The Atlantic

The High Price of Presidential Impeachment

President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment shows how removing a president can inflame tensions in an already divided nation.
Source: Bettmann / Getty Images

About 150 years ago, as Congress prepared to impeach President Andrew Johnson, someone discovered two bottles of what seemed like nitroglycerin in a Senate passageway. Hysterical politicians fled the building—until some bold newspaperman swigged the liquid. It was just bourbon.

The incident provided a powerful metaphor for the way impeachment turned a substance politicians could usually handle into something highly explosive. After months of drama, Lincoln’s former secretary John Hay concluded: “Impeachment is demonstrated not to be an easy thing. The lesson may be a good one some day.” The lesson, as good in 2017 as it was in 1868, is that removing a president is an ugly process, which can dangerously inflame tensions in

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