Tenure of Office Act of 1867: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The Tenure of Office Act was a short-lived law with the intent of protecting federal officials from executive removal. Learn about the brief history of the Act, including its impact on President Andrew Johnson.

Definition

The Tenure of Office Act, passed on March 2, 1867, provided protection for federally appointed officials who required confirmation by the United States Senate. The Act was an attempt to curb the power of the executive branch by limiting the President of the United States' power in removing officials from office. Under this law, the president could not dismiss nor replace a federal official without a vote in the Senate. The president could, however, suspend an individual while the Senate was out of session. In this case, upon reconvening, the Senate would vote on the executive ruling. Let's see how this was applied during the second half of the 19th Century.

Reconstruction

As noted, the Senate passed the Tenure of Office Act in 1867 over the executive veto of President Andrew Johnson. Johnson, a member of the Democratic Party and southern sympathizer, attempted to do everything in his power during Reconstruction to ease the repercussions sought against the South by Radical Republicans in Congress; this included removing his opponents from office. Radical Republicans, nonetheless, ensured the passage of the Tenure of Office Act to subvert Johnson's attempts at executive meddling.

The Act's influence came to a climax in the summer of 1867. The Senate had adjourned to flee the hot summer months in Washington, D.C. As a result, President Johnson decided to test his executive privileges by suspending Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton was a Radical Republican and leading supporter of the military occupation of the South following the Civil War (the South was divided into five military zones to ensure the safe installation of pro-Union governments). The goal was to eliminate Stanton and replace him with someone who favored Johnson's lenient, and less-militaristic, readmission policies for the South. Johnson attempted to replace him with Ulysses S. Grant, but Stanton refused to leave his post.

The matter was eventually brought to the attention of the Senate when the members reconvened in January of 1868. The Senate overwhelmingly voted in favor of the provisions outlined under the Tenure of Office Act, and Stanton remained as Secretary of War. Dismayed, Johnson attempted to undercut the Senate once again. Arguing that the Act was an unconstitutional abridgement of his executive powers, Johnson appointed General Lorenzo Thomas to the position of Secretary of War. Needless to say, Johnson was impeached for his repeated transgressions against federal order. Johnson narrowly escaped removal from office by one vote in the Senate.

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