact is a conclusive answer to the attacks of which the somewhat remarkable correspondence we published yesterday will undoubtedly be the occasion. We have an inkling of the nature of these attacks in the telegraphic dispatches to the World, whose Washington representative has been the medium lately chosen by Mr. JOHNSON for making his secrets known to the country. The call for the correspondence and the promptness with which it was supplied are paraded as evidence of a desire on the part of Gen. GRANT and his friends to obtain a “snap judgment” against the President at the bar of public opinion. The affair is treated as an unprovoked assault upon the character and proceedings of the Executive. But nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. JOHNSON’S unfortunate habit of whispering widely his confidences, and proclaiming through newspapers his grievances and intentions, led him into the position of an accuse of Gen. GRANT. The stories published in connection with the retirement of the latter from the War Department, were not of doubtful authorship. They came direct from the White House, and in some instances were stamped with its distinct approval. And as their object was to exhibit Gen. GRANT in a most unfavorable light, we can scarcely wonder that he met them with the emphasis which marks his letters to the President, or that his friends took the quickest possible method of spreading them before the public. Certainly Mr. JOHNSON, who availed himself of agents of the Press to assail Gen. GRANT, cannot complain that the opposite version of the transaction has found its way into print.

[Secretary of War Edwin Stanton] ([1862]; LOC:

he’s back

The correspondence itself is not pleasant reading for those who would respect the character of our public men. It exhibits the President and the General commanding the armies of the United States in direct conflict touching matters of fact. The issue between them is one of veracity. What one affirms the other denies – not vaguely or apologetically, but with a clearness that precludes the idea of mere misconception on the part of either. The points of difference are well known. The President avers that his intention was to resist the return of Mr. STANTON to the War Office, and that Gen. GRANT knew and sanctioned his purpose. According to this statement, the General pledged himself either to keep possession of the department and thus compel Mr. STANTON to seek readmission through the law courts, or to resign soon enough to allow of the appointment of a successor more completely in harmony with the President. Gen. GRANT, on the contrary, declares that though his first impression in regard to his duty was, that Mr. STANTON should be left to resort to the law courts, more careful inquiry satisfied him that it would be incumbent upon him to transfer to Mr. STANTON the keys of the Department in the event of the restoration of that officer by the Senate. He insists, moreover, that his change of view and purpose was duly communicated to the President. The antagonism between the two statements is therefore too marked to be explained away. An almost incomprehensible blunder must have been committed on one side or the other; or there must somewhere have been a desire to fix or divide a disagreeable responsibility.

One point is very clear; the President has persistently desired to identify Gen. GRANT with his course in reference to the War Secretary-ship. There can be little doubt that his ad interim nomination was made under the anticipation of his tacit compliance with the reconstruction policy of the Executive. The protests against the removal of SHERIDAN and the suspension of STANTON were the earliest indications of the mistake of Mr. JOHNSON in this respect. Still later, however, as this correspondence proves, Mr. JOHNSON was anxious to have Gen. GRANT’S countenance and cooperation in fighting the Stanton battle as against the Senate.

Portrait of Andrew Johnson / A. Gardner, photographer, 511 Seventh Street, Washington. ([1866]; LOC:

he’s unable to co-opt the general

Not less certain is it that, from the beginning to the end, Gen. GRANT acted under an imperious sense of duty. He accepted the ad interim appointment, he explains, in order that some enemy of Congress and its measures might not obtain control of the War Department, and he relinquished the moment Mr. STANTON was reinstated by the action of the Senate, under the terms of the Tenure of Office law. He would have gladly seen a collision on the subject averted by the appointment of a man acceptable to the Senate, and the withdrawal by Mr. STANTON of his claims. But this mode of averting difficulty having been found impracticable, he followed the dictates of his judgment, fulfilled his intimation to the President, and obeyed the law by allowing Mr. STANTON to resume his place in the Department. In all this we fail to discover any trace of partisan or personal feeling. At every step we see the soldier, considerate, conciliatory and just – clear in his ideas of duty and unbending in their application. The same motive which induced him to undertake temporarily the labors of the War Office impelled him to give effect to the proceedings of the Senate, and forced him to define the causes and extent of his difference with the President.

Here’s an overview from 1896’s The Struggle between President Johnson and Congress over Reconstruction by Charles Ernest Chadsey (pages 135-138) (Mr. Chadsey provides footnotes in the text at Gutenberg):
The passage of the bill [Tenure of Office] over the veto placed Johnson in a situation in which a collision was almost sure to come. As the chief executive of the country he was charged with the duty of carrying out the provisions of the reconstruction acts, notwithstanding his strong personal repugnance to them. Under the advice of Attorney-General Stanbery he had construed the acts literally, and he had thus frustrated in part the object of the legislation. But the co-operation of the army was necessary, and unfortunately for President Johnson, the Secretary of War, Mr. Stanton, strongly opposed his views, and conducted himself as far as possible in accordance with the wishes of the congressional majority. The continued friction between the President and the Secretary of War seemed to President Johnson to necessitate Stanton’s retirement, but repeated hints to that effect were not recognized by the latter. Finally, on August 5, 1867, the President informed him that “public considerations of a high character constrained” him to say that his resignation would be accepted. The Secretary’s prompt reply was that “public considerations of a high character” constrained him not to resign until the next session of Congress. A week later, August 12, the President formally suspended him and appointed General Grant Secretary ad interim. Stanton then submitted “under protest to superior force.”
When Congress met in December the President reported his suspension of Stanton, and after long discussion the Senate, on January 13, 1868, refused to concur. When informed of this action of the Senate, General Grant immediately turned over the Secretary’s office to Stanton, thus definitely committing himself to the congressional interpretation of the law. Grant’s action was a sore disappointment to the President. Johnson had refused to accept the Tenure-of-Office Act as constitutional, and had purposed to make this a test case. In the correspondence which passed between him and General Grant after the latter’s acquiescence in the action of the Senate, Johnson claimed that it was understood that Grant was either to refuse to give up the office to Stanton, or, if he should be unwilling to take so prominent a part in the contest, to resign and permit the office to be filled with some one whose views agreed with the President’s, so that Stanton, if he sought to regain the office, might be compelled to resort to the courts. In this way the constitutionality of the act could be tested. Johnson’s statements as to the understanding with Grant were substantially endorsed by the Cabinet, on the strength of a conversation between Johnson and Grant at a cabinet meeting. Grant, however, firmly denied that there was any such agreement or understanding.
A few days after Stanton had resumed his duties as Secretary of War, the President sought to put in operation a plan for rendering his possession of the office ineffective. On January 19, he ordered General Grant, in charge of the army, to disregard all of Stanton’s orders unless he knew directly from the President that they were the latter’s orders. The order was repeated in writing at Grant’s request on January 29. On the following day, Grant refused to carry it out, declaring that an order from Secretary Stanton would be considered satisfactory evidence that it was authorized by the Executive. This correspondence between Johnson and Grant was subsequently called for by Congress, and an attempt was made to frame articles of impeachment on the ground that the President was instructing Grant to disobey the orders of his superior. Careful examination of the legal bearings of the question convinced a majority of the Reconstruction Committee that nothing would be gained by inserting charges based on this correspondence. The President had shrewdly worded his communication so as not to violate any legal technicalities.
From the Library of Congress: War Department, Grant, Stanton, Johnson
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