Impeachment is a rare phenomenon in American political history. The impeachment of President Donald Trump is just the 20th time the process has been used at the federal level.
The impeachments of Presidents Trump and Bill Clinton have created media frenzies, but the process is otherwise obscure, and seldom used for top leaders. Of the 19 previous impeachments, 15 were for judges, mostly on the district level.
The impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 might have been the most fascinating. Johnson was acquitted in the Senate by a single vote.
Though many today believe President Richard Nixon was impeached, he actually resigned to avoid certain impeachment.
Impeachment also has been used on a U.S. senator and a Cabinet member, while one of the impeached judges was a Supreme Court member. Generally, impeachment proceedings come around every few years, and rarely garner much attention.
The word “impeachment” has been thrown around frequently in the last 25 years, mainly by opponents of whichever party holds the White House. Congress has made an effort to impeach a president at least 14 times, including for every chief executive since Ronald Reagan, but the efforts have advanced to a Senate trial only three times, with Johnson, Clinton and, presumably, Trump.
Impeachment is outlined in Article 2, Section 4 of the Constitution, which reads “the president, vice president, and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Long before he was the subject of the hit musical, Alexander Hamilton explained the difference between impeachment and civil or criminal courts by stating that impeachment is for “misconduct of public men, or in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
Impeachment in the Constitution was modeled after British constitutional history. It was inserted due to the framers’ fear of abuse of executive power, and was inserted even before they defined the Presidency. Needless to say, the wording on impeachment caused considerable debate among the framers.
In July 1797, the first individual to be impeached by the House of Representatives was William Blount of Tennessee, a first-term U.S. senator and former Continental Congressman from North Carolina, who was charged with conspiring to help Great Britain seize Spanish-controlled territories in Florida and Louisiana. Blount was expelled from the Senate before the trial began, and the charges were dismissed.
Aside from those of the presidents, the other high-office impeachment case was Secretary of War William Belknap, who was charged in March 1876 with receiving kickbacks from a tradership contract at Fort Sill, Okla. With impeachment inevitable, Belknap resigned, but the Senate went ahead with the trial anyway. Belknap was acquitted by five votes.
Charges in the cases of the 15 judges have included, among other things, intoxication on the bench, abuse of power, income tax evasion, sexual assault, perjury and accepting bribes. Four have been acquitted (including the Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, in 1805), while three resigned. The other eight were removed from office.
The Clinton impeachment trial vote on Lincoln’s birthday in February 1999 fell far short of the two-thirds Senate majority on either of the two articles. One article, which charged Clinton with lying to the grand jury, only resulted in 45 guilty votes. The second, obstruction of justice, was a 50-50 split.
The vote was much closer in the Johnson case, which was the culmination of a strange journey for that president. Johnson, of Tennessee, was the only Southern senator to remain loyal to the Union, and a grateful Abraham Lincoln appointed him military governor of Tennessee. He then chose Johnson, a Democrat, as his vice president in the 1864 re-election.
Lincoln’s second term lasted only six weeks, ending with his death by assassination on April 15, 1865. Though the tragedy plunged the nation into despair, the mood in some Washington offices was surprisingly upbeat, as radical Republicans and other hardliners hoped Johnson would pursue a harsher Reconstruction policy against the South than did Lincoln.
Much to their dismay, Johnson favored leniency to the South, and often clashed with Congress. In March 1867, over Johnson’s veto, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, banning the president from removing certain officials without Senate approval.
The act was aimed at Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a holdover from the Lincoln administration and a radical ally who opposed Johnson on Reconstruction. In an awkward series of events, Johnson eventually fired Stanton.
The House promptly passed a resolution of impeachment on Feb. 24, 1868, by the vote of 126-47, and 11 articles of impeachment were drafted. The trial began that March 5, and tickets to the gallery were in high demand. A total of 1,000 tickets were available for each day of the trial, and Congressmen usually received hundreds of requests.
In the end, the Senate voted on three of the articles, the first on May 16, 1868. Of the 54 senators, 35 — one short of the two-thirds majority needed — voted to convict. Ten days later, the vote on the other two articles also went 35-19. Seven Republicans broke with their party to vote for acquittal.
Johnson finished his term and left office the next March. Incredibly, he won election in 1874 to the Senate, the same chamber that had tried him.
Although impeachment leaves a stain on legacies, its effect on personal popularity is negligible. A county in eastern Tennessee is named for Blount, who was well-received back home after leaving Washington. His name also adorns a high school in that county, as well as several streets across the nation.
Similarly, two streets in Belknap’s home town of Keokuk, Iowa, are named in his honor. On Dec. 19, 1998, the day that Congress voted to impeach Clinton, a Gallup poll showed his approval rating at 73 percent.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at (217) 710-8392 or email@example.com.