Steve Cottrell: Why a former Nevada County DA voted to convict President Andrew Johnson
Special to The Union
When 23-year-old William Morris Stewart from Upstate New York arrived in Nevada City in 1850, he had $10 in his pocket and big dreams in his head. He spent 75 cents for what he later described as a “stub of a shovel,” a dollar for a battered pan, and $1.50 for “an old pick worn off on both ends.”
With those implements, Stewart began panning along Deer Creek, then ventured into the lumber, water and newspaper business. In the spring of 1852, however, a year after Nevada County was created from a portion of Yuba County and Nevada City designated the county seat, he began studying law under the tutelage of John McConnell, Nevada County’s first district attorney.
Shortly after being admitted to the bar, Stewart was appointed district attorney to replace McConnell –– California’s fourth attorney general. And when McConnell was granted a lengthy leave of absence in 1854, Stewart was appointed the state’s fifth attorney general.
Bill Stewart rose from a lowly pick-and-shovel miner to state attorney general in only four years, but his political career was just beginning. Fourteen years later, as a U. S. Senator from the State of Nevada, he would participate in our nation’s first presidential impeachment trial.
Stewart voted to convict President Andrew Johnson and wrote in his memoirs, “Johnson was the most untruthful, treacherous and cruel person who ever held place of power in the United States.”
Why did Senator Stewart hold this view? Lyrics of an American standard provide the answer: “For it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball game” –– a phrase now often associated with repeated criminal acts:
Henry Foote, a former governor and U. S. Senator from Mississippi, moved his family to San Francisco in 1854 and soon met Stewart, then serving as state attorney general. When Stewart’s appointment as AG ended in 1855, he and Foote formed a law partnership. A year later, Stewart married Foote’s daughter, Annie.
Foote returned to Mississippi in 1858, then moved to Tennessee — where he served in the Confederate Congress. On May 1, 1867, seeking a presidential pardon for his political role during the Civil War, Foote wrote to President Johnson asking permission to return to California to be with his family. Johnson not only refused to grant the pardon, he ordered Foote to leave the United States within 48 hours or be tried for treason. Foote fled to Montreal.
In 1867, Johnson and Stewart met at the White House to reconcile their differences over two Reconstruction bills then under consideration. Johnson pledged not to veto a Reconstruction measure Stewart helped write in exchange for Stewart voting to uphold Johnson’s veto on a Reconstruction bill Stewart had publicly opposed.
Stewart upheld his end of the deal, but Johnson did not. As a result, Johnson’s bill was adopted and Stewart’s bill did not have sufficient Senate votes to overturn Johnson’s veto. It was a quid pro quo gone sour and the former Nevada County DA never again spoke to Johnson.
Strike Three & Impeachment
Also in 1867, President Johnson removed Stewart’s friend Edwin Stanton as secretary of war. Stewart and Stanton knew each other from San Francisco in the 1850s, when Stanton was in California as a representative of President James Buchanan. They met at the Bank Exchange Billiard Saloon, corner of Montgomery and Washington streets, and forged a lasting friendship. When Johnson gave Stanton the axe, Stewart was furious.
In March 1868, the House adopted 11 articles of impeachment, but President Johnson survived the Senate trial by a single vote. In his memoirs Stewart wrote, “I voted to impeach him, and I would do it again.”
In 1869, Edwin Stanton was nominated by President Grant to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, but died four days after receiving Senate confirmation.
Andrew Johnson, elected vice president in 1864 as a Union Democrat, unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1868. He died in 1875.
Henry Foote was eventually granted amnesty, returned to the U.S., and in 1878 was appointed director of the New Orleans Mint –– a position he held until his death in 1880.
William Morris Stewart –– a Nevada City pioneer and former Nevada County district attorney — served 28 years in the U.S. Senate and died in 1909.
Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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