The Iowa Senator who saved the presidency of Andrew Johnson

by Jerry Harrington

Partisanship today in Washington, D. C., may be as divisive as it’s ever been. Amidst the political combat we’ve seen recently in our nation’s capital, it’s now rare to see a Democrat or Republican go across political party lines for the common good.

But that’s exactly what an Iowa senator did during a national political crisis soon after the Civil War. In 1868, amidst fierce warfare between the parties, Iowa Republican U. S. Senator James Grimes braved the partisan divide for the sake of a higher constitutional principle – helping save Democratic President Andrew Johnson from removal from office.

Grimes thought the impeachment of Johnson and the attempt to remove him from office by Congress was outrageously excessive and a misuse of the Constitution – even when the target was his party’s arch enemy. Grimes believed the purely political conflict between Johnson and Congress should be fought out in the courts, not through the impeachment process.

Grimes supported his principled stand with a very practical approach – talking directly to the other side. It was very much a common-sense, direct, no-nonsense, Iowa way of doing things.

And no one better represented practical Iowa politics in the mid-19th century than James Grimes.

A New Hampshire native who attended Dartmouth College, Grimes moved west in 1836 and settled into the community that would later become Burlington, Iowa, a town he called home the rest of his life. A man of immense energy and charm, he was involved in law, banking, railroad promotion, farming and, of course, politics.